Inside the 'Pay What You Want' Marketplace

Aug 29, 2014

For some, the Labor Day holiday marks the end of summer, the start of school, and the beginnings of college football season, but for others—like the folks lined up at Southeast Missouri's nearly 60-mile Highway 61 Yard Sale—this is the weekend for serious bargain hunting.

Depending on where in the country you live, you know them as tag sales, rummage sales, yard sales, or stoop sales, But whatever you call them, these pop-up markets of used items are a uniquely American summer weekend tradition. Advertised by scrawled chalk on a sidewalk, Sharpie marker on neon poster board, or balloons and flags tied to mailboxes (the more savvy might put a blurb in the local newspaper or Craigslist), yard sales draw in friends, neighbors, and passing treasure-hunters.

They also drew in photographer Greg Ruffing, who has been photographing his Yard Sales project for seven years and is currently working on a book of the images. Ruffing recounts what attracted him to photographing these sales:

I grew up outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in a middle-class family where both parents had full-time jobs. We hosted occasional yard sales in the summer, as did many of our neighbors. My brothers and I would get hand-me-down items passed through the family too. Later, when I was old enough to drive and had access to a car, I would go to thrift stores all the time. I still get a lot of my clothes and stuff from thrift stores and other sources that facilitate reuse, recycling, etc. I'm very curious about how the informal economy (yard sales, flea markets, etc.) functions relative to the standard marketplace.

In 2013, according to Statistic Brain, more than 165,000 yard sales took place across the country each week, with nearly 5 million items changing hands. The average item cost just 85 cents—yet enough people bought those lamps, toasters, and baseball mitts to rack up to more than $4 million in total yard sale spending each week.

Getting good secondhand items for less than a buck means that a little can go a long way, and in tougher times, that meant a lot. In 2010, TIME explored the impact of the Great Recession on the World's Longest Yard Sale, which spans 675 miles along Route 127 from Ohio to Alabama.

Ruffing explains:

The informal economy [of the yard sale] grants consumers much more power to stretch the value of their dollar—which has become especially crucial in the context of the Great Recession and other times of economic stress and uncertainty, where yard sales and other means of informal trade can be a survival strategy for many middle- and lower-class people. In that context, participation in yard sales and the informal economy has actually drastically increased of late, particularly during the time I've been working on this project since the recession began in 2007/2008.

It's that economic and social aspect of yard sales that really interests Ruffing. The upper and middle classes peruse yard sales for kitsch and novelty items, he says, whereas "for people of lower social class, the sales are an important and economically strategic source of used but good-condition items at fair and reasonable prices." The items less affluent buyers pick up in wealthier neighborhoods represent an aspirational lifestyle, since "wealthier sellers are assumed to have more reputable items and not just 'junk.'"

What's special about these informal marketplaces (including online marketplaces like eBay) is that consumers have more of a say in the buying process. They can bargain and negotiate prices, something that won't fly in Wal-Mart or Target. At a yard sale, tags are merely starting points for a conversation between buyer and seller that ends with a mutually agreed-upon price. That personal interaction between friends and neighbors helps to build a stronger community. Ruffing says of the people he has met while photographing:

They enjoy the spontaneity of conversations, the storytelling about items and people's personal assessments of value/meaning in the items, the friendly and casual atmosphere (which, for some people, can be totally festive), the bargaining and consensus-building of price negotiations, and an overall sense of community and shared experience that people feel. Really, as many interviewees have recounted, in an age where everyone is busy and where the Internet and other technologies have reduced our amount of direct face-to-face contact, yard sales are basically a great excuse to get people out of their houses, and the importance of this avenue for interaction can't be understated.

He recounts one Minnesota woman who hosted a "Pay What You Want" yard sale. "She told people to name their own price on everything—including zero dollars—and she had this amazing outlook on life where she didn't really get too attached to objects but instead was more interested in people, friendships, family, relationships, etc."

Of course, when it comes to shopping at yard sales, you can't ignore the excitement of the hunt and the thrill of discovery. You may recall the story of ex-trucker Terri Horton, who went on a quest to authenticate a yard sale painting that an expert said was by American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, or Rick Norsigian, who believed he had picked up negatives from American photographer Ansel Adams (in both cases their legitimacies were later disproved).

And I have a story of my own. People say there's no way you can remember moments from when you are two or three years old, but I vividly remember my first yard sale. It was to raise money for my Montessori school, Children's House, in Columbia, Missouri, and it was where my mother finally came face to face with my imaginary friend Cuck, a horse that lived in the woods behind our house.

Mom and my spirited equine playmate were never properly introduced, until the day we arrived at the Children's House yard sale. Holding my mother's hand as we rounded each folding table of tagged goods, I suddenly shouted: "It's Cuck! He came!" and began pointing. There he was, in the flesh (or plush, so to speak) sitting nonchalantly on the gravel of the schoolyard: a two-foot-tall, soft, red-and-white rocking horse with a cowboy hat, saddle, golden sheriff's badge and a price tag labeling him ours for a less than a dollar. My mother closed the deal, and opened the trunk of the Subaru to Cuck—one person's trash, perhaps, but a treasure to me.

In the end, whether it's out of necessity, for the hunt or—as it was for me—a place where a used item can gain a second life in the hands of a new owner, these yard sales are just one more way that your dollar can go just a bit farther this weekend.

How to Have a Money Making Yard Sale
9 Ways to Score Big at a Yard Sale
Looking at 'Rich and Poor,' 37 Years Later

This is part of The Photo Bank, a new section of dedicated to conceptually-driven photography. From images that document the broader economy to ones that explore more personal concerns like paying for college, travel, retirement, advancing your career, or even buying groceries, The Photo Bank will showcase a spectrum of the best work being produced by emerging and established artists. Submissions are encouraged and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for

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