I blindly look for books at two-dozen random garage sales, and track the results.
Here’s an idea: How many books would you find if you visited 25 random garage sales, pulled out of a hat? Recently I decided to find out.
My anti-garage sale stance, in a nutshell
In June, I posted an article cautioning anyone sourcing books at garage sales to never go to a sale merely advertising “books.” Instead, I advised only going to sales that advertised having a lot of books. Anything else, in my experience, has been a complete waste of my time.
In the past, my problem has been that sales advertised on Craigslist as having books rarely had more than a few. I would spend 3 hours visiting a dozen sales, and come home with 7 books. My policy quickly became: If a sale didn’t promise a TON of books, I wouldn’t cross the street for it.
Then a neighboring-neighborhood announced a neighborhood sale…
In early-summer, there was a nearby neighborhood sale. These happen when an entire neighborhood collectively decides to have a sale on the same day. It’s a good way to hit 20 sales in quick succession, but like I said, I don’t patronize any garage sales unless they make big promises.
When I checked Craigslist two Saturdays ago, I saw announcements for a neighborhood sale that caught my eye for two reasons: It was a half-mile from my house, so I could walk there. And two, it was in the wealthiest part of an already wealthy town, which can make for some awesome (and under-priced) finds.
It provided the stage for an overdue experiment: What if I went to garage sales using the direct opposite of my usual approach? What if, instead of only going to sales that promised a lot of books, I went to a bunch of sales that didn’t advertise books at all? Exactly how much would two-dozen average garage sales pulled from a hat under-perform the sales that advertised lots of books? I decided to find out.
I wasn’t hopeful I would find more than a few books, if any at all, but I drove my car the half mile in case I did. Most of the morning, however, was spent on foot.
This wasn’t just the wealthiest part of town, it was also the “old money” part of town. I expected the “old money” part would work against me, but again, this was all an experiment.
The garage sales
First, the neighborhood was dense with sales. Whereas at the typical neighborhood sale you might find 1 out of 20 houses participating, this one was closer to 1 in 10. Every block had at least 2 sales.
I quickly realized this was a town-wide phenomenon. By 8:15, there wasn’t a parking spot to be found in a half-mile radius, and the streets were swarmed with people.
The first sale I came upon had an entire table of books. Mostly children’s, which is among my least favorite categories, but I still came away with eight books. My first sale, and was already having to make a trip to my car.
The next sale had a massive selection of documentaries on DVD. Nearly 100 total. Catch was, they were $5 each. I wasn’t finding any money there at that price, so I made the seller the extreme lowball offer of $100 for the entire set. Not only did he shoot that down (as expected), he wouldn’t budge at all on the price, even for a bulk purchase. I made a mental note to (maybe) come back at the end of the sale when he might be more pliable.
I passed a few more sales that didn’t look fruitful, and stopped at one that had exactly one book. Or more accurately, seven books in a sealed box set. It was the Harry Potter series, selling for $65 on Amazon. And it cost me $5. 30 minutes in, and things were going pretty well.
Shortly I came upon a sale that was actually set up on the sidewalk itself. It had a long row of books on a staircase ledge of a very large home. It was dozens and dozens of books on business analytics and engineering. Very quickly, I found a book ranked 10,000 and selling for $85. I think the woman running the sale saw me scanning, because before I was halfway through, she walked over and said “I’ll give you all of them for $10.” DEAL.
After a few more fruitless sales, I found a guy selling his entire collection of 500+ bluegrass CDs. I was alllll over this one. It was hard to find room to move because the table was so swarmed, so I didn’t scan everything, but I came away with a towering stack of 38 CDs for $1 each. He also had several boxes of (mostly) books on Shambala Press, the preferred imprint for monied people who like to dabble in eastern religion. Consistently profitable, and I came away with 5 books (also for $1 each).
In fact, every sale I went to that day was asking a flat $1 for their books. I didn’t pay any more (or any less) than $1 for a book all day (Harry Potter excluded).
I was doing all of this on foot, and moving up and down every street to be sure I didn’t miss anything. The entire neighborhood was probably 14 square blocks, so it was a lot of ground to cover.
Shortly, I found another sale with a ton of books. Most of them worthless, but there were two boxes of academic titles on wildlife, many of them on university presses. I pulled several $20+ books, and 10 books total.
One large sale had an awesome selection of books on tattoos, and similarly fringe (to some people) subjects. Lots of value there, and I bought 18 books.
The last sale I went to had exactly 2 poetry books worth somewhere in the $10 range. Only thing notable about it was that as I was leaving, the host actually accused me of stealing! I wasn’t of course, but when I asked how much the two books were, he gave the most vague, long-winded, and convoluted answer imaginable, so I just handed him what I thought he was asking for (which was apparently not correct). He then waited until I was 50 yards away to make a scene of it, and yell to the whole neighborhood that I underpaid. Believe it or not, this is actually the second time I’ve been accused of stealing from a garage sale.
Approximately 25 sales visited (or walked past).
Purchased books at 8 of them.
Total number of books purchased: 37
Average Sales Rank: 576, 592
Total CDs purchased: 38
Average Sales Rank: 191,054
Total spent: $75
Total sales price: $1053
Expected net profit: $556
Total time investment: 3 hours.
There were some variables that may skew the results here (wealthy neighborhood, adjoining a major university), but the numbers were promising: I pulled about 25 garage sales out of a hat, and came away over $500 in expected profit – for just 3 hours of work.
What’s the lesson? For those with the patience I lack, this means taking a scattershot form of freestyling on Saturdays may in fact be more fruitful than I previously thought.
While I’m still not driving all over town every Saturday to chase down stray books at garage sales, I did learn that a large percentage of garage sales have books – whether they advertise it or not.