The Early Birds

By Jim Ignasher

At long last “zero hour” had arrived, and although I never heard the report of a starter pistol, the race was suddenly on. Like a flock of soggy starlings they all took flight at once, each vying for position with a single goal in mind – to get there first. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ah, April, the first full month of spring, highlighted by warm weather and flowers, robins seeking worms, and the official start of “yard sale season.” But this isn’t a story about yard sales. It’s about human nature, and an amusing event that I once witnessed.

Several years ago I saw an advertisement in a local paper that read, “Barn Sale, 9 to 3 p.m. Saturday,” followed by, “No early birds!!!” (Three exclamation points.) And, “Nobody admitted before 9 a.m.!!!” (Again, three exclamation points.) This was before such warnings became standard for yard sale ads, which is why it caught my attention, and I remember thinking, good luck keeping the “early birds” away.

Like many people, I enjoy going to yard sales. In fact I’ve been going to yard sales, garage sales, estate sales, rummage sales, flea markets, and even the occasional barn sale for more than 30 years. Yet whatever adjective one uses to describe the “sale,” it’s always a case where someone is selling “stuff” they no longer want to people looking to buy that “stuff” at bargain prices.

For those unfamiliar with yard sale lingo, “early birds” are an annoying species that descend like seagulls to French fries well before the designated starting time hoping to be the one to get the proverbial worm. Yet love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s hard to argue with “early bird” logic, for there are documented cases where items found at yard sales for a couple of bucks were later determined to be worth hundreds, or even thousands of dollars.

Their motivations vary. Some are looking for antiques, perhaps hoping to find George Washington’s sword that he carried at Valley Forge priced for a dollar that can be parlayed into millions on eBay. Others may be collectors hoping to add more memorabilia, knick-knacks, or as a friend of mine calls it, ‘Choch-ka’, to their collections. Still others just want to be the first to look over the “stuff.” Competition between them can be fierce, for they’re all striving for the “good stuff.” It’s for this reason that many yard sale advertisements these days are more apt to carry a “no early birds” warning. However, like the scarecrow in a cornfield, the warning is generally ignored.

A case in point is the aforementioned “barn sale,” a modern misnomer if there ever was one. For many, the term conjures up the image of a dilapidated barn that hasn’t been cleaned out since the Declaration of Independence was signed, and is therefore loaded with priceless antiques that will go for a pittance of their actual value because the owner has no idea of their worth. While this may have been true at one time, it’s rarely the case today. (But, hey, one never knows – right?)

On the Saturday of the barn sale it was raining lightly. I arrived around ten minutes to nine, expecting to be about two hours too late for “the good stuff,” and was surprised to see a line of about 30people standing along the side of the road being held at bay by a gate and a picket fence. A large hand-written sign on the gate reiterated what had been in the ad: “No early birds!!!” Noting that many were standing in the rain without umbrellas, I opted to wait in the comfort of my car, and noticed several others doing the same in their vehicles.

The barn didn’t look all that old, thereby negating the possibility that Washington had slept there, and as I sat contemplating this, a middle-aged man in a red pickup truck raced up from behind me and skidded to a stop just shy of hitting my rear bumper. With the agility of an acrobat, he sprang from the vehicle and hurried towards the line of people, leaving his wife behind to shut off the headlights and lock the doors. His actions caused those waiting in their cars to feel that they too had better claim their place in line before it was too late, and one by one they quickly abandoned the protection of their automobiles and rushed over to join the others standing in the rain.

Meanwhile, the man from the red pickup was anxiously shifting his weight from one foot to the other while craning his neck to see over the heads of those in front of him as if looking for a way to get one inch closer to the gate. I imagined he was mentally kicking himself for not camping out in front of the gate the night before. In a way, the scene reminded me of television news reports about “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving.

At three minutes to nine, the man holding the barn sale appeared, and slowly made his way towards the gate deliberately taking his time. He was clearly enjoying the whole affair, for nothing was going to happen until he said it could. The crowd grew restless as he put his hand on the gate while never taking his eyes off his watch. He was waiting for exactly nine o’clock on the dot, not a moment sooner – no early birds!!!

Finally the big moment arrived, but before he even swung the gate completely open the flock burst forth like it was the start of the Boston Marathon, and within seconds they’d flown into the barn. I got out of my car and walked to the gate where the man stood laughing and shaking his head.

“You must have some really great stuff.” I offered.

“Some of them have been standing in the rain since seven.” he said chuckling. “It’s crazy!”

He was right. It was crazy, and when I entered the barn I could see why he was laughing. The whole thing had been a goof; a joke; a gag; and it was all on us. Instead of a barn filled with forgotten antiques, it looked like the place where yard sales go to die. All types of “stuff” that hadn’t sold elsewhere had apparently been brought here for the so-called “barn sale.”

However, as the saying goes, one person’s junk is another’s treasure, and the flock was in a feeding frenzy. People were pushing, shoving, scooping, shouting, and grabbing. Two women were tugging on an imitation leather coat arguing over who’d seen it first, while two men were at the point of fisticuffs over a blue tarp marked $1 that could be found at any hardware store for $3! Well, it was a barn sale, but George’s sword was nowhere in sight.

I had to admire the barn owner’s sale’s technique. He’d discovered what Madison Avenue has been trying to figure out for years; how to get people to pay good money for totally worthless junk, and fight over it in the process!

And the relentless battle between the early birds and sellers continues, with some sellers trying to gain the upper hand by doing everything from advertising later starting times, to only posting signs on the morning of the sale, and literally keeping the garage door closed until they’re ready to begin selling. And then there’s the guy who held the barn sale, who forced the birds to roost at his gate, and in the rain no less. Yet they didn’t seem to mind.