The American Garage Sale—Displayed toys, clothes, dishes, and sundry other stuff a touch disarranged across surfaces of folding tables, a makeshift clothes rack, appliances, or pieces of furniture crowding their way up a driveway and into a garage, someone plopped in a lawn chair or walking around chatting, and a tackle box with cash. Any weekend, spring through fall (year ’round where weather permits), you can see a brightpaper poster with hand-markered, unevenly spaced, and misshapen letters, and probably an arrow, attached to a cardboard box or utility pole pointing the way around a corner and into a neighborhood. Items that had been neglectfully hidden beneath gathering dust or boxed into some untrafficked corner of the home have now been deemed worth enough to be given an opportunity to become secondhand.
Some cars, so they say, won’t drive past a garage sale. Bargain-finders, price-hagglers, treasure-seekers—and others overturning tabled pieces looking for some redeeming value. Nonetheless, garage-salers—hosts and callers—engage in selling and buying. America knows buying and selling, but this cross section is different. It’s not a surplus of brand-newly assembled demand-creating reproductions. These are one-available personal pieces that have the routine, lifestyle, or history of the seller worn into them. Hand-stacked and hand-priced. They’re delivered to the garage from a household not a warehouse. Taken as is.
Outgrown everyday clothes and the washer and drier you just replaced could generate a few bucks without a second thought. But what about the thirty minutes your son daily squeaked out of the violin your dad left you. Not very functional now, but try tugging your heartstrings away from that violin. Was it one or two, or was it three summers of watching your little girl driving her big wheel up and down the sidewalk? Now she’s a few hundred miles away from home. A veil or a cake figurine—wedding day sentiments linger a lifetime for many. Even everyday appliances, a lamp or coffee pot, intertwined with family routines can spirit away feelings.
Rustic, storied pieces. Some might have tumbled out of a closet unused from beneath the most recently decorated Christmas tree. But more than likely you’ll see a big wheel that hasn’t touched the pavement for a few summers parked expectantly. Or a vintage lamp trying to hold its shade straight. Or a hopeful baby jumper. A coffee pot bought new while Jack Kerouac was still on the road, now reminiscing the 8,137 days of routinely rushed morning cups of coffee before a quick kiss and off to another workday. Maybe it is just a clock or a dress or a jacket.
Outside of the world of sentiment, metaphor, and art, our logic knows that memories do not weave themselves into the fabric of our belongings. But nostalgia unwinds stories for sellers rummaging through basements, attics, and closets, and for lookers poking around potential purchases. Whose story clings to a piece?
Is it grandma and grandpa’s story of the pink lamp that grandma picked out from the department store catalog when Elvis was still the king and that lit their living room every evening as they read a little bit from the Bible and then fell asleep watching TV together? Or is it the granddaughter’s story of the lamp always lit on the end table of those Saturday nights playing board games and drinking hot cocoa with grandma and grandpa while mom and dad went out? Or is it the buyer’s story recalling a simpler time when her family still ate dinner together at a table and sat around the living room in the evenings? Or how hip this pink vintage lamp will look in her new apartment?
“I’m a little rusty,” is commonly said when a length of time has passed under the bridge since a person has felt fit or skillful. Rust, an everyday reality, develops over time—it can be accelerated or impeded, but it makes a mark only after elements are afforded enough time to be corrosive. Whether it happens in the blink of an eye or creeps over a surface, it’s a matter of time.
Time passes. Whether you feel the next generation wrestling the torch from your grip or the loss of childhood or the poignant hopefulness of a child moving on, certainly no-longer used pieces suggest time passages and loss—an emotional rusting. Unlike a retail-outlet item where both parties typically feel they’ve only gained something during a purchase, loss accompanies the garage-sale piece. Like rust, nostalgia creeps over our belongings as we less and less belong to and more and more long for the passing moments accumulating into memories that appear to be livelier than approaching moments.
It takes time for a rusting iron-framed building to collapse, but the rust is ceaselessly powdering the solid, thinning it, eviscerating it. . .It is a long time from the first rain to the point when rust has eaten through an iron girder. . .It is not pleasant to experience decay, to find yourself exposed to the ravages of an almost daily rain, and to know that you are turning into something feeble, that more and more of you will blow off with the first strong wind, making you less and less. Some people accumulate more emotional rust than others. (Andrew Solomon pictures this in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression)
Some garage sales are part of closing a chapter and hint at the passing of a generation. Price-tagging pieces for a move to a nursing home, the seller watches items wrapped in memories handed to strangers for pennies. It feels a bit more jarring than making room for home improvements. Garage sales are a mix of emotions. Life naturally progresses. Reminiscing can spark a smile as we see life moving on as it ought, yet glad for a pause to awaken a cherished memory. Friends garage-sale together, socializing as if going for tea or coffee or a Bible study together. And there’s an almost addictive satisfaction stumbling upon an unbeatable deal or unheard of find. The chattering and frenetic activity make garage-saling a stimulating way to spend a weekend.
As I rooted around different garage sales, I came away with more pieces than stories. I wonder if products upgrade and families move around and rearrange too fast and frequently these days for people to shape their lives with lasting stories. Maybe by the time pieces land on the garage sale floor, people have staged their way through grieving and detached themselves from their stories. Maybe our overabundance of consumer choices has glutted material uses of meaningfulness. Maybe it’s easier to suppress a memory than feel an amputee’s phantom pain. Maybe nostalgic emotions or longing for the way things used to be are more nebulous or less acceptable today. Or maybe people just don’t have the time or interest to share their stories with the curious garage-saler buying the memorabilia of their families’ lives. I find this loss of stories a sadness in itself.
So I let the pieces come up with their own stories. The passage of time, changing relationships, and maturing families are such transcendent moments that I discovered archetypical stories within these garage sale pieces linked to our cultural collective conscious or even subconscious. Images pulsed with loss and redemption. The whole rhythm of a garage sale demonstrates loss and redemption. This life thing sure gets messy sometimes, but everybody has secondhand opportunities, from Sampson to the prodigal son, even Adam and Eve—no matter how vintage or worn out you get, even if some really important door has already been shut on you.
Now I come to the end of the studio and the beginning of the dialogue. This is the gestalt moment where the coming together of the installation is much more than the sum of the individual pieces. As a culture, we sometimes get so focused on individual redemption that we lose sight of the communal aspect of redemption. Each of us is not only a child of God, as a whole we are also God’s people. Think about it, “where two or more are gathered. . .” Similarly, the intersection between the artist, the art, and the viewer gives the art a new life. The organic nature of installation art lends itself to the viewer’s entering a dialogue with the art at a number of levels. And a garage sale can’t even begin until someone starts poking around the pieces.
Now we come full circle. As you are finishing the Garage Sale, it is finishing me. As has been said in so many words, garage-saling is a redemptive process. Purging these personal pieces from a person’s home redeems the memories—restores them to the memory—whether caller or host. The items themselves are given a secondhand chance to be useful, again. The coming together builds community.
But what about me? I’ve gathered into my own Garage Sale these pieces that I’ve lived with and made my own over the past four years. These are my stories now. I’ve worn and wired my own sweat, personality, and history into them. Here’s where I find empathetic fellowship—community—with my fellow garage-salers. To fully create this art, like any garage-sale host, I need to feel the uncomfortable commodification of my art and the potential loss of my stories as my own Garage Sale pieces are sold and my own stories are carried away to begin again and become part of someone else’s story.
Garage Sale by Joel Armstrong