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Yard sale junkies

Shoppers stream to these unpredictable bazaars for all kinds of reasons, but whether folks are out to earn a buck or save one, most acknowledge that the satisfaction of a good deal has an addictive quality.

Florence Rush trained a practiced eye along tables full of bric-a-brac _ endless rows of toys, old appliances, never-used impulse buys from infomercials and books galore. She stopped to admire a small angel-shaped vase of iridescent pink.

"I could give it to someone for Christmas," she told her grown daughter, Elizabeth Cottrell, her shopping partner on a recent Saturday morning.

Cottrell had heard this before. "You have a lot of vases, Mom," she said.

Rush shrugged. "At a garage sale, you don't buy what you need. You just buy," she said to everyone within earshot at this small yard sale in St. Petersburg's Jungle neighborhood. In less than two hours, she would hit four sales within five square miles, spending less than $10 and saving probably three times that much.

It's a ritual she and thousands of others perform on weekends in the Tampa Bay area: Call them garage sales or yard sales; they're a relaxing way to spend a morning, meet the neighbors and save a buck. Other people's cast-offs can clothe fast-growing kids, furnish a starter house or add to a collection.

"Everyone likes feeling like they're finding treasures no one else can find. We all like saving money and feeling we're getting a good deal," said Cathy Pedigo, author of How to Have Big Money Garage Sales. She estimates that 60-million Americans go to garage sales each year.

It's such a popular pastime that it has gone cyber. Witness the popularity of Internet trading posts such as e-Bay (http://www.ebay.com) _ which claims it has sold nearly 2-million items and is adding 250,000 more every day _ and upstarts like http://www.yardsales-usa.com, which categorizes by item, state and ZIP code.

Still, for many people, e-commerce doesn't equal the thrill of handling an object before making a decision, all that friendly haggling, and the sense of community that comes with getting to know the people behind the For Sale sign.

There are those who occasionally pull over for a huge sale, and those who live for the thud of the Saturday paper in the driveway. It's these self-confessed junkies who are your true competition in the road race from one hand-lettered Day-Glo sign to another. And you can learn a lot from them.

"It's like a game," says St. Petersburg resident Ruth Holbrook. "It's almost addictive to see what deals you can find."

Holbrook and her husband, Earl, have been active in the yard sale and flea market circuit for 20 years. Their best find: an antique three-wheel bicycle they bought for $500, and resold for $1,500.

Who's looking for bargains? It's not just curious neighbors; dealers of antiques and collectibles are among the first at a seller's doorstep.

Jim Henderson, a dealer in antique glass, scours yard and estate sales for items he can resell at his booth in St. Petersburg's Gas Plant Antique Arcade.

"I've bought $150 pieces of Rockwood (a rare pottery) for 15 cents," he said. "The people didn't know what it was."

If you want to compete with the dealers, be forewarned: Many sellers resent early arrivals.

"I was cutting my lawn yesterday, the day my ad ran," said Linda Boyette of St. Petersburg, during her yard sale on a recent Saturday. "And some woman drove by very slowly and asked if she could see my stuff. I was all sweaty and dirty and just told her to go on ... I haven't seen her here today."

Alice Tilton of Raleigh, N.C., a yard sale regular and frequent bay area visitor, summed it up this way: "Early birds are like people who come early to a dinner party while you're vacuuming and your hair's in curlers. It's annoying."

Many dealers disagree.

"The dealer is your best customer," says Sarah Caldwell, who buys from yard sales to help stock her store, Clearwater's Pack Rat Corner. "People might not believe it, but it's true. It's a good way to get rid of things right off the bat."

Okay, so showing up too early may not win you friends. But how late is too late? Many say mid-morning is peak time.

"The best yard sales are over, at the very latest, by 10 o'clock," said Elin Fontana of Pinellas Park, a porcelain dealer at Gas Plant Antique Arcade.

Others say you get good deals at the end of the sale, when people are desperate to get rid of things. Earl Holbrook often arrives at opening time and buys what's reasonably priced, and then makes offers on items that he thinks are overpriced.

"I'll give the people my card and say, "If you don't sell this by the end of the day, I'll take it off your hands for X number of dollars,' " Holbrook said. "I get a lot of good deals that way."

The art of haggling also sparks debate. Some buyers simply pass on overpriced items, while others automatically ask for discounts. Some sellers are happy to play the game, but others are put off by nitpicking over a few cents. It all goes back to what yard sales are all about. What is an item worth to you?

"Don't ever be afraid to bargain," insisted Caldwell. "No guts, no glory. You've got to have guts."

Cathy Pedigo always builds "haggle room" into her prices. "That way I can come down a little bit and still feel I've made enough to justify the effort that goes into a garage sale," she said.

It all goes back to the official yard sale cliche: One person's junk is another's treasure. While hitting the sales with her mother, Elizabeth Cottrell talked one woman into shaving a dollar off two how-to books. Yet Cottrell rarely quibbles over the prices of used baby clothes and toys for her 3-month-old daughter, Katie. At 10 cents to $1 per item, they're already a bargain, she said.

"I just pop them in the washing machine or the dishwasher to sanitize them, and they work just as well as the new stuff, but for a lot less," said Cottrell, who lives in Mobile, Ala.

In the end, Florence Rush put back the opalescent angel vase that caught her eye. Instead, she focused on practical items for her husband and 20 grandchildren: a travel iron for $1, a toddler warm-up suit for 50 cents, a Braun coffeemaker with a broken switch for $5 ("I like fixing things"), two glass butter-dish tops for $1, a 10-cent sipping cup for her younger grandchildren, and a Lucite-and-wood bread box for $1.

"Sometimes you hit the jackpot and sometimes you don't," she said. "The good thing is, there's always next week."

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