From Trash to Treasure: Inside Long Island’s Garage Sale Subculture

garage sale
Shoppers sort through assorted random second-hand household items during a garage sale.

By Samuel Paul

Caroline Arguell followed the hand-written signs leading her to an estate sale at a home on a typical suburban side street in Bellmore on a recent Friday morning and gleefully started sorting through the knickknacks, furniture and other random second-hand items.

Other deal-seekers young and old joined her in waking up early to dig through the unwanted contents of strangers’ attics, chatting casually with one another while searching for something valuable. Some join such hunts in the hope of finding something worth reselling. Many are lifelong regulars at similar sales, forming a seasonal subculture of shoppers hopping from sale to sale once the warm weather arrives—buying everything from electronics to antiques.

“Somebody’s junk is somebody [else’s] treasure,” said Arguell, 40, who didn’t find anything worth buying that day, but enjoyed the thrill of the hunt regardless. After 35 years of repeating this ritual, she ponders reselling some of her finds at a garage sale of her own—but not just yet. “I was just driving and I saw this bright sign [advertising the sale] and I said: ‘Oh my God let’s go to this estate sale!’”

Estate sales, tag sales, yard sales, moving sales and garage sales are virtually all the same thing. The only difference may be the location or the reason for the sale. Estate sales tend to take place indoors with people freely walking around the house and buying what they like. Moving sales, as the term suggests, are held when the seller is moving, as opposed to a typical tag sale, when someone is selling off unwanted items after spring cleaning.

The buyers, too, come in all shapes and sizes. During the sale in Bellmore, some were wearing jean shorts. Others wore tucked-in dress shirts, slacks and dress shoes.

“Everybody is looking for their own special treasure,” said Bryan Reif, who operates lisaler.com, a local yard sale directory website. “It’s basically a treasure hunt.”

Reif suspects that many people who live on LI don’t attend these sales. Those that do see each other at these sales often get to know each other after awhile, he added. The majority of tag-sale regulars, like him, have been doing so for most of their lives.

Reif was nearing the end of his postal service career when he started to wonder about what he would do with his free time after retirement. So, he turned his passion for garage sales into a business. He launched his website, painted his car to advertise it and now he runs the online sale directory.

“What’s great about the sales is [that] hard-to-find items and things that you can’t really buy, like ivory or turtle shells, things like these, are available at these types of sales,” he said.

Tag sale shoppers simply can't drive by a sign like this without stopping.
Tag sale shoppers simply can’t drive by a sign like this without stopping.

Within these nomadic markets, just about anything can be bought or sold. Items regularly found include old VCRs, laundry detergent, mattresses and video game systems. Shoppers can rummage through old dusty Motown record players one moment, then go through the kitchen cabinet the next. Dining room sets can be bought, so can living room sets.

“You find random stuff that’s pretty cheap,” said 23-year-old photographer Christian Patallo, who didn’t plan on attending any sales that day, but saw a sign and decided to check one out. “I’ve actually bought a camera for $1 that’s actually [worth] $300. You always find something cheap.”

Each tag sale shopper seems to be hunting for a specific item. Some people look for clothes while other people look for jewelry. Cameras are Patallo’s interest, but since there was none at this sale, he lost interest.

Some homes neatly label and organize items that are for sale. Others leave shoppers to hunt through piles. Surprisingly, such messes do little too much to hinder shoppers—a select few prefer it that way.

Reif and Liz Pisano, a mother who has been a lifelong tag sale shopper, call themselves “diggers.” They love looking through these messes. Reif religiously carried his flashlight for just such an occasion.

“Either you’re disgusted by it, or you love it,” said Pisano as Reif laughed in agreement.

The tattoo on Reif’s arm peeked out as he crawled through a dimly lit messy basement, trying to find some treasure in a Bethpage home that looked like it was hit by a tornado. Like a scene straight out of the popular History Channel show American Pickers, both Pisano and Reif crawled through, flipping items over to discover and sort through more random stuff below. Reif left empty-handed, but Pisano found a handful of items ranging from decorations to clothes.

“The tough part is when you run out of arms to shop,” joked Pisano. “That’s why I try to bring my kids, but they don’t come. I guess it skips a generation.”

It’s scenes like these that actually discourage some people from going through a stranger’s home to shop.

Bryan Reif, who runs a Long Island yard sale directory website, hunts for treasures at with fellow shopper Liz Pisano.
Bryan Reif, who runs a Long Island yard sale directory website, hunts for treasures at with Mona Scavo, owner of Tag Sales by Mona.

“Some people wouldn’t even consider going to a yard sale, or having one,” said Reif. “When I hand out my business card and I talk to people, sometimes [the] response was, ‘Ha! I would never think of having one!’ Or somebody else may say, ‘I’ll just throw it out.’”

Reif recalls seeing a print cartoon that read: “Garbage Sale” instead of “Garage Sale,” reflecting the idea that many people are disgusted with the thought of buying used household items.

“I don’t think people are that aware of the great deals and things they can find in these estate and tag sales,” said Reif.

Sometimes people hold sales to get rid of as many items as they can. Otto Loewy is planning to move from LI to Florida. When he contacted a moving company to find out how much it would cost to ship everything, he was startled to hear that it would cost him $17,000. That’s when he decided to hire a tag sale company to lighten—and cheapen—the load by selling off as much as he could.

“It’s cheaper to sell it than to ship it,” he said. “We felt [that] the best thing to do would be to try to sell.”

It can be a hassle to sell and organize virtually every item in a home. For a percentage of the total sales, tag sales companies advertise the sale, label, organize and sell as many items as they can. Homeowners can also leave their abode for the entire day while the sale is in process.

Not everyone who attends these sales intend to keep the items they purchase. Some buy items at these sales at a low price and resell them later in order to make a profit.

“Most of the people that I have become familiar with are people who would flip the items,” said Reif. “There’s like a whole subculture, whole small population of people that go to these sales and resell. I bet you it’s at least 50 percent.”

A tag sale may not be enticing to everyone, but for yard-sale fanatics, the element of surprise is enough to keep them shopping as long as the weather stays nice enough for such events.

“You really don’t know what to expect,” said Reif. “Anything is game. That’s the beauty of it. You never know what you’re going to find. It’s a crap shoot.”