A Beginner’s Guide to Scoring Cool Kids’ Stuff in the Used Market

Photo of our 8-foot-tall 16-foot-wide Wall of Awesome consisting of books, games and puzzles across four bookshelves.

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

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.

Photo of 16 beginner reader books fanned out on the floor.

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:

Photo of look from a retired teacher sale, mostly books in this one.

Photo of look from a retired teacher sale, mostly books in this one.

Photo of look from a retired teacher sale, mostly educational gadgets.

Photo of look from a retired teacher sale, mostly educational gadgets.

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.

Final thought

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.


25 Responses to “A Beginner’s Guide to Scoring Cool Kids’ Stuff in the Used Market”

  1. RobMonroe says:

    Great ideas – thanks for being so thorough!

    March 16th, 2009 at 6:24 am

  2. AJ says:

    Thanks Rob. One tidbit I left out is that key to finding stuff in great condition is the doing-it-every-week thing. It is what enables you to skip a well-worn item you really want, because you know it’s a matter of time before you run across one in better shape.

    March 16th, 2009 at 7:28 am

  3. kymk says:

    I love the ideas here. The thrift store has been my main stay for years. We have so many good kid books that several small visitors over the years have asked if we’re a library. The balance scale and weights is a wonderful find! I know my kid would have loved it.

    I have another use other than keeping the wonderful books, toys etc that can be found in the places listed above–I throw a huge community Easter party every year. The Easter bunny leaves like new stuffed animals (some still with the tags on) and books that I collect for three or four months before hand. I almost never spend more than 25 cents for an item and the community kids (and mine) love the Easter party at my house.

    March 16th, 2009 at 7:34 am

  4. kelli says:

    There is an organized resale event in our area (Outrageous Outgrowns) which is just stuff for kids. I haven’t been, but I hear the prices can vary from really good to just okay.

    Rummage sales are really great — they tend to have lots of kids stuff. I’ve found Church rummage sales, as well as sales run by Schools as fundraisers. Basically they’re really big garage sales, usually well organized, and priced to sell.

    If you’re a regular at a thrift store, sometimes you can get friendly with the staff and find out when they put new stuff out, or when they have a “sale.” My favorite store has 50% off clothing on Wednesdays, and they rotate the sales for other items.

    March 16th, 2009 at 7:51 am

  5. Maggie says:

    I think that is a little dismissive of ebay and craigslist. Yes, lots of people do over charge on both, but there are still great bargins to be had if you shop carefully and research how much something is really worth. Also, Craigslist has a free section where people often give away some fairly decent stuff. I love Craigslist and have sold and purchased there with great success. I’ve also given away tons and people sure flock to what is free!

    March 16th, 2009 at 8:56 am

  6. Natalie says:

    I live in a city where many middle class people move out to the ‘burbs when their kids get to be school age. So in certain neighborhoods you find can find good baby stuff at yard or moving sales – a friend got an almost new Baby Jogger for $10.

    We had a yard sale last year. We didn’t sell any books, even though they were in excellent condition and cheap (we were asking $.50 for essentially new hardbacks and were willing to bargain). I was also surprised that we didn’t sell any infant clothes. I hung everything on clothes hangers on a drying rack, and didn’t try to sell anything with any stains. Since the kid grew so fast that first year, nothing got worn for more than a month or two. Most of it was nice, name-brand things – and in far better shape than what I’ve seen at area baby resale shops (selling for much more $). I had more people ask about the drying rack, which was crappy and one bar was held on with a large nail and duct tape!

    The stuff that sold very quickly – an old stereo system, and an even older sewing machine. We put them out on a whim, thinking we would be lucky if a thrift store took them!

    An acquaintance with more yard sale experience said books and infant clothes don’t sell around here. I wish I had thought to score a cheap infant wardrobe back when I was pregnant!

    Love the Wall of Awesome, and am drooling over the cool stuff you got from the teacher’s sale.

    March 16th, 2009 at 9:08 am

  7. Janelle says:

    Very impressive Wall of Awesome. Last year I found a pristine condition “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales” book with dust jacket for 25 cents at a garage sale. Also scored some classics like Madeline. Another source though not always cheap is Etsy. Love those shelves. We are currently looking to buy something similar for our den.

    March 16th, 2009 at 10:47 am

  8. Magda says:

    I am overcome with envy at your aptly named Wall of Awesome. Where did you score those shelves!?

    The tips are excellent. Some of my favorite memories from when I was little were going to garage sales with my father, hoping for some Legos or Lincoln Logs. I had not thought about the school district clear-outs; those sound especially enticing.

    March 16th, 2009 at 10:50 am

  9. anastasiav says:

    I’m very jealous of your Wall of Awesomeness. I wish we had room for something like that.

    One note:
    “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 peaked at their sale and know if it’s worth staking out from the comfort of your car.”

    As someone who holds yard sales perhaps two or three times a year, I just want to say this: Early-birds drive me CRAZY and typically I won’t haggle with them. I just find it unbelievably rude, and in exchange for your rudeness you’re not going to get good service from me.

    Ideally, perhaps people do set up their sales a little early, but in the real world those last 15-30 minutes are spent frantically trying to find something that was misplaced or get the prices on one last box. I’m doing stuff during that time, and just because I’m doing it outside doesn’t mean my “store” is open yet.

    If you arrive early, fine. Even if you get out of your car. But please … please stay out of my way until the designated starting time.

    March 16th, 2009 at 10:56 am

  10. AJ says:

    kymk, I hear you. I’m collecting duplicate books as favors for my daughter’s birthday party. No plastic crap this year.

    Kelli, I like the idea of befriending a thrift store employee. Parlay that into shopping the new books before they’re put on the shelf.

    Maggie, yep, I’m dismissive. Craigslist is a great place to sell because the venue commands higher prices than other resale venues.

    Natalie, did you advertise your sale in the newspaper? “Ton of baby items” should grab attention.

    Magda, Janelle, the shelves are from an independent oak furniture store. I’d love to buy Costco, but they’ve embraced the trend for dark cherry stain which makes future chips and dings stick out like a sort thumb.

    anastasiav, oh, I see, you’re one of them! If signs have been hung at street corners, people are showing up no matter the posted start time. My pet peeve is when I get shoo’d away, only to have the sale organizers give in (or finish setup early) and let people after me start buying. A way to avoid the hoards is to prepare the night before and set up in your garage, or even rope off the yard. I’m never rude. I just walk up and ask if it’s okay to look. My view though is that you’re shoo’ing away your best customers.

    March 16th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

  11. Katrina says:

    I have found the Mothers of Multiples sales to be pretty good. Arriving early is key on bigger ticket items and like anywhere you will find some overpriced items, but overall I have found some great items!

    March 16th, 2009 at 2:11 pm

  12. nrbp says:

    Love The Wall of Awesome! We call our living room the Library/Gymnasium… (though kids’ books, art supplies and games are shelved in the playroom) While we continue to pick up anything that we find interesting at garage sales and thrift stores, I’ve found that now that my kids are reading and picking out their own books, we are relying more on used book stores (and the library!) to find specific books.

    FYI, Fieldbrook School’s booster club is holding their annual rummage sale on Saturday.

    March 16th, 2009 at 2:55 pm

  13. Natalie says:

    Yeah, we advertised in a few places! The newspaper ad cost $60, so we almost didn’t put one there.

    The people who came early were nice enough to ask if it was okay for them to look around. They were only 15 min. early, and polite, so I didn’t mind. And at that point, I was tired of lugging things out (no garage!) and was happy to let DH bring out the rest. :)

    March 16th, 2009 at 5:46 pm

  14. Sukotto says:

    “this teacher was jazzed by instructors and parents alike”

    What does “jazzed” mean here? Is it positive or negative?

    March 17th, 2009 at 9:31 am

  15. AJ says:

    Jazzed means the instructor had great enthusiasm. He was excited to be helping out many other teachers and also excited to see parents involved in their children’s education. And by excited I mean he had a constant smile on his face and chuckled every other sentence, almost a Robin Williams-like personality.

    March 17th, 2009 at 9:51 am

  16. MIdge says:

    Nice cat! And very impressive wall of awesome!! I agree it’s hard to get good deals on Craig’s List. Plus, it’s hard to get motivated to drive all over town to pick up items you’re paying, at most, $5 for! I find it hard to motivate for Yard Sales week after week, though.

    Thanks for sharing your strategies! Maybe I’ll run into you some day on the Yard Sale circuit!

    March 17th, 2009 at 4:38 pm

  17. Jen says:

    Oh man, and I thought we were good at the yard sale circuit. :)

    My husband is a shameless haggler… he got a little tykes outdoor play cube for five bucks. They were asking $25. I just can’t do that.

    I’d also say that teaming up with a friend is a good idea for the neighborhood sales. Come up with a list of things you want and split up. A camera phone can usually help fine tune details, but you’re essentially covering twice the ground you normally would be able to cover.

    The key with ebay, (for clothing, mostly), is to shop out of season. Some sellers sell summer clothes in winter and vice versa. These auctions usually have far less bids and if you can estimate the size of your kid, you can get a lot of clothing for a steal of a price.

    Befriending a thrift store worker is gold. I once got a 10 piece play hut pop-up set for .38 because they were mislabeled. When I questioned, she said, “Oh, you’re here all the time, consider it a good shoppers gift” She also knows when I usually come in and will point out finds or hold stuff back if she can. Finding a thrift store in a nicer area usually reaps huge rewards.

    March 18th, 2009 at 5:31 pm

  18. Sara says:

    that IS impressive…I don’t have the energy to do what you do, but I do make a weekly stop at goodwill. True, I pay a bit more for items, but I routinely pick up pristine books for $.50-$1, and I grab ones we already have for things like birthday gifts, etc. I also outfitted my son this winter in brand-name clothes for under $20. Love resale!

    March 19th, 2009 at 6:56 am

  19. CanCan (Mom Most Traveled) says:

    I too had a mind boggling failure of a yard sale with tons of baby items. In years passed those things had sold like crazy but I guess last summer was a bum time to sell infant clothing.
    I never sell kids books, I’m a booktomaniac myself.
    Luckily I’m from the south and our yard sale season is like 10 months long. One of my best “wall of awesome” worthy scores was a huge bin of wooden puzzles, all dumped out and mixed up for $5. I looked through it long enough to determine there were at least 8 good, complete puzzles in it and then hurried to buy it. The extra pieces were things like letters and numbers so they were cool to have too. In the end I figured it was something like 60 cents per complete puzzle, and tons of missing piece ones that I got rid of on Freecycle.
    Kids books can be SO cheap. Don’t buy from the people who sell them for $1 each! I have been given boxes of books. Sometimes I have to Just Say No because my hubs gets mad at the volume of “bargains”.
    I’m pretty jealous of your science stuff!

    March 21st, 2009 at 12:39 am

  20. Magda says:

    I managed to use craigslist to find a middle school rummage sale, which I went to as a birthday excursion: about two feet of books, a popsicle-making kit, and a penguin marionette for about twelve dollars. Now I just have to dream up more bookcases…

    I love just going back to look at your Wall of Awesome. Congrats on being posted on ohdeedoh!

    March 23rd, 2009 at 6:19 pm

  21. Carina Gardner says:

    Thank you for the tips here. Very valuable and insightful!

    March 24th, 2009 at 9:02 am

  22. Susan says:

    Freepeats.org is another place to score free used baby stuff. I think they have them in most large cities.

    March 24th, 2009 at 4:47 pm

  23. RookieMom Heather says:

    Love it. We tweeted it already and will try to feature these fantastic tips on the main site… oh and, more importantly, I’ll try to get my husband to do all this work!

    March 31st, 2009 at 9:04 am

  24. Lori says:

    My husband gives me such grief for stockpiling stuff. Typical hubby comment: “You don’t teach elementary school, you teach high school. Why do we need the complete ‘Ology’ book set? And why do you keep all these ‘Babysitters Club’ books?” We’re now expecting our first, and wow! All the stuff he complained about in the office now has a happy home in the bookshelves of our daughter’s room.

    Of note, my husband is not a reader, by any stretch of the imagination. Me, voracious bibliophile. Any one else with similar situations? :)

    May 3rd, 2009 at 11:26 am

  25. Amanda says:

    I think you don’t give Craigslist enough credit here… It is my primary source for cheap stuff of high quality. Definitely check out the “free stuff” section… Freecycle is a great one to mention though, not enough people know about it yet!

    And, did I catch a Dr Who reference in there? Dalek Ave, Tennant Dr…?

    October 1st, 2009 at 7:55 pm

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