Yard sales sprout with the season on Martha’s Vineyard

Always on the lookout for a "steal," yard sale regulars develop a critical eye to control their impulse to collect.
Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Always on the lookout for a "steal," yard sale regulars develop a critical eye to control their impulse to collect.

Among the colorful signs of spring on the Vineyard one could include the proliferation along the road of neon green, orange, and pink posters heralding the return of an Island tradition. Sporadic in the winter and mainly limited to garages and indoor spaces, yard sales have again blossomed all across the Island to greet drivers with the frequent sight of household goods tumbled out onto lawns and driveways, waiting to be claimed by those with the perseverance — and pocket change — to pursue the ultimate scavenger hunt.

The combination of mild weather and spring cleaning efforts has reintroduced a popular weekend pastime – searching through other people’s cast-offs for treasures, the bragging rights of which, owing to the origins of the finds, will no doubt far surpass their usefulness to their new owners. A close-knit community of Vineyarders engage every weekend in a ritual that is more about the pursuit than the prize, according to its members. It is also an opportunity to socialize, catch up, and enjoy a little show-and-tell.

On a recent Saturday, a handful of yard-sale regulars could be found at the home of Albert and Florence Koster. The Kosters hold a yearly sale in an ongoing effort to clear out their garage, which is packed with this and that they’ve stored there over the years. To date, they have managed to move only about one-tenth of the cache.

“Hopefully, one of these days the garage will be empty,” Ms. Koster said. “There’s no room. You couldn’t fit a car in.”

When asked if she also attends yard sales, considering the couple’s ongoing mission to rid themselves of clutter, she answered with a laugh, “Oh no. It’d be grounds for divorce.”

Among the yard sale habitues to be found enjoying a pleasant spring day in front of the Koster’s house on Franklin Ave., is Mary Anne Palermo, who has just returned to the Vineyard and is enjoying her first yard-sale outing of the year. She spends most Saturday mornings driving to the sales with a couple of her close friends.

“We call it sale-ing,” Ms. Palermo said. “Would you like to go sale-ing? It sounds classier.” She is greeting some of her Vineyard friends, including Lois Gorman, who Ms. Koster calls the number one yard-sale enthusiast. “You see the same people. It’s like a family.”

Earlier in the day, Ms. Palermo had been spotted at another sale purchasing a pair of brand-new-looking girls’ sandals for her granddaughter. The $5 sale was a first for teenager Courtney Mussell, who was uncertain about the rules of the game. After setting out her collection of cast-off clothes, shoes, and jewelry, she had just asked her mother, Robyn Mussell, what she should do when Ms. Palermo approached, inquiring about the price of the shoes. Courtney shrugged her shoulders and suggested $5. The transaction was completed, and her mother said to her, “That’s how it’s done.”

Spread across the Mussells’ driveway and lawn was an assortment that included a bright yellow kayak, a set of golf clubs in a well-worn bag, a black-and-white modern painting, store fixtures, two mannequins, a rack of new and used clothing and the usual jumble of lamps, end tables, dishes, knick-knacks and toys.

Inside the garage there was also a selection of new jewelry and makeup items. Ms. Mussell was selling off some of the stock from her store, MV Heart in Vineyard Haven, which had just shut its doors for good. This was her first yard sale. “When I closed the store last month I needed to get rid of the fixtures and being home for a week I cleaned the house out and I decided to have a yard sale,” she said.

Although most yard-sale hosts hate having early birds show up trying to dig through unpacked boxes and inquiring about prices before they have been determined, Ms. Mussell was ready at 7:45 when the first cars pulled up for the sale scheduled to start at 9 am. She says that most of the early shoppers were interested in an advertised bunk bed and a pair of kayaks. She managed to sell one of the kayaks for $300 before she was even officially open for business, and she deemed it a good sign.

As well as the sandals, Ms. Palermo’s haul for the day included a couple of matchbox trucks for her grandson at $4 and a bar of wrapped scented soap that she purchased from Florence Koster for $1. “I’m usually good for $10,” she said. Although she confesses a weakness for china dishes, Ms. Palermo’s purchases are never extravagant; however she said that her husband always jokes with her upon her return, asking with mock horror what she has done.

“He doesn’t get it,” she said. “I just go for the exploring; discovering different neighborhoods, seeing old friends from year to year, the adventure of it. Not so much for things as for old friends — and new friends.”

Ms. Palermo has also held yard sales herself, and at one she managed to sell her car. It wasn’t advertised in the paper and it still went in the first hour at her asking price. “My husband said I’d never sell it,” she said. One of her sale-ing companions bought a car a few years back at a yard sale.

Ms. Koster, who volunteers at the Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven, has a fairly professional system set up at her sale with a card table, chairs, and a cash box. A young boy brought up an item marked $3.50 and said, “I’ll give you $2.50 for it.”

Ms. Koster admonishes him. “Never say ‘I’ll give you.’ People do that in the thrift store all the time. I say, ‘Fine: you can give me money. Thanks for the donation.’ Ask ‘Can you do any better, or would you take $2.50?’

The boy put the item back, having learned an important lesson about the etiquette of yard sale-ing.