Common Ground

Miami garage sales are much more than shopping sprees for bargain hunters. They're also racial and ethnic safety zones where people can freely mix and mingle.

Besides, he's making ends meet with the electronics. "I used to be a cab driver, but I had surgery about six months ago, so now I just do this." His experience as a taxi driver gives him an edge on the competition. "The best sales are on Miami Beach and in the Gables," he volunteers. "The streets in those places have names. No numbers. Makes them harder to find." For everybody else, that is.

Garage sale entrepreneurs who, like Henry, specialize in reselling reconditioned equipment, usually are reluctant to discuss the particulars of their trade with the press. I know because at another sale, a sixtysomething Hispanic man with whom I struck up a casual conversation began telling me how he made the trip from Fort Lauderdale to Miami every week, looking for lawnmowers and weed eaters. When I told him I was writing a feature on garage sales and asked him his name -- just his first name -- he jumped into his battered blue Toyota pickup and started to drive away. How about calling me at the office? "I don't own a phone," he told me. And he was gone. Just a guess, but his sudden reticence may have had something to do with the fact that few, if any, of these resellers report this supplemental income to the government.

Of course this doesn't distinguish them much from the people who sell to them every week. Stephen Soiffer, a dean at New York City Technical College who has studied the phenomenon, estimates that approximately four billion dollars changes hands every year at garage sales. But because tax laws allow individuals to make several hundred dollars from these sales before they are required to report the money as income, Uncle Sam ultimately sees very little. Hell, the old boy doesn't even hear about most of it.

Not all revved up: Some sellers may have mixed feelings about letting their stuff go
Steve Satterwhite
Not all revved up: Some sellers may have mixed feelings about letting their stuff go
Not all revved up: Some sellers may have mixed feelings about letting their stuff go
Steve Satterwhite
Not all revved up: Some sellers may have mixed feelings about letting their stuff go

Still not everyone who refuses to talk to a reporter at one of these events is hiding from the tax man. Some are just trying to cut down on the competition. One antique dealer -- the woman who just a little while ago had been peering into the house -- asks me what I'm doing with a pad and pencil. I tell her. "Oh, I don't think I can talk about what I see." She's joking. I think. She decides she's waited out here too long, that there are buys elsewhere, and retreats to her car.

On her way to better pickings, she stops in front of the house and rolls down the window on her silver minivan. Are you writing down what I said? she wants to know. "Please don't write down what I say. I don't want any more people coming to these." Just then she recognizes a couple of other dealers arriving on the scene. "He's writing a story for New Times," she warns them, before speeding away. "He wrote down what I said."

"I'm sorry about yesterday," she'll tell me the next morning, when I spot her at the Lincoln Road antique market. "But you know, I'm out of my house every Saturday at six in the morning, and still I come back with nothing."

The complaint is a common one among antique dealers who used to score big at weekly garage sales. Now, they say, everyone's a dealer. Everybody goes to garage sales, watches The Antiques Roadshow on PBS, and sells directly to collectors on eBay.

They're not just paranoid. "I see eBay as a virtual garage sale," says Mary Rodriguez, a Key Biscayne housewife who buys and sells antique jewelry on the Web. "Before I started going to garage sales, I would go to antique stores. Then I started seeing the dealers I was buying from at the garage sales."

The proliferation of self-styled experts has done more than just increase competition in the antique business. It's eliminated a major source of merchandise.

People at garage sales used to put out boxes filled with everything from Fiesta ware and Depression glass to old comic books and tin wind-up toys -- things that had been purchased cheaply years before, and that sellers were just looking to get rid of for a couple of bucks. Now most people operate from the premise that almost everything they have, if it's old enough, is worth money. Or, better yet, is a collectible. There's very little that qualifies as junk anymore. The result? Even when good pieces find their way into a garage sale, the profit margin on the resale has been whittled down to almost nothing by the asking price.

The antique dealers, though, still make their rounds. Every Saturday morning they linger on lawns across town, optimists to the end.

There are half a dozen of them in front of the yellow house in the Shores. Almost all know one another. They chat or go over their carefully annotated list of garage sale listings from that day's Miami Herald. A few, thinking of the other 9:00 a.m. sales they'd like to check out, stand with their arms crossed, in the universal sign for Let's get this show on the road.

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