By Lise Funderburg
May 31, 2009
LIFE IS FULL OF TOUGH CALLS. Do you buy the cookie jar shaped like a moonshine jug, the orphan computer cable, or the bucket of fresh tomatoes picked at summer’s peak? These are the choices you might encounter along the U.S. 127 Corridor Sale, better known as the World’s Longest Yard Sale (WLYS), a four-day, 654-mile annual extravaganza that stretches from Ohio to Alabama along a single road.
The WLYS started in 1987 to bring traffic from the interstate back to the slower, more scenic highway. Now in its 22nd year, the sale runs from West Unity, Ohio, south to Chattanooga, Tenn., then switches to Lookout Mountain Parkway and ends in Gadsden, Ala. It always begins on the first Thursday in August.
Thousands of amateur and professional vendors participate, laying down items that range from trash to treasure on tables and blankets in driveways and parking lots, playgrounds and roadsides. One family’s yard will look like the garage exploded onto it, while another’s has every item carefully priced, folded, and stacked.
Thousands more come to buy. Last year, my sister Margaret and I—both of us raised on thrift shops and porch sales—were among them. With Chattanooga as our base, we planned to cover as much ground as possible in two-and-a-half days. One day, we’d go south to hit Georgia and Alabama. The next, we’d head north, determined to get at least as far as Jamestown, Tenn., the town that first dreamed up the sale.
Late Friday, Day 1, just before sunset, a winding mountain road takes us to the town of Walden, where we stop at a church lawn covered with dozens of tables and makeshift booths. Several people sell classic American pottery. A man from Philadelphia offers cheery floral oilcloth by the yard.
We stop to chat with Joanie Garbee, a dealer from Charlotte, N.C., who’s here for the first time. Today’s hot item, she tells us, has been textiles. “Aprons were an especially big seller,” Joanie says. She counts on her husband, Howard, to help load and unload their trailer. “I work for food,” he says, “and tonight’s going to be a supersize meal.” I make my first purchase: a vintage purse. Asking price: $25.00. Final price: $22.50.
LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN PARKWAY, GA.
The next morning, we drive the Lookout Mountain Parkway, which follows the crest of the mountain ridge. Though it’s barely 8 a.m., sales show up on either side car. I score big-time in a church parking lot and walk away with an armful of blouses, dresses, pants, as well as Birkenstock clogs—all for $10.
At a second church parking lot, where homemade ice cream is on offer, I see a dress that’s perfect for Margaret. “It’s two bucks,” I tell her. She looks skeptical. I turn to the seller. “My sister’s cheap—could she have this for a dollar?” “Sure,” the seller says. “I’m the same way.”
We follow a handmade sign off the main route into a suburban neighborhood, where at least a dozen households are selling full steam. In one driveway, Dianne Adams offers clothes, a computer printer, and other miscellany while her husband, Bill, oversees their food concession. He started it a few years ago to feed neighborhood kids whose parents were busy with the sale. Bill’s handwritten signs offer “Redneck Caviar” (pinto beans), cornbread, and “Georgia Country hot dogs.” “Nothing sells plain,” Bill says, “so you’ve got to make it into something.”
By lunchtime we reach a heavily populated field, where one man is selling watermelons out of giant cartons. Linda Bacon’s booth attracts our attention with its display of patchwork quilts from the early 1900s. Linda, who also sells commercial real estate in Woodstock, Ga., has sold at the WLYS five times and this year has done well with old tools and fishing equipment. “They fish up here like crazy,” she says.
By Saturday afternoon, Marg and I have managed to fill the trunk of our rental car. Our purchases include two birdhouses made from gourds, a box of fly-fishing lures for my husband, a door knocker, a jar of antique marbles, four fine linen napkins (25 cents each!), and a handmade Barbie dress that appears to be from the 1960s. Marg can’t resist a $5 enormous stoneware planter. We’ve managed to strike a balance between covering ground and our natural inclination to stop at every single sale. Still, we both feel pangs of anxiety when we pass a yard by.
We’ve seen the same four women at several stops, so we finally approach them. Sylvia Alchediak, Rhonda Dyer, Debra Parker, and Sheila Haas have been coming to the sale for eight years. The back bed of their four-door F-150 pickup is so full that the tailgate has been released for extra storage. “We start in Kentucky and work our way down,” Sylvia says. Their only problem is that Sylvia and Debra have similar taste. “If there’s only one of something,” Debra says, “it’s an issue.”
We reach the southern end of the World’s Longest Yard Sale. Gadsden is chockablock with vendors. One yard features a large collection of aluminum pressure cookers; another, a blanket covered with books. I pick up a wooden hat block with an asking price of $150—too rich for my blood. The seller sees me start to put it down. “It’s yours for $30,” he says. “Thanks, but…” I try to demur. “Okay, walk away with it for $20.” He has me. As Marg and I admire my purchase, he asks, “Do me a favor. See my friend over there? Buy something from him, would ya? Even a dollar. He hasn’t been doing so good.”‘ I buy an antique marble for a dollar. “Much obliged,” the man says.
Heading north the next day, we meet Brenda Blankenship from Bland, Va., on the shoulder of Rte. 127. She’s on her fourth WLYS, traveling with her husband and another couple. “Each year, we do a section,” she says. Brenda’s best bargain ever: a print of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle by Americana artist Dave Barnhouse. “It was one of only four Harley pictures he did and was worth $600. I got it for 550.”
Our fourth state! We stop once or twice—if only we needed saddles or pressed-glass dinnerware, we’d have been in luck—but after 36 hours, we’ve lost our thrill for the hunt.
Before we complete today’s loop—bringing our driving to 575 miles since Friday night—we stop in the town that started the sale. Though it’s 7 p.m., and people are already packing up, they’re happy to keep selling. A dealer from Indiana who’s loading his rental truck tells me he’s had his second-best weekend of sales. “And what do you sell?” I ask, looking over the jumble of andirons, butter dishes, and lamps he has yet to crate up. “Junk,” he says proudly.
3 Secrets to Getting the Best Bargains
DIG DEEP: Buried treasures often sit at the bottom of piles, under tables, and in boxes that might look like they contain a random assortment of junk. Keep an eye out for layers, then excavate.
ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT: Occasionally, sellers will bring something out of the house for you that they hadn’t thought to sell until you mentioned it.
COUNTEROFFER, but keep the interaction polite. “This is a great piece—I’m wondering if you can go any lower on the price?” is more likely to get results than “I could get this cheaper if I bought it brand-new.”