Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 18:00 UK

All American life found at yard sale

Across the United States yard sales herald the start of summer. Before heading back to the UK, Washington correspondent James Coomarasamy hosted his own and discovered it revealed an interesting insight into human nature.

generic yard sale
Americans love selling off their unwanted goods

In Britain, they are called car boot sales, which immediately limits their capacity and makes them seem somewhat furtive.

In America, the land of the free market, they are the more expansive yard sales, where you wear your salesmanship as a badge of pride.

When you advertise your event, it is important to know the hierarchy.

Your basic "yard sale" is an emptying out of an overflowing garage or basement.

Next up is the "moving sale", which you have when well, you can probably guess. If you know other local yard sellers, you can pool your resources into what is known as a "multi-family sale."

But if you have pretensions - and a large house - you might advertise an "estate sale."

This is a different, altogether bigger beast. A magnet for owners of upmarket antiques stores, who circle in brightly-labelled pick up trucks, hoping to make serious acquisitions.

Ours was technically a moving sale, but its dimensions were of the more modest, yard variety.

We were selling children's clothes, discarded books and toys, plus a panoply of pans and pots and small electrical goods, which do not work outside the United States.

The few antiques sellers who turned up to see what was on offer cruised slowly by without stopping.

Still, on a cool, but pleasant summer's morning we attracted a decent crowd. And, as they began sifting through our boxes, I found myself mentally sifting through them and putting them into different categories.

Steely-eyed determination

Category one was the early birds. Our designated start time was 9am, but around half an hour before that, we began noticing unfamiliar cars parked on the street.

A woman pouring lemonade
A cookies and lemonade stall are a regular feature at yard sales

These were the serious shoppers, some of whom had plotted a whole day's itinerary of yard sales, from information they had gleaned on the internet and on telegraph poles.

Category two - and it overlaps with category one - were the hard bargainers.

They tended to be older Filipina or Latina ladies, with the ability to rummage through about a dozen different piles simultaneously.

They knew precisely what they wanted - and when they picked it out - they wasted no time in haggling over every dollar, with a steely-eyed determination.

Among them was a married couple. He, a Vietnam veteran with a buzz cut and slightly shabby T-shirt. She, his Vietnamese wife.

They said they had three houses in Vietnam, which they had largely furnished with yard sale purchases. That must have been a very long process.

They argued very loudly with each other over each and every item they considered buying.

Form of therapy

Category three - and it was a big one - were the people who were not in it for the bargains but for the company.

They poked and prodded at our modest offerings, like someone pushing unappetising food around a plate, with no real intention of eating it. Eventually, they struck up a conversation, or encouraged us to.

One elderly lady arrived in a tennis outfit, with one of those plastic devices which hold a tennis ball, clipped to her waist.

My wife asked whether she had been playing at the courts in our local park.

"Oh yes," she answered, "and at the courts on 16th Street and at one or two others."

Wax work of Sigmund Freud
For some visitors the simple yard sale became like a form of therapy

She paused and added: "In fact, tennis is about the only thing that keeps me going. It's what I live for."

Not quite sure how to reply, I averted my gaze and found myself staring at the ball-holder on her waist.

It seemed to be drooping downwards, in a frown. I had not expected a yard sale to be a form of therapy.

Category four - and this was my favourite one - was the devil-may-care, let-us-just-buy-some-stuff brigade.

Among them were two gentlemen friends from Waco, Texas, one of whom seemed rather the worse for drink at 11am.

Feeling slightly guilty, I sold them - for a very reasonable price, of course - a couple of overcoats and a book about Leonid Brezhnev's daughter, which we somehow decided we could live without.

And then - four hours later - it was over.

Psychological experience

I am not sure who made more money, us or our 10-year-old daughter, who had enterprisingly set up a lemonade and cookie stall, to distract her younger brother from the fact that some of his favourite toys were being sold off.

Our sale had not exactly been a money spinner, but it had been an interesting psychological experience - and it was not quite over.

For, even as were packing up, some category fives wandered onto the scene.

They were mirror image of the early birds, the folks who knew that by waiting until the end they have less choice, but more chance of getting free stuff.

And they were right.

As a foreign correspondent, you often find yourself travelling far and wide to get a revealing glimpse of the human condition. But sometimes - just sometimes - you can find it in your own front yard.

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