Monday, June 30

In praise of garage sales

We just held our own yard sale this weekend, and it set me off thinking about how this part of our culture fits into the concept of zoning. I've always loved garage sales, but I've only recently developed a vocabulary to explain why. I just assumed it was the cheap stuff, but I think there is more to it than that.

A garage sale is really the only occasion in which any commerce is allowed to intrude into a residentially zoned area, if only for a short amount of time. Neighborhoods that are designed to keep outsiders out suddenly become places where outsiders are welcomed and even guided into by signs. I love to explore new parts of town, classified ads in hand. Because of this, they develop social vibrancy in places that are not accustomed to it. These places essentially become mixed-use, and this makes them take on a strangely subversive quality, which is why many municipal governments in the U.S. impose loads of garage sale regulations. Some even require onerous fees in an attempt to stamp out any grassroots attempt at having community. Missoula, as far as I can tell, is wonderfully permissive.

On top of this, elements of households (porches, patios, front yards) that were traditionally intended to be semi-private buffers between private and public space actually function as they are supposed to. Privatization run amok in recent decades has pretty much eliminated the practice of dropping in on friends and neighbors, but this is the one time when that's acceptable. We actually met two sets of neighbors for the first time through our sale. It's only too bad it didn't happen sooner.

Garage sales are also good for the environment (reuse instead of throwing away) and offer a helpful service to people who cannot afford new items for their households. Most other places around the world don't have garage sales, only because informal resale markets flourish already in central locations throughout the city. The quiet little yard sale on a weekend morning is the only time we in the West have allowed that ubiquitous staple of civilization to poke its head out.

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