Ffor as long as I have known my niece and her husband they have yearned to have a summer home in York. Last spring they finally had the opportunity to buy a summer cottage on Norton Avenue, near the beach. They were thrilled, even though the cottage needed a lot of work.

They bought it with everything included: furniture, rugs, beds and a massive amount of junk. My wife and I shared their excitement by taking a bottle of champagne over to crack amidst the cobwebs. Despite the mess, my niece Kelly was thrilled with her new summer home. We shared her awe as she sifted through the massive amount of junk that included everything from 1950’s vintage cat ornaments to books that hadn’t been opened since the Eisenhower administration.

An old box in the corner of the den caught my wife’s eye and as she rummaged through it she picked out a set of cream colored ginger jars. The reason she called them ginger jars was that each one bore a picture of a ginger plant. They must have been 50 years old and were in odd sizes, ranging from the size of a peanut butter jar to a big cookie jar. My wife asked Kelly if she wanted to get rid of them and Kelly told her the sooner they got rid of all the accumulated junk, the faster they could move in. Plus, who would want a bunch of old jars anyway? Apparently she’d been trying to give them away for days, without success.

Then, something funny happened. As soon as my wife set them aside on the counter for us to take home all our other relatives wanted them – including those who had been offered them days before and had expressed absolutely no interest in them. Those ginger jars ended up causing a ruckus way beyond their value until my wife gave them up just to keep peace in the family – and proved a much neglected rule of human nature; that a piece of junk has no value until somebody else wants it.

Garage sales are a classic representation of this rule. The other day my neighbor had a garage sale in front of his home and I couldn’t understand how he thought people would come because our street is way off the main road and there is little passing traffic. He told me he had put some signs on Route 1, but I was still skeptical that people would go out of their way to look at his old junk for sale.

I couldn’t have been more wrong as minutes after he had put all his stuff out in his driveway; cars started to arrive filled with buyers looking for the perfect deal. These cars were not occupied by just one or two people: they were packed with people who, apparently, made a living out of traveling long distances to attend garage sales. Some of them brought strollers for their kids and at least one couple brought an aged parent with a walker who set about rummaging determinedly through the junk on her own.

Something else I noticed was how serious everybody was. Few of these bargain hunters were smiling as they picked through my neighbor’s stuff. Somewhere, over the last few years, it seemed, garage sales had become serious business. No sooner had some of these people parked up the street than they almost ran back to my neighbor’s house in fear that somebody else might get their hands on the perfect treasure. Curious, I wandered among them, watching how they went about their business.

I noticed there was surprisingly little conversation and whenever somebody picked something up for closer examination there would be furtive, sideways glances to see if they had discovered something valuable. If it was put back then others would home in on it to see what it was. I also noticed that nearly all of these people dressed the same, with many of the women wearing what I can only describe as stretch muumuus. I guessed that most of them were people who couldn’t afford to shop at K-Mart. I also noticed that the only items that sold were those that somebody else had expressed an interest in.

I tried it myself, picking up the odd tattered comic book poring over it with undisguised curiosity and muttering the occasional; “gee, wouldjalookitthat?” or “golly, haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid.” I would then shake my head in wonderment, put it down and wander off to look at something else only to see a couple of bargain hunters zoom in on it like sharks after a stricken swimmer.

I don’t know if my neighbor appreciated it or not but I think I actually made him a couple of bucks just shilling for him. I have seen this herd mentality at work before in all kinds of situations, not just garage sales. I have a friend who has no interest at all in country music but when he heard that a show with some hot new country act had all but sold out at the Hampton Casino he had to have a couple of tickets; just in case he was missing out on something.

I have seen the same psychology at work on TV shopping channels. Time and again viewers are told they have to buy quickly because supplies are almost gone and this is an offer that won’t be repeated – until the following week when new stocks mysteriously appear.

Real estate and car sales people have been using this technique for as long as I can remember. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been warned by a salesperson to make up my mind quickly because the next appointment was with people who wanted to buy and would recognize a bargain when they saw one.

It seems one sure way for a hair salon to succeed these days is to make customers wait a couple of weeks for an appointment and have you noticed how long you have to wait to see any kind of medical specialist? So, you’re left with the clear impression that you’re lucky to get an appointment at all, even when it requires you to pay over a huge sum of money to hear that you will have to make another appointment?

As a society we have become so conditioned to competing for everything that we don’t know when to stop. We can’t tell anymore when something is worth competing for and when it isn’t. Just knowing that somebody else wants something that we might want is enough to trigger our competitive reflexes to try and get our hands on it before they do. It is a lesson all of us might well learn from.

Now, if I can just figure out a way to get those ginger jars back!
The End

How the spirit of competition makes fools of us all.
By J. G. Fabiano
Jim Fabiano is a teacher and a writer living in York, Maine, USA
e-mail him at: james.fabiano60@gmail.com