My wife and I love to explore garage sales around Los Angeles. Our favorite spots are the canyon communities—Laurel Canyon, Nichols Canyon, Beachwood Canyon, Coldwater Canyon and Benedict Canyon. The homes are wedged in the hills and hard to find. This means smaller crowds and a more relaxed hunt.
Rule #1 for garage sale hunting is to arrive early. If a sign advertises eight a.m., be there by 7:45. Professional eBay dealers and antiquers are always the first to arrive. We’ve grown accustomed to their faces. There’s the tall thin man we nicknamed Ichabod Crane looking for first-edition books for his rare bookstore in the valley. There’s Amanda, buyer for Amoeba Records, searching for pristine vinyl for the Hollywood store. And there’s Inge, owner of a vintage clothes shop in Sherman Oaks, on the hunt for 1950s gingham skirts and dirndl dresses.
We’ve devised a garage sale rating system from best to worst: estate sale, garage sale, moving sale, yard sale and rummage sale. Estate sales involve high-end homes selling everything from furniture to family antiques. One memorable estate sale took place at the home of one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the original core animators who worked on Snow White, Pinocchio and other classics. The man died and his daughter was selling his possessions. Collectors bought vintage animation cels at $50 each. We later learned these could be resold online for thousands. We bought a green Depression-era glass cake plate for $25 (online value $250) and a pair of Bushnell binoculars for $10 (listed new online for $650).
Some host garage sales year round as if operating a small business, illegal in Los Angeles. City ordinances allow two garage sales a year, two days per sale. Anything beyond that requires a city permit. Garage sales are prohibited Monday through Friday, and are allowed on weekend days eight a.m.-three p.m. They’re only legal on the last weekend of the month. These rules are rarely enforced.
Those without a garage can opt for the terms moving sale, yard sale or rummage sale. The descriptions are less sexy, but apartment sales are great since renters about to move are desperate to unload items. At a moving sale in Beachwood Canyon, I purchased a collection of Clash CDs and several Bauhaus records. I also snagged unused art supplies, a candle making kit and two Mario Batali cookbooks.
The worst sales are what my wife and I call sewer sales. These usually involve some hard-up schmo hocking his life’s possessions on a sidewalk. Items will be spread on a dirty towel and may include rusty silverware, cracked dinner plates and archaic Tony Robbins cassettes. You may also find torn furniture retrieved from a nearby dumpster.
Rule #2 for garage-sale hunting is to look for high-quality signage. If a sign’s quickly scrawled or has a typo, the sale will be equally slapdash. Color signs are promising. So are signs with printed photos. If signage includes directional arrows, this usually promises a good sale. At an estate sale in Nichols Canyon, we toured the home of a deceased Hollywood publicist from the early studio days. We purchased a framed French poster of the Bogart-Bacall film Dark Passage (“Les Passagers De La Nuit”). I found a black fedora hat while my wife grabbed some Edith Piaf records.
Rule #3 is to look for older houses. That means older and more rare items. One day we came upon a sale at a decrepit wood cabin in Laurel Canyon. We learned the home was once the residence of Eric Burdon from the Animals. The current dweller was a woman in her 40s who lived with a large wolf-husky hybrid. She told us she was a wicca (a good witch) and her “wolf-roommate” helped inspire her healing potions. We purchased a box of her homemade essential oils (lavender, rosewater and tea tree).
Another time we stopped at a 1940s-style Art Deco home in Benedict Canyon owned by a retired dentist. He was selling old dental implements. When I asked the price, he grew excited thinking he was about to talk shop with an aspiring dentist. I told him I was an artist who wanted to use the tools to carve woodcuts. He became furious and refused to sell me the goods, saying he wanted to pass them on to a younger dentist even though the tools were rusted and scratched.
This leads to Rule #4. Don’t tell sellers what you plan to do with the items. This can cause unintended insults (like the dentist) or make the items seem more valuable. If a buyer learns his innocuous cocktail glass is 1940s Waterford Crystal, you’ll miss out on a deal. The maxim caveat emptor applies to both buyers and sellers. We came across painted glassware at an estate sale in Beverly Hills. I was ready to make a purchase when my wife said the vibrant colors probably meant lead or cadmium paint. Since this can could heavy metal poisoning, I left the glasses behind.
Rule #5 is never buy electronics. Most modern appliances are built for planned obsolescence. If someone’s selling an appliance, chances are it no longer works. I made the mistake of buying an expensive Sure Fire flashlight. When I got home, I opened the flashlight body and found a family of brown-banded cockroaches crawling around in a lake of battery acid.
Rule #6 is don’t buy personal products like underwear, toothbrushes or enema kits. You don’t know where they’ve been. When I see old tennis shoes, all I see are fungal infections. Used mattresses have bed bugs. Old computers have viruses. Stuffed animals have creepy crawlies.
You can find the oddest things at garage sales: used bars of soap, old bras, half-filled bottles of booze, vibrators. In Toluca Lake, a young woman was selling her worn panties. (I told her she’d do better online.) A lady in the Encino Hills tried to sell an urn with her father’s ashes. A man in North Hollywood offered a bag of condiment packets from fast-food restaurants for two dollars.
My favorite garage sale experience happened in Laurel Canyon in the late-1990s. The seller was a photographer making the transition from film to digital. He sold me his black and white darkroom equipment for $100 and threw in several rolls of undeveloped film. As I was leaving he said, “Promise me you’ll return the negatives if they have nude photos.” I developed the film. The first roll showed images of fire hydrants. Roll #2 showed featured piles of dog poop on lawns. The third roll displayed half-clothed mannequins in store windows. I tried putting together a photo exhibit but couldn’t find a gallery owner willing to hang pictures of dog shit on the wall.
Rule #7 is to bring small bills. If you’re going to spend 10 minutes haggling to get a Velvet Underground record for two dollars, you don’t want to give the seller a 20. Effective bargaining requires the currency to back it up. Be reasonable. Arguing someone down to five dollars for an antique vase isn’t just obnoxious, it’s insulting.
Rule #8 is to have respect for the sellers. You don’t know the circumstances behind the sale. Perhaps someone’s having financial problems. Maybe their spouse died. Maybe a person has health issues and they’re about to move to an assisted living facility. What you view as a worthless trinket might be an item of immense personal value to the seller. I always thank sellers and tell them their items will be going to a happy home.
Rule #9 is don’t ask a seller to use their bathroom. Don’t peek over a fence, don’t go into a backyard or enter someone’s home for any reason. Sellers already feel anxiety with so many strangers around. This means you shouldn’t park in their driveway or their neighbor’s driveway. Be respectful.
Rule #10 is the most important. Garage sale hunting should be fun. If you approach the journey with a do-or-die mindset like an eBay merchant, you’re doomed. Take pleasure in seeing new parts of the city, meeting people and spending time outdoors. It’s best not to have expectations. If you strike pay dirt and find something, great. If not, it’s one less piece of junk in your home.