Monday, March 16th, 2009
A Beginner’s Guide to Scoring Cool Kids’ Stuff in the Used Market
Behold our family’s Wall of Awesome. Today it is awesomer. We recently doubled our shelf space and renamed our living room “The Library.” About 90 percent of the items stored, comprising more than a thousand children’s books, games and puzzles, came to us from the used market. All of it is in good, great or mint condition bought for pennies on the dollar.
(An aside… Why so many books? To build vocabulary, sustain interest in books, establish a resource collection to explore the world and, in the early years, to keep Mom and Dad from getting bored reading the same old stories.)
Space willing, anyone can build this sort of library, but it requires two qualities most parents lack – interest and time. You must enjoy “the thrill of the hunt” for children’s products and must spend a few hours every week hunting.
What follows is a fanatic’s guide to frugal conquests.
Forget Craigslist classifieds. They have deals over store prices, but you can do better. The time involved to sell individual items means sellers charge more than garage sale rates. Then newbies see the high prices and get delusions of grandeur. The next thing you know, people want $3 a pop for old VHS movies they’d be lucky to unload for free at a garage sale. Watch Craigslist for unusual items, but don’t expect great deals. The same applies to eBay auctions.
Freecycle is a mailing list where people give away stuff, a great resource if there’s a Freecycle group for your area. Here’s a tip. Create a Gmail e-mail account and subscribe to the mailing list, then set up a series of Gmail filters to forward certain messages to your real e-mail account. Thus, only pertinent offers reach you.
For example, I only see messages that contain the word “books,” “toys,” “baby” or “toddler.” I surely miss some items, but the trade-off is a manageable inbox.
Thrift shops are not like retail. You have to visit them often just on the off chance someone has donated a good toy or book and you are the first parent to see it since it was placed on the shelf. I have one shop I visit for 5 minutes about once a week, whenever I’m in town for other business.
Quality varies. Find a shop that is well maintained and has higher standards for the donated items it accepts.
I picked up the above pack of “beginning reader” books last week at a hospice shop for 25 cents each before a 50 percent discount. They are in perfect condition. It’s sad how many books I buy that have never been opened.
Library Book Sales
Don’t be fooled by the snot-smeared crayon-scrawled ripped pages your local library is shedding. Libraries receive excellent condition donated books from individuals that never grace a library shelf. They are sold several times a year at book sales. If you join your “Friends of the Library” organization, for a nominal fee you can attend the sales before the general public does, often a day or two beforehand. I’m a friend of two libraries and neither are in my hometown.
Daycare and School Storage Clearouts and Closing Sales
Read the garage sale classified section of your newspaper for school sale notices.
Every 5 or 10 years a school district clears out its warehouse, selling unwanted desks, tables and books. Last month I filled up a cloth bag for $1. Many of the books were parts of series’ taught in a class, say, 30 copies of some classic book. I had my pick to grab the best one from all those copies.
Daycare closing sales aren’t as exciting because the products are often well-used, but you never know until you attend. A charter school closing can be great for books and teaching supplies.
The HOW-TO of Garage Sales – the promise, the curse
Your bread and butter for children’s products are garage sales. I enjoy the variety in games and books found which is far greater than in local stores. The disparity is due to website sales and that many originally store-bought items are being sold years after they were pulled from store shelves. It’s like time traveling through the parentverse.
Plan the night before
1) Friday night scour newspaper classifieds and Craigslist for advertised sales. In small cities, compiling a list is crucial due to sale scarcity. In big cities, be aware many sales are only advertised on street corners and a ton of people will hit the sales listed in the newspaper (competition is bad).
2) Assess sales, looking for keywords of interest (“baby” or “kid” in combination with “books” is what interests me). Get used to seeing people claim “multi-family sale” when they really mean only their family. If they say “estate-garage sale” they really mean a regular garage sale. But, when someone writes “no crap,” they usually mean it.
3) Sort sales by opening time and priority. Write brief directions for use in your car. (Example: 1st St > H St > Right on Dalek Ave > 1234 Tennant Dr.) Consult Google Maps and familiarize yourself with the area use Google Street View to avoid poor neighborhoods (they have nothing you want) and rich neighborhoods (they charge too much). Sorry to stereotype, but there you go.
4) Through the week, set aside several dollars in quarters and plenty of small bills (ones and fives). You don’t want to end up haggling a mom down from $5 to $3 for a tricycle and then pay with a $20.
5) Talk your spouse into caring for the kids Saturday morning because toting a baby or toddler around slows you down, and that’s the worst thing imaginable. At around 4- or 5-years-old your child will be sufficiently indoctrinated and view garage sales as an adventure. On the flip side, a dad toting his daughter to garage sales by himself can effortlessly lower prices, or even score you a free teddy bear when your daughter runs over to embrace it.
First to arrive, first to leave
1) On Saturday, arrive at your first target 15 minutes early. That means 7:45 a.m. Ideally, people set up their sales 15 to 30 minutes before the start time. They will probably let you browse. If they shoo you away, you’ve at least peeked at their sale and know if it’s worth staking out from the comfort of your car.
The golden rule is to be the first parent at a sale. It’s the difference between scoring great loot and walking away thinking the sale was worthless.
Case in point, at a high school sale I headed to the toy section, scoured it fruitlessly for 5 minutes, then headed to the book area and found another dad with 40+ mint hardbound picture books. He was a pro, flipping through titles and judging each in a split second, scooting his filled cardboard box along with his feet. In the end, I walked away with a couple dozen good books, but could have kicked myself for making a bad call.
2) Drive past sales before stopping. Keep going if you don’t see any kids or kids’ stuff. If you stop, look over the tables fast. Be out within 2 minutes unless you’ve found something worth investigating. Time is everything.
3) Drive between sales at an expeditious pace. Watch street corners for cardboard signs. The whole search is over by 10 a.m. because any sale you haven’t visited has probably already been looted.
Little known garage sale facts
1) A person who charges too much for their stuff doesn’t really want to part with it. Stick to your pricing principles. For example, I won’t pay more than 50 cents for a book unless it’s exceptionally special. Skip sales held by megalomaniacs.
2) When a husband and wife are hosting a sale, listen to the prices quoted to other shoppers. Often, one spouse is a hawk insisting on higher prices and the other spouse is embarrassed to have his or her life on display and just wants this nightmare to end. When ready to pay, approach the weaker spouse to get a lower quote or make your own ridiculously low offer.
3) Listed prices are suggestions, usually. Garage sales are about bartering. If an item is being sold for $5, ask, “Will you accept $3?” because they will probably say, “Yes,” or counter-offer $4. Sometimes it’s okay to pay asking price when it’s reasonable.
4) If you have the storage space, it pays to buy for the future. I wasted my first year only buying baby toys, never thinking of the day my daughter could handle paper picture books. Today I’m stockpiling chapter books for the years ahead. Who knew there were 56 Nancy Drew books? I’m about 15 away from completing our set. I’m so screwed if my daughter hates Nancy Drew.
Show and Tell
This past Saturday was a good Saturday… I attended only two sales because with spring rains it’s not garage sale season in California. One was held at a Montessori school and I brought home only three books. The second sale was held by a retiring school teacher (the newspaper ad listed “MEGA teaching supplies”) who loaded us down with lots of goodness as my daughter enters elementary school.
He was pricier than an average garage sale, and we spent about $40 in all. Take a look:
The highlights for me:
A balance scale complete with 1, 5 and 10 gram weights.
Magnets (and a canister of iron filings), real stethoscopes, a prism, a tuning fork, a new-in-box microscope (albeit mostly plastic) and slides, and a bunch of books. I nabbed a roll of tickets too for all of the pretend performances my daughter puts on in our living room.
For 25 cents we picked up an Alphasmart Pro, a for-writing-only laptop used in schools. This one dates from 1995, has an LCD display and is purely for typing and later transferring your text to a desktop computer. Today’s versions aren’t much different. Up to 8 articles can be stored and this unit still retained 7 writing experiments from “Ginger and Duffy” written around Christmastime. My daughter will use it first as a toy, and hopefully later to practice typing.
The sheer amount of “stuff” teachers buy out-of-pocket to support their kids is amazing, a testament to just how broken the American educational system is. The room I browsed easily had thousand of dollars of educational tools, and to his testament, this teacher was jazzed by instructors and parents alike. He unloaded quite a few things for free on my daughter… a magnifying lens, an inflatable astronaut doll she fell in love with (sorry, not pictured), and he practically pushed the Alphasmart Pro into our hands.
I realize a Wall of Awesome isn’t for everyone, even if you have the storage space. Ours is four years in the making. If the notion does interest you, either you need a lot of expendable income, or you make garage sales a way of life. Some Saturdays you come back empty handed, but it only takes one good sale to make your day.