07 Oct Our Big Barn Sale: Was it Boffo or Bust?


Jill and I aren’t exactly hoarders but we are avid collectors. We love flea markets, auctions, garage sales and, if the opportunity arises, even Dumpster-diving. As a result, we bring home lots of furniture and artwork and pottery and dishware. Mostly we’re trying out changes to our décor. A lot of these changes we consider “upgrades”: virtually everything in our house–carpets, paintings, chairs, couches, lighting fixtures–has been upgraded several times. Eventually you get to the point where you can’t upgrade anymore, unless you’re willing to break your budget or ruin the integrity of your interior design. It wouldn’t make any sense to hang, say, a $50,000 painting in your modest rowhome. Or a gilded silk brocade settee in your beach cottage.

When we downsized from our 4500-square-foot Baltimore brownstone to a 3200 sq farmhouse, we had to make some hard choices. The brownstone is formal and elegant. The farmhouse is modest and rustic, the ceilings lower, the rooms smaller. We had two large Victorian marble-topped coffee tables in the brownstone, for example, but no place for them in the farmhouse. Multiple that times ten and you’ll get an idea of how much left-over furniture we had after we moved into the farmhouse.

Over the last four years, we’ve accumulated all kinds of other furniture and objects that didn’t work out for the farmhouse. Much of this came from auctions. So, added to the huge amount we’d brought from the brownstone, we had a lot to sell–more than ever before. When we lived in the city, we’d hold a sale once a year to clear out our accumulation. Our barn sale–this past Saturday–was an experiment. Could we do as well in the country as we had in the city? We conducted our city sales on a busy street corner; we drew crowds of people and we made good money (well over $1,000 each time).

Here’s the key to holding a successful yard sale: if you look at it as an opportunity to make good money, you’ll likely be disappointed. However, if you look at it as an opportunity to lighten your load, then you’ll be gratified. Sell low. Always. Jill taught me this. If you want to keep sitting on your growing pile of belongings, then sell high. We sell as if we’re going bankrupt: It’s got to go! Now! Cheap!

Why not just give it away? We do that too but not at our sales. We’ve learned that nobody, really, wants a freebie when they come to a yard sale. They want the satisfaction of getting something cheap after bargaining for it. It’s a given that most people never accept the sticker price, no matter how low. Which is why you have to price items accordingly.

As for pricing, everything should be marked. Pricing and tagging every item before a sale is probably the worst part of getting ready for your sales events. But it’s well worth the hassle because price-tagged items have three advantages: 1) untagged items lead prospective buyers to believe the item is worth $1.00 or $5.00 max, never more, no matter how grand and glorious that item may be. 2) Tagged items give the buyer time to think about meeting your price so that the bargaining is on your terms, not theirs. 3) Best of all: tagged items encourage impulse buying!

At first, it was hard for me to accept Jill’s pricing policy. For example: she priced an oak Victorian library table at $150. It cost us $500 ten years ago. But Victorian furniture–derisively called “brown furniture”–no longer sells. The Baby Boomers who used to collect this stuff are now downsizing, retiring, or dying. The world belongs to the Millennials. They want something called “farmhouse chic,” which isn’t really farmhouse: it’s more like faux rustic meets beach cottage. Their furniture is often distressed and almost always painted white or khaki or gray. That’s the trendy palette nowadays. You can find magazines, websites, and retailers specializing in this look. If you’ve ever watched “Fixer Upper,” you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Unless you own a retail shop in a trendy neighborhood, you can’t reasonably expect to get high prices for anything you hope to sell except, perhaps, Mid-century Modern furniture, which is all the rage (again the Millennials). So, when we hold a sale, we anticipate getting 1/10 to 1/5 the price we paid for any item (bought at retail). In the spirit of Jill’s pricing philosophy, I sold–at our Big Barn Sale–a table full of antique, wrought iron strap hinges for $100. They were worth easily $300. And I might have gotten that if I were willing to take multiple photos of each, post them on eBay or Etsy, then wait three months until they found a buyer, then spend more time packing them and sending them out. No thanks, just give me a hundred bucks and I’m done with them.



A few years back, Jill and I bought some really cool kitchen hutches, circa 1920. We were going to install them in the Hen House Cottage, but then, later, we found a cooler set of kitchen cabinets. We paid top dollar for the hutches, about $200 each. I sold one of these on Saturday for $45. So it goes. Jill was impressed. Again: pretend you’re going bankrupt.

It took us two weeks of solid work to get ready for this sale–pulling the stuff out of buildings where they were stored, cleaning off years of dust, repairing pieces that had fallen apart, cataloguing, pricing, then staging everything, which included finding boxes, making signs. As for signs: you’ve got to have them. Big ones, posted not only in front of your property but also at major intersections. Also, there’s Face Book, Next Door, and Craigs List.

By the time we opened the gates on Saturday morning–an amazingly clear, cool, autumn day–we were ready but not fully ready. There were still many items to price and arrange. We’d invited some friends to sell stuff also; we know many former antiques dealers. We tried to enlist a number of friends to help us manage traffic etc. but a surprising number were booked or out of town. So we were on our own. Frank, our neighbor across the road, offered to manage the front gate. Everyone who entered had to be told where to park, in spite of the clearly marked parking signs.

The problem with barn sales, yard sales, garage sales, etc. is that the dedicated buyers are kind of crazy, nearly rabid to get a good buy, and you can’t really talk sense to them when they see all these tables of antiques and books and housewares and yet they have to park. They’ll park anywhere. As soon as possible. Got to get out and get a look! Out of my way! So Frank had to flag down many of them. He took up the front of the drive. I took the middle part of the lane to make sure drivers kept straight. Still, some veered off down the road that leads to our exit. I’d have to chase after them as they’d try to park in the wrong field. After I told one such driver to move, she backed straight into a post, knocking down the “Exit” sign. I said, “That’s why we don’t have people parking out here.”



Truck traffic was the biggest challenge. There’s something about a man in a truck that’s, well, unstoppable. Truck traffic tore up the last part of our stone walkway because the turn was too sharp for them. So we’re going to have to adjust that walkway. Another truck took a shortcut, gunning across the grass I’d just planted between two buildings. “Not an exit!” I called after him. At one point, three trucks tried to exit through the entrance. For obvious reasons, that’s an ill-advised move, as they quickly learned because the trucks leaving encountered cars entering and, for an edgy few minutes we had a traffic jam to untangle.

I’m talking a lot about traffic because that’s all I did the entire day, direct traffic. I never got away from my busy intersection in the middle of the farm. Jill, on the other hand, was in the barn, making sales. Both of us got to meet a number of neighbors from down the road and across the field and so on. It seems a lot of them have been curious to see what we’ve been up to. This was the first time we’ve opened the farm to the general public. And, with the exception of a few parking incidents, it all went. We offered well-appointed public bathrooms and well-kept grounds (I’d spent the previous month weeding the flower beds and orchard and kitchen garden) and Jill sold a lot of home-brewed coffee and homemade cookies.

Still, I wasn’t convinced we sold enough. By the end of the day, it hardly looked like anything had moved. But that was a testament to how much junk we own. As it turned out, we sold a lot of stuff, from books to furniture to farm implements to vintage clothes. We made well in excess of $2K, almost as good as we’d done at our biggest sale in the city. We finished the day with an autumnal meal I cooked for our dealers at the farmhouse, with a big fire in the dining room fireplace.

We’ve been holding big yard sales for years and it never gets easy; the next day always feels like a hangover. So this year we had to talk about it: would we do it again? Our dealer friends encouraged us to make it an annual event. We could grow it, offer not only more dealers but also more attractions. So, for now, we say, Yes, sure, let’s give it a try. We’ll do it the first Saturday of October. Every year. Mark your calendar, would you?