Back-alley treasure hunting: the allure of Edmonton garage sales

Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji listings can never match the thrill of finding a bargain or hidden treasure in someone’s dingy garage

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The late-summer blues have set in and it means a return to school for some, but to a few of us, this period is known as garage sale season.

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I spent many Augusts of my youth scoping out garage sales in Edmonton, tagging along with my mother and grandmother, both experts in the art of haggling over the price of a used blender in a dimly lit garage.

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There are no official records kept on how many garage sales take place each year in Edmonton, but anecdotally I’m seeing fewer of them. Like so many other events and products, the internet has dismantled physical garage sales in favour of Facebook Marketplace or listings on Kijiji or Craigslist. Decades ago the boulevards would be littered with garish garage sale signs, pointing in all directions, each touting caches of riches at bargain prices.

There is a skill to scoping out garage sales with potential, as passed down to me from my mother. Early Friday morning she would dig out the classified section from the daily newspaper and circle all the garage sale listings in our vicinity, mentally mapping a route for us. Before I turned 10 years old I saw every back alley north of Yellowhead Trail.

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One person’s junk is another person’s treasure … although it’s usually just junk.
One person’s junk is another person’s treasure … although it’s usually just junk. FILE PHOTO

It was the thrill of the elusive bargain that fuelled her, in addition to the coffee and cigarettes she’d consume while driving. Mounds of dusty junk haphazardly stacked on rickety tables in someone’s grungy garage might not be your idea of paradise, but the sight of unwanted clutter tantalized my budding collector tendencies. In those days before eBay, if you wanted something that was no longer available on the racks at Zellers or Woolco you were out of luck unless you came across it being sold second-hand.

Old toys from forgotten franchises, comic books worth no more than a quarter and vinyl albums people couldn’t even give away were what I sought while my mother would peruse old clothing and other household gadgets. We were not below the poverty line but our garage sale exploits could certainly inspire a Dolly Parton song.

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The appeal of garage sales extended beyond the acts of browsing and buying. There was an element of voyeurism as you rummaged through the contents of homes spilled out on a driveway. You didn’t need to know the style of furniture strangers once had in their living rooms or that a neighbour was really into macrame, but surveying those unwanted items was a small invitation into their lives. Conversations would strike up and introductions would be made within the confines of a garage blue with cigarette smoke alongside stacks of chipped plates and puzzles with missing pieces. It was a back alley form of community-building.

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Online garage listings replete with photos have made bargain hunting more efficient, but at the cost of adventure. It was the thrill of digging to the bottom of water-logged cardboard boxes for the slimmest of chances of discovering a forgotten treasure; a suburban version of a mythical bazaar, if you will. Now if I want something I can search for it within the cesspool known as Facebook Marketplace, but without the thrill.

Whenever I drive by a garage sale now I’ll slow down and try to spot any treasures lingering in the shadows, always tempted to jump out and search, until my kids in the back seat remind me to keep driving as we don’t need any more junk at home.



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