Get Rid of the Stuff
Margaret, April 3, 2004

I have been thinking about reducing the amount of stuff I have for some time, so when the army station where I work announced it was going to include a flea market as part of its shutting-down festival, I jumped at the chance. I woke up at the very reasonable time of 9:00am on the first Saturday of April. The weather forecast had indicated light rain, but I was keeping my fingers crossed as I loaded several boxes of “another person’s treasure” into the car. (Figuratively; the boxes would have been difficult to carry if I had literally had my fingers crossed.)

The only flea market I’d ever been to before was about a year ago. During my three-month hotel stay, before I really knew anyone in Germany, I’d often spend my Saturdays out walking in town, browsing the stores, watching the people. One day there were lots of advertisements for a flea market the next day, so I took the opportunity to see what was it was like. The market filled the parking lot of the local grocery store, which was closed, as it was Sunday. People thronged in from all directions, and I was glad to be on my bike, not having to contend with the automobile traffic. When I got there I began to make my way along the aisles, glancing at the wares for sale: here some old clothing, there some old-looking china, here some old LP’s, there some children’s toys. It all looked like a lot of junk to me. I didn’t stay long.

So then here I was about to take my own junk and try to sell it to the masses. I wasn’t hugely optimistic; after all, I, myself, wouldn’t buy most of the stuff I was trying to get rid of. But I had a few items that I was fairly certain would sell: an air-powered nerf ball gun that I had come away with at a Christmas swap at work one year, a box of legos, a combination lock. And who knew? There must be some truth to the old adage. I hoped.

My items came mainly from what I have always referred to as my “junk drawer”, except that it isn’t really a drawer; it’s a box. I’m always stumbling across things that, you know, could be useful someday. To someone. On the other side of the planet. When Venus and Mars are aligned. But, you know, I can’t just throw it away. So it goes into the junk drawer. And occasionally, very occasionally, I do need something from the junk drawer: oh, hey! I just know I have miniature plastic clothespins in here somewhere… I figured that by limiting myself to this one box, at least, I wouldn’t save everything that came along. It’s worked pretty well.

Aside from the junk drawer, a bunch of the items were gifts, and this made it a little hard to justify selling them. I was amazed at how much just a little emotional attachment meant. Most of these gifts were knick-knacks – things people had brought back from trips for me, some stocking stuffers, small birthday gifts from people who felt obligated to get me something for one reason or another. And since I associated a friend or relative with each one, it felt a bit guilty about getting rid of the thing. But then, if I kept them all, I’d have to start a new junk drawer.

I drove into the entrance of the army base and spotted a group of people – mostly women – setting up tables in a parking lot. I pulled into a spot, got out of the car, and looked around. I didn’t see anyone who looked like they were organizing the market, which seemed a little odd. I had signed up only a couple days before by calling an American woman on base who had said that they had something like 40 spaces and that only 30 of them were reserved, so sure, I could have a space. She had said that set-up was at 10:00am, that no tables were provided, and that I couldn’t sell anything over $50 owing to the military agreement with Germany. Well, there I was at 10:05, and there was no one to assign me to a space. So I just started setting up – pulled the small folding table out of the car and began littering its surface with the things I had brought.

And as I did, I looked at the other sellers. Their tables weren’t like the bulky heavy one I brought; instead, the tops were detachable slabs of wood, and the bottoms folded up clothes-dryer style to fit into small cars. The sellers then just slipped pretty tablecloths across the ugly tops and set up shop. Hey, wait a minute, I thought, looking around. These things don’t look like regular garage-sale items: chinaware, old paintings, jar after jar of fig preserves from Mallorca. And, hmm, I only hear German being spoken. Man, these guys are Flohmarktprofis! They’re professionals! No matter, I thought; I have a niche market: all my stuff is going to be cheap.

And then my neighbor seller mentioned to me, “you know, I think the Americans are inside,” meaning inside the security fence. It made sense, in that there certainly were no Americans here. But I had already set up half a table. “Do you think there’s space here?” I asked. “Yeah, sure,” she said motioning around. “There’s plenty of room.” Me: “Okay, then. I’ll stay here.” And I did. Which was good, because the buyers started coming almost immediately. The American flea market, inside the fence, wasn’t scheduled to begin until noon, and as it turned out, I made the majority of my sales in the first two hours.

As I continued to load up the table, an older man came up to it, glanced over the things available, and picked up a couple of small key-ring-style carabineers. “How much for these?” he asked. Oh, man. I wasn’t ready for this yet; I was still setting up! I had planned to watch my neighbors to see how the whole flea-market bargaining etiquette worked. Okay, no matter. A euro each. He nodded, and looked down again. “And these?” he picked up a couple metal pulleys I had picked up for an eighth-grade science project. Also a euro each. Another nod. He got out his change purse, handed me a five, and I returned a euro coin. Wow. Ten past ten and I had already made €4. Not bad.

Almost immediately another older man came up to me, wanting to know if I had any old items. Nope, no antiques here. “Ah, ja, you are young, so you have young things.” And with a smile, he was gone. My next customer was even younger than I am; a boy came and glanced into the boxes still in the car, saw a koosh ball, and pulled it out. Then he realized there was another under it and pulled it out too. Soon he had them all, nine in total. And a squishy ball. And my old hacky-sack from high school. “How much for all of them?” he indicated the pile of projectiles. I made another sale.

Finally I got everything out on the table, with larger things on the ground to one side. And the first couple hours were busy. I made my mantra “get rid of the stuff,” and I’m sure I was a horrible bargainer. The first group, the bargain hunters, paid what I asked. But soon, my prices were challenged. How much for this box? “One euro,” I’d say. “Fifty cents,” I’d get counter-offered. Yeah, okay. Get rid of the stuff. Get rid of the stuff. I found that some people would bargain, and others would just walk away if the price was too high. I quickly learned to tell the buyers from the browsers. Buyers would face the table, look through things. Browsers’ bodies continued facing the direction they were walking, just the head swiveling to examine the wares. The buyers were sometimes very eager; they’d see something and snatch it up. “How much?” came almost immediately. I could ask for a higher price. Others were more thoughtful; I could see them deciding if they really wanted it or not. Their “how much?” was more tentative, as if the price really would be the deciding factor. Lower price.

And the kids. I got all the kids. Not surprising as about half my “junk” consisted of toys, games, and brightly colored items like pens and jewelry and stickers. The nerf gun was, as I expected, popular. I sold it, along with some costume jewelry, for €4. A small orange toy that made noises when its various buttons were pressed was also popular, but no one seemed interested in actually buying it. Finally a girl, maybe ten, did. And she was a good bargainer. Many of the older kids were good bargainers; after all they had only a few euros to spend. And almost all of my toys went for between fifty cents and a euro. (By the way, “fifty cents” is almost a tongue twister in German: fünfzig cent. Say that three times fast.) But selling to the kids made me happy about getting rid of many of the gifts. I knew by the wide eyes on the boy’s face that the toy bulldozer had found a much more meaningful place than in my junk drawer. (It had previously been given to me by a friend as part of a joke.)

And though I hate to say it, people acted pretty stereotypically. The older men, the farmers, came and rummaged through the things on the left side of the table, where I had put various pieces of random hardware, old Xacto knives, rolls of wire, etc. The older women came, and stopped to look at the extra bicycles saddles I was selling (not wide enough), and the ball of yarn. I have no idea why I’ve been carrying around a skein of yarn all these years, but I have. The first woman wanted to know if that was all I had. Yeah, sorry; you could make something very small. A look as if to say that I was almost funny, and she moved on. But the next older woman bought it. After that, they passed me over. The kids focused, of course, on the toys. The mothers browsed the fancy pencils and specialty notepads. The younger men went right for the extra keyboard and speakers, and a gang of three of them stayed a little longer to find the hole-punch, metal ruler, and pack of normal unused pencils.

But there were some oddities too. I got a good feel, almost right away, of the various categories things fell into: first, interesting and would probably be bought. These items were often picked up, studied, and put down again, usually to buy something else. Many of the toys fell in this category as the kids searched for the best prize. Second, too interesting, puzzling, and probably would not be bought. This included my Camelback backpack that is designed to hold a Camelback bladder for use while bike riding. No one had any idea what it was. After explaining it half a dozen times, I put in the car; no one was going to buy it. Third, not worth even picking up. I didn’t have much hope for these items. That is, I didn’t have much hope until the first oddity.

A middle aged woman and her friend came up and started visually rummaging through my things. She homed in on four thimble-size ceramic pots I had bought at a crafts store for a model in a set-design course in college. And I had decided early on that if anyone showed any interest in them, they could just have them; better to give them to someone who might find a use for them than to throw them out. How much? Kostenlos. Free. The woman handed me a fifty-cent piece anyway. She then picked up a chain that no one had even touched before. “How much?” Get rid of the stuff. Get rid of the stuff. Twenty cents. She handed me another fifty-cent piece and stopped me as I went to make change. “Keep it.” Wow, okay. Her friend laughed: “she’s going to take everything!” Fine with me.

My seller-neighbor came over after a few hours. “It looks like you’re selling quite a bit.” Sales were not so good for the rest of the market, where the sellers were actually looking to make a profit, and not just get rid of stuff. I overheard one seller across the way say to another, “only three euros today.” The second agreed that business was bad. But then, she was selling a felt hat for €80. (The hat was authentic and worth €130 and…  I heard the spiel often enough.) Different league entirely. These Profis were willing to pass up a sale when too little was offered. Not me. That? That costs one euro. “Fifty cents.” Seventy cents. “Fifty cents.” Okay, fine. On only a few items that I knew could sell at a higher price that day did I say no to buyers’ low bids. The Profis would have other flea markets to hawk at. And really, they couldn’t complain. Normally the organizer of a flea market charges a fee (about €10 in my area) for setting up a table. This one was free, as I explained to my seller-neighbor. “Doch!” No really, I insisted. The army was trying to help army families with a garage sale; they weren’t looking to make a profit. So nothing lost but time.

The flea market was like a bag of microwave popcorn. Once things got rolling, the sales fell on top of each other. Then they gradually decreased in frequency, until, at about 2:30pm, there was at least ten to fifteen minutes of nothing but browsers. What did the bag say? The popcorn is finished when the time between pops is more than ten seconds. I packed up the remaining non-selling items, some of which surprised me, most of which did not. I took a brief swing through the American flea market inside the fence, and saw that I hadn’t missed anything there. Most of the items for sale were infant and children’s clothing, old books, and old toys. It didn’t look like much had been sold inside the fence either.

As for me, I pocketed about €75 ($90), which, considering that I wanted to get rid of the stuff anyway, made it a great success – a pretty amazing success too, considering that most of my things went for a euro or less. I had come with five full boxes, and left with only one and a half. I had, in fact, gotten rid of the stuff.