Garage sales: for the (early) birds

Garage sale shoppers have different reasons for arriving early to find deals.
WARREN -- It was an average morning for Hadley, Pa., resident Paula Addams.
She woke up early, stopped at the doughnut shop for coffee, and drove about 50 minutes from Hadley to Warren to arrive early at the day's most promising garage sale. She scoured the sale for the perfect items and left with a buggy full of random selections, including a lamp base made out of a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Maybe the Jack Daniels lamp wasn't so average. But that was the point.
Addams, a retired nurse and self-proclaimed garage sale early bird, said she makes a habit of arriving at sales early to have the best chance of finding unique items and good deals.
She was one of the shoppers who arrived early to the annual Easter Seals indoor garage sale Aug. 3, which was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at the Ridgeview Plaza in Warren.
The first early bird arrived just after 8 a.m. Addams and a couple of good friends were among the five people at the plaza by 8:20 a.m. By the time the doors opened at exactly 9 a.m., about 50 people bumped and pushed their way down the aisles of discarded goods.
'No Early Birds'
Early birds make up what filmmaker Michael Bayer calls a "unique subculture" of dedicated individuals -- many of whom are retirees -- who arrive at garage sales long before they are scheduled to start in hopes of being the first to find their perfect item.
Bayer got first-hand experience with that subculture while co-directing the 2001 documentary "No Early Birds," an unusual adventure into the thoughts and lives of some early birds from the Austin, Texas area.
Based on his experiences, Bayer loosely categorizes early birds into three categories: the frugal shopper, the semi-professional, and the obsessive shopper or collector.
Semi-professionals are the auctioneers, antique dealers and those who hope to re-sell their purchases on eBay.
Obsessive shoppers -- like Addams -- and collectors buy things they don't need because they like the experience as a whole. "It's their form of recreation," Bayer said.
Frugal shoppers know what they need and look for inexpensive items to use themselves, such as furniture and children's toys.
Despite their labels, shoppers in all three categories have one thing in common. They love a great deal.
"You don't have to need it," Addams said. "You just want it. It's like having a drink."
Addams illustrated her point as she looked at her reflection in a steel stand-up mixer.
"I just want one because I've never had one," she said. "This is the nature of the beast."
Finds of the day
Such was the case with many of the items that ended up in Addams' $25 worth of purchases after three hours of shopping, including the Jack Daniels lamp, a ceramic yellow pot, sieve, hummingbird feeder and a box of canning jars.
Addams looked above and below tables and through piles, trying to be the first to find the best values she could.
"This is an addictive sport," she said. "Think of the exercise you're getting. Think of the exercise your wallet is getting!"
Despite the enthusiasm she shared with her fellow early birds, Addams knew her limits. The IV pole, an unidentifiable Sears appliance that resembled a small spaceship, a display of adult diapers and a box of dried blood fertilizer were just a bit too bizarre for her taste, no matter how cheap they were.
Addams' neighbor and shopping partner, Carol Swogger, was less conservative. By the time she reached the check out line, Swogger was dragging three shopping carts behind her, full of everything from pots and pans to children's toys and a small turtle statue.
Harmless fun?
Bayer said he learned that early birds like Addams and Swogger develop a habit and turn it into a recreational activity.
"It's an addictive pastime," he said. "It's like going to Vegas in a way. It's harmless fun, if you can afford it."
Youngstown resident Gerald Thomas said he gambles on the luck of being an early bird when he searches for items to re-sell on eBay.
Thomas spent only three minutes finding his only purchase, a mixer he said he thought would sell on the Internet for at least $5 more than the $20 he paid for it.
And anybody could make the same kind of easy cash, he said.
"I guarantee there's something lying around on the tables," Thomas said. "You just have to know what you're looking for."
Bayer, now an art director who occasionally shops at garage sales when designing sets for commercials, said knowing how garage sales work is helpful, but isn't a guarantee of success.
"It's an incredible resource, but it's really luck," he said.

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