Mom Judy and daughter Erin, in their earliest days as yard-sale enthusiasts.
On the weekends, Mom’s hands were always black from newspaper ink.
On my childhood property in northeast Pennsylvania stood a red barn that dates back to the early 1900s. Perched on the perimeter of a meandering creek, the barn once housed a Model T and served as shelter for a cow. When the Tierneys moved in, it became a mecca for secondhand treasures.
With the property on a downhill slope, a couple weekends a month the green ’69 Chevy sat parked in front of the barn, truck bed folded down and e-brake pulled tight.
Inside the barn, banana boxes were stacked five times taller than the top of my head. What was inside any one box was anyone’s guess; it could range from old toys to housewares to model trains to old pottery.
Somewhere within the vicinity you’d see my mom, either wedged precariously between stacks of boxes, or busy carving a pathway from the barn to the truck bed. One at a time, she’d pull out a box, transfer it to the truck and stack it up. She’d examine and clean each box’s contents, wrapping breakables with old editions of The Morning Call or Times News to ensure a safe transport.
Meanwhile, I’d be busy running around her legs, parading through the stream with my brother Paddy, or rummaging through the boxes on the fringes of the barn. I’d untangle and try on the costume jewelry and sift through the CDs, taking note of strange covers, such as that Blind Melon album with a girl in a ladybug costume awkwardly pirouetting on stage.
I comfortably crouched under the truck cap and helped stack the boxes. On occasion – when my brother wasn’t tricking me into eating cat food – we’d form a three-person assembly line to get boxes from A to B.
On Sunday morning, Mom would be up at 3 a.m., on her way to the Saylorsburg flea market, where she’d park squarely between two big pine trees near the entrance. She then spent three hours unloading the pickup in the moonlight while her family slept soundly.
Me, my dad and my brother synched up with mom later in the day. By the time we got there, she already had experienced a handful of customer rushes. There she’d be, fanny pack on hip, face reddened from hours exposed to the sun, her long, red hair pulled back into a ponytail, wielding deals with customers.
She was there on Sundays so I didn’t have to be in daycare during the week. I have never known a babysitter, or set foot in a daycare, and that was a conscious effort by my parents. After her first-born, Mom chose to stop working as a nurse and raise the children while my dad drove concrete truck to financially support the family. It was a couple of years after I was born that my mom discovered an unconventional way to make money while “staying home” with the kids.
I was about 2 and my brother 4 when we first started going on yard-sale adventures with Mom. She and my dad first caught the “junk bug” after having helped aging Uncle Harold move from a house in the rural, wooded village of Gouldsboro to a high-rise apartment complex in Scranton in the early ’90s.
He needed help downsizing, the contents of which were my parents’ first venture into flea market vending. Mom said that the first time she pulled up to the spot, her car was swarmed. “I was the new girl on the block, not the same old dealer. By the end of the day I had sold out of everything.”
They gave the proceeds to Uncle Harold, and feeling the rush of it all, realized there is money to be made in the “junk world.”
The Grand Accumulation commenced. Mom went to yard sales on Friday mornings, and Dad joined her on Saturdays. Armed with curiosity, a keen eye, and a Kovels Antiques book, the family piled into a blue faux-wood paneled Oldsmobile and drove around the tri-county area in search of cool finds.
“The more you expose yourself to junk the better your eye for it becomes. You learn what is valuable and what isn’t,” Dad said. “And sometimes, you just get lucky.”
They tapped into the junking network long before American Pickers picked their first pick. On a good day at the flea market, Mom could clear more than a week’s pay at a 9-5.
Mom recalls that she paid $100 for a box of 1960s Barbies at a yard sale. She went home, researched, and took it to a dealer, who offered her $1,500 for the box. Apparently the Barbies’ clothes were worth more than the Barbies themselves. That’s one of many things I have learned from my momma: you never know what might bring a decent buck.
The dawn of eBay in the early 2000s changed everything in the junk scene. Appraisal of items – however accurate or skewed – could be conducted at your fingertips. You can see how much something has already been sold for, of which on several occasions has left my parents flabbergasted.
They once bought a 101 Scout speedometer from an old Indian motorcycle for $3 and ended up with a $900-something profit.
More recently, they picked up a box of old jacket patches at a yard sale for $2, of which contained an Order of the Arrow Boy Scout patch. Upon research Dad learned that the patch is from Tsisqan Lodge #253, located in Eugene, of all places. They ended up selling it for $260 to a fella in Independence, Ore.
“I almost passed out,” Dad said. “We didn’t know what they were worth. We just knew the old patches had to be worth something. As it turns out they were worth a lot more than we thought.”
My mom stayed home with my brother for 12 priceless years, until I entered middle school and she returned to work as a nurse. The love for junk never ceased, and remains a robust family activity.
When I go home to visit in the summer, a guarantee is that I’ll get a knock on my door on Saturday morning followed by an, “Erin, you up? We’re going saling.”
Erin Tierney is executive editor of The Chronicle.