Ellen Zipper's summer Saturdays start early.
Throughout the season, the Owings Mills resident rises around 5 a.m. She checks her computer, visiting Craigslist for the umpteenth time that week, making last-minute adjustments to her plans for the day.
Around 7, with a strategy in place, she boards her white minivan, heading out for a warm morning tour of Baltimore County and Baltimore City yard sales, consignment shops and flea markets, hoping to find bits of treasure along the way.
"The hardest decision is where to go first," she says. "You want to pick the best place. And that's hard."
Zipper searches sales for clothes, furniture, kitchenware and vintage jewelry, which she restores or redesigns. Her passion for yard sales and consignment shopping was sparked during the 1980s, when she was young and newly married.
"I moved with my husband into our first apartment in August of 1986," she says. "I needed to furnish it. I started going to yard sales and finding cute pictures for the walls and furniture and decorative items. My hobby grew from there."
According to the Statistic Brain Research Center, each week in the U.S. an average of 165,000 yard sales take place and 690,000 people purchase something at a yard sale.
Lutherville yard sale enthusiast Karl Pfrommer notes that generations of Americans have embraced the thrill of yard sale shopping. "Norman Rockwell summed it up in a 1925 issue of Saturday Evening Post," he says. "He said, 'One man's trash is another man's treasure.' "
More recently, that famous line was co-opted by rapper Macklemore, whose catchy hit song "Thrift Shop" promotes the benefits of shopping for clothes in consignment shops. Those positives, according to Macklemore, include finding cool stuff that is dirt-cheap with a side of history, as well as sticking it to "big business."
Pfrommer's daughter-in-law, Rebecca Barney, also of Lutherville, echoes Macklemore's sentiments. "I like the reuse factor and not getting caught up in the retail world. I love the idea of not going out and buying things new," she says. "And you can get better things for far less money if you're willing to put forth that extra effort."
Like deep-sea fishermen, serious yard sale shoppers are full of tales about big, exciting finds. Pfrommer recently snapped up a painting that turned out to be a work by Hungarian artist Miklos Neogrady. Zipper, whose interest in vintage jewelry finds her scanning tables filled with costume jewelry, even found her custom-designed engagement ring while shopping a yard sale. She calls it her "dollar diamond."
"You can find the best things at these sales," she says.
The popularity of the song "Thrift Shop" — which hit No. 1 one on the Billboard charts in January — may be part of a larger national trend glamorizing yard sale and consignment shopping.
"When I first started going to yard sales, people thought I was crazy," says Zipper. "But in the last few years, with cable shows like 'Storage Wars' and 'Auction Kings,' the whole dynamic has changed. People used to think it was weird, but now it's the chic thing to do."
However, there are drawbacks to that popularity. Zipper says increased publicity means tougher competition. "It's like yard sale wars on Saturday morning now."
Another popular reality show, "Hoarders," raises the question: Where do serious yard sale enthusiasts keep all their loot?
The answer varies, but storage is a topic on everyone's mind. "I try not to have stuff in our living area," says Rebecca Barney. "I'm not to the point of hoarding. I don't personally collect much, but I do have storage for things I might use later."
Barney resells some of her finds at Emporium Antiques in downtown Frederick. Reselling, either in shops or online, is a common way to manage the constant flow of goods. According to the Statistic Brain website, yard sale shoppers average a 462 percent profit when they resell their finds on eBay.
Zipper says she doesn't specifically buy to resell, but she does manage to fund some of her hobby through the resale of jewelry or furniture she no longer needs. "In the end, I don't make money, but when I recycle, it pays for what I keep," she says.
Zipper concedes that she rarely throws yard sales of her own, but she resells some items at consignment shops like Ruth's Closet in Owings Mills and Repeat Performance in Pikesville.
Pfrommer has found a way to enjoy his hobby without accumulating too much stuff: He puts his treasure-finding skills to use buying gifts for his family and friends, and finding bargains for charitable organizations. "For years I've bought furniture, electrical appliances, bedding and other items for At Jacob's Well, which provides housing and services for the homeless and mentally ill," he says. "When I was Scoutmaster for Troop 35, I often bought camping gear for the boys. At an estate sale last week, I paid $2 for about thirty cans of food for my church's CARES Food Bank."
From cans of food to dollar diamonds, for yard sale experts, the next treasure is always right around the corner.
Tips for throwing a stellar yard sale
There's more to putting on a successful yard sale than depositing the contents of your attic on the front lawn. Here, yard sale fans share what makes for a fantastic sale:
Get the word out: Expert yard sale shoppers troll websites like Craigslist for mentions of sales. Be clear in your post, explaining the types of goods you'll be selling. "Descriptions are very important," says Baltimore yard sale shopper Meg Fairfax Fielding. "Because I don't have children, I skip everything that says 'children's clothes and toys.' " Fielding skips those sales, but shoppers looking for kids' gear will focus on them.
Start early: "I usually start around 7," says Ellen Zipper, explaining that the best yard sale shopping usually ends well before noon. Yard sales courting serious shoppers will be ready to go first thing in the morning.
Put it out there: When it comes to yard sales, bigger is better, says Rebecca Barney. "With quantity, I can always find stuff," she says. "And I think people like to root through — they like to hunt." So don't worry if your goods are a bit jumbled; that adds to the fun.
Band together: Neighborhood yard sales featuring lots of houses are more popular among yard sale enthusiasts. "I don't put all my eggs in one basket," says Barney. "So I like community yard sales, especially."
Price it: "It's nice when things are priced!" says Barney. Seeing a price saves time and trouble for both the shopper and seller.
Be nice: "The best yard sales have good selection, good prices and nice people," says Zipper. So keep a smile on your face — it just might help you make that sale.
Shop like an expert
It's early Saturday morning. You've got coffee in hand and a yen to yard-sale shop. There are a thousand sales going on — so where to start? Let the experts guide your way:
Identify key words: Hard-core yard sale shoppers roughly map their route the night before or early in the morning the day of yard sales. They quickly learn to identify the sales that will be most fruitful, paying attention to words like "vintage" and signs that certain sales will focus on their particular interests (like jewelry, kitchen equipment or kids' stuff).
Apps: Craigslist is a popular yard sale advertising tool; experts continue to check the site for new sales until just before they head out shopping. But a variety of additional tools and programs can also help you identify sales in your area. "Yard Sale Treasure Map is a good one," says Meg Fairfax Fielding. "It plots your route."
Hop around: Experts suggest hitting multiple sales or flea markets in one day, starting early in the morning. And don't discount the power of paying attention while you drive. "I generally count on serendipity to find sales," says Fielding. "Some of the best sales are only advertised on signs in the areas where they're located." But keep your focus tight. Karl Pfrommer recommends sticking to a fairly small area, noting that "the less time you have invested in traveling, the more sales you can see."
Don't be afraid to bargain: Use marked prices as a starting point, suggests Pfrommer, who recently scored a set of Gorham crystal wine glasses for just $2 apiece, down from an original yard sale price of $25 each. "At $25 apiece, I decided to wait. Later, they were $18. I left again and returned just before the sale was finished. I asked, 'What's your best offer?' At $2 apiece, that's a deal I couldn't refuse."