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Treasure hunt

Out of my second-floor window I could see a garage sale taking shape just across the street. It was obvious, early on, that something unusual was afoot when the neighbors moved all three of their vehicles out of the driveway and parked them at curbside around the corner. Sure enough, it wasn't long before a stream of castoff clothes and what-not spewed forth from the house to take their places in the early morning air. A positive garden of skirts and shirts and jackets and jeans suddenly bloomed along the fence, and tablesful of housewares shot forward from the gloom of the garage into the open sunlight.

I suppose my neighbors must have advertised, or put up signs a day or two before on telephone poles and trees: ''Such-and-such for Sale, Thurs. Thru Sat., from 9 a.m. til ??'' I didn't see the ad or notice any signs, but others certainly did: the first-day shoppers were popping out of their cars by 8:57 a.m., all but tripping over one another in their rush to have first pick. As I say, there was probably an ad; but I sometimes wonder if the most intrepid yard sale devotees don't just cruise around, beginning at dawn, sniffing the air for the telltale scent of Backdoor Bargains. They zero in on them with all the fervor and instinct of a well-trained bird dog.

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And it isn't just yard sales. Flea markets seem to tap the same nerve in the most devoted shoppers. One would like to think the full flowering of this affection for other people's flotsam and jetsam was the sign of a renaissance of virtues: thrift, recycling, making do, and so on. And perhaps there is a streak of Moral Refurbishment running through all this secondhand getting and spending. But I can't help suspecting there's less to all this than meets the eye of economy.

Surely some of the scouring of flea markets and garage sales is just a form of deep-sea salvage for landlubbers, simple treasure-hunting minus the risk. And some of this fondness for combing through other people's junk must be idle curiosity about the contents of other people's closets, cupboards, shelves and cellars: you can't go poking around in them as a house guest, but once their contents are spread across the lawn . . . .

Some buyers, surely, are just easy prey to anything that glitters; others are doubtless attracted to anything that retains a hint of utility, however remote. And I have a suspicion that at least some of the haunting of garage sales is just a way of avoiding the dusting and scrubbing of the things one already owns. It's an escape from the breakfast dishes masquerading as a search after the ineffable.

For the more serious-minded few, of course, the backyard supermarket is simply the only possible place to find those items no one bothers to manufacture anymore; it's the Shopping-Center-of-Last-Resort for an old cast-iron whatchamacallit or a genuine ceramic thingummy. And if what you really need is a genuine ceramic thingummy, you haven't any choice but to squelch your self-consciousness about genteel scavenging and to join these latter-day Viking hordes on their let's-have-a-look-and-see-faring quests.

I confess I was a little tempted to walk across the street myself and have a look at what my neighbors could do without. But the truth is, I already have half a dozen genuine ceramic thingummies and a wide assortment of cast-iron whatchamacallits - and no earthly need for any of them. What I should have done, perhaps, was to dig them out of the basement or the attic and trot across to my neighbor's sale, adding them to the castoffs already on display.

I'd have done it, too, if I'd only been a little more certain I had the strength to come home empty-handed.

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