Carrying a wicker picnic basket and rolled-up bamboo mat on a sunny Saturday, Brigitte Simsa looks as if she's heading to the beach. But the 48-year-old elementary-school teacher is actually on her way home from a Rosedale garage sale, where she snagged both items for $23 after showing up late, chatting about the weather and bartering down the $30 price tag. "I am a garage-sale addict," she says. "I'm trying to cut down, actually. Once you start shopping this way, it's hard to go back."
Garage-sale-going is a Toronto ritual, and the city's character shows up on people's front lawns each summer. Neighbours show off their old clothes, chat in their own style - and haggle, too, never mind the city's polite reputation. "Toronto treats haggling like a sport," says Marlene Cook, an avid garage saler and organizer of the Sunday Antique Show at the St. Lawrence Market. "They are aggressive, they will point out the flaws of your belongings and push you to cut your prices in half. It's the most distinct thing about our city's garage sales."
After all, everybody wants a bargain, and they reveal a lot about themselves in the process, from the early birds out before the sun comes up to the groupies that hang around at closing time. Touring garage sales over the past month has given us portraits of a few neighbourhoods - showing how low we will go for that dented toaster, those toddler Tommy overalls or a leather handbag to hold the savings.
Under the big leafy trees lining the wide streets of Roncesvalles, renovation crews and Geoby strollers signal the arrival of young, educated professionals; and on garage sale days, thirtysomething moms share sidewalks with grandmothers such as Milena Kvasnic, who has been living here since it first became a Polish enclave. Mostly, it's the new crowd buying from the old - like at Ms. Kvasnic's garage sale on a recent Saturday morning. Vintage treasures see daylight for the first time in decades, such as old leather suitcases for $10 or a 1950s baby carriage for $20. She says things have changed with the crowd. "It was better before," Ms. Kvasnic says. "The prices were lower and people bartered more." Instead of haggling prices down, some buyers, such as Randy Kozma, find other ways to get deals. Seeking the best price, he hits up the youngest member at one family sale. "How about $2?" he asks 21-year-old Elia Morrison, pointing to a chunky oak chair and red T-shirt, to which Mr. Morrison shrugs his shoulders and replies, "Sure."
Amid the semi-detached homes and concrete porches of Little Italy, friendly neighbours won't let pedestrians pass without at least a nod. The garage-sale browsers are a varied crowd: hung-over hipsters groaning on their way to brunch and young mothers yakking on their cellphones in Portuguese. Instead of picking out a few polyester dresses from front patios, many are filling garbage bags to mail overseas. One couple pulls up in a minivan and cleans out 34-year-old Joel Brubacher's garage sale of clothes and furniture by 10 a.m., leaving him with just novels and boots on his lawn. Later, Stephanie Varo, a mother of two, reports hearing a sob story from a buyer stuffing three bags with her children's Tommy Hilfiger, Baby Gap and Roots garb. "He said he was shipping it to an orphanage in Europe, and told me all about these underprivileged kids," says Ms. Varo, 32. She was skeptical, she says, but gave in: "I just gave him everything for $50." Maybe that's because Ms. Varo is also keeping her relatives in mind. Pointing to the last pile of children's clothes she is selling for 50 cents apiece, she says, "The stuff I don't sell today, I'll mail to Italy."
The sidewalks are packed on Saturday mornings in Leaside - spandex-clad speed walkers, iPod-wired teens and coffee-pumped young professionals peek into early-bird sales as bleary-eyed homeowners drag out bins of ties, dress shirts and Osgoode Hall visors. The roads are just as busy. Minivans, Subarus and Jeeps fight for spots as if at the mall, getting as close to front doors as possible. On one driveway, a vintage Fender guitar amp sits pretty for $300, while Nine West handbags are priced at $10 apiece - until seasoned early bird Marie Ward pounces on them. After complimenting the seller on her garden and what good condition her items are in, Ms. Ward picks up a boxful and then balks at the price she's offered: $25. "Are you for real? I don't even have that on me, right, David?" says Ms. Ward, 75, nudging her son through her hand-knit sweater. The seller, Alexandra Sleightholm, 26, caves. "Okay, fine - $20," she says.
In Rosedale, the money may be old, but it's young professionals who are selling. Sales here are rare but large, and move at a genteel pace. Starting as late as 11 a.m., both buyers and sellers are willing to wait for a deal. With classical radio set to a low hum, couples in flip-flops and khaki shorts sip tea, clearing honeymoon gifts from overstuffed closets. "How much for this, sir?" asks 58-year-old librarian Angelo Rao, holding up a wine encyclopedia with no price. "Give me $5," replies Alex Hoyck, 37, who is also selling how-to money guides. In the end, Mr. Rao walks away with an armful of wine and travel books for $20 at noon after letting his puppy Maggie play with Hudson, Mr. Hoyck's honey lab. "People say you need to be an early bird, but they're wrong," Mr. Rao says. "Stick around late in the day to get the real deals. They're just giving the stuff away."
Garage sale etiquette
Don't: Slash prices in half - "$50? How's $25?" is more likely to get you an irked seller than a sale.
Do: Be reasonable - If a rug is going for $15, try for $10, or just ask, "What's your best price for this?"
Don't: Point out scratches, dents, or stains.
Do: Fish for a number. "What's the best you can do on these?" is one way of getting a good price on a few things.
Don't: Bring a sob story about your empty pockets.
Do: Be polite and friendly, as if the sale is secondary to the chat. "It's all in the approach," says antique dealer Martin Augsten. "Everyone likes a pleasant sale."