Something that shouldn’t be there

I was standing in line to get a number for an estate sale this weekend–they’re what I do–and found myself standing a couple of people behind someone who talks too much.

I think some people talk because they want affirmation, and telling tales of what they’ve found is the way they get it. I’m very careful what I talk about, because I frequently see new people who look for exactly the same thing I look for, and if I just give away the knowledge I’ve spent years learning, it literally costs me money. But that’s not how a lot of people think, so if you keep your ears open, you can hear some good information.

This guy was bragging about how he found a primitive stone carving that turned out to be several hundred years old. I don’t remember if he said 400 or 600 years old, which probably means he said 600 and it was really 400–tales grow taller, you know–but it was worth hundreds of dollars. He sold it at auction for $60. He expressed regret, but then he said, “Then again, I only paid 25 cents for it at a garage sale.”

Then he grew deadly serious. “Always go to garage sales in this area. You’ll consistently find something that shouldn’t be there.”

“This area” will vary from region to region. But I’ve noticed the same thing he has. There are some zip codes that always have good stuff, and some zip codes that very rarely do. Demographics play into that, I think, but I think the presence of certain stores in an area do too. That time I found a desirable Amiga at a garage sale, it was in the very same zip code as the store that sold it.

Come to think of it, it was the same zip code that this guy was talking about.

Sometimes the people in the areas with the good stuff know what they have, and sometimes they don’t. But there are at least three possible scenarios. We’ll take that statue as an example, because I’ve seen all of this stuff happen.

The priceless relic priced at a quarter. That’s what happens when someone has no idea what they have, and they’re just trying to clear stuff out of a place. Sometimes they don’t even care what it is or what it’s worth, they just want it gone.

A high price, but still a bargain. Sometimes they do know what they have, but it’s easier to put it in a garage sale for less money than they could get selling it online so they don’t have to bother with shipping, and they also don’t have to deal with sales commissions. That Amiga I mentioned before was a prime example. She was willing to sell it for half price so she wouldn’t have to bother with all that.

Full price, or higher. I’ve also seen stuff priced far higher than it was worth. My favorite story is the time I found a Marx 552 gondola at a garage sale. It was in pretty nice shape. I didn’t really need one, but they’re worth about 10 bucks, and I figured if I could get one at a garage sale price, why not? So I asked about it. “It’s a Marx,” he said. I nodded. “How much are you asking?” I asked. “Fifty,” he said. So I started reaching into my pocket to see if I had two quarters. “I saw one for a hundred on Ebay,” he added.

Umm, no he didn’t. I’ll eat a used oil filter if that guy can prove to me one of those sold for 50 bucks on Ebay, because there’s never any shortage of them available for 10. And there never has been. It’s probably the second-most common Marx car in existence.

But sometimes people are even more blatant about it. They’ll go find the item on Ebay, print it out in full color, and display the listing next to their item. I’ll give them a little more credit for correctly identifying the item, but my bad news for these people is that a few hundred people will come to their garage sale on that given Saturday. Ebay is a much larger venue.

I heard another estate sale regular a few weeks ago blast that practice, rattling off several things in rapid succession that sell for $300 online, but that he can’t resell for $50 in St. Louis.

And he’s right. While St. Louis has an insatiable appetite for almost anything related to the Cardinals or Budweiser, the market for other things is flooded, and it will sell for more online than it will ever sell locally.

So I have two takeaways for you. Maybe three. One is to pay attention to what other people are saying while you’re waiting around. You’ll learn some good stuff. Then try to put those tips to use, to see how good or bad they might be.

But the other thing is to be very careful what you’re saying. I know some people who used to make a good living by reselling Saturday-morning finds. Then too many people learned their secrets, and while they still seem to be doing OK, they’re definitely not making what they used to make.

In the computer security field, we talk about operations security, or OPSEC. Your trade secrets are your very most valuable asset. Once your competitors know all the same things you know, you lose your competitive advantage.

The guy telling anyone who would listen where he finds his good stuff wasn’t practicing good OPSEC. I know he wasn’t lying, either, because I followed him around for an hour–unintentionally–this morning. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t looking for the stuff I was.

The guy who rattled off that list of stuff he can only sell for $50 in St. Louis wasn’t practicing good OPSEC either. Turn it around. He gave me a list of things he looks for that I can expect will cost me $50 or less in St. Louis, but that I could sell for six times as much online.

It pays not to get caught up in the moment and not give away years of hard-won knowledge in the course of about 30 seconds.

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