SANTA BARBARA — Walk into Bill Gardner's spacious home and you can't miss it--a perfect replica of the royal barge of Thailand. The gold-leafed structure sits on green felt in its own plexiglass case with appropriate, museum-quality spotlighting, a thing of beauty and a joy forever to Gardner who admittedly has everything--and obviously more--than he needs.
He got it at a museum sale. Every year since 1948 the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has had a Treasure Sale. For three days in October--always the third weekend--the public can browse and buy, at unheard of prices, the sublime, the ridiculous and everything in between.
Not far from Gardner lives Muriel LaTourette. Immediately upon entering her large, Moroccan-style home, one sees an enormous and beautiful Middle-Eastern mural, and like Gardner's barge, the focal point for the rest of the decor.
Both items are remembered well by Treasure Sale staffers because they wondered, as they often do, who would buy this stuff. As Gardner recalls: "It (the barge) looked so awful, you wouldn't believe it; it had electrician's tape holding it together." And Muriel LaTourette's mural had originally been peeled from the wall of a silent screen star's home, and was rolled up to rip and rot.
There is something very basic in these two illustrations that accounts for the enormous and growing popularity of the great American "garage" sale.
What started out as a way to clean the attic has become a booming industry, a nearly $2-billion-a-year phenomenon that appeals to the instincts for "rooting and ferreting," as one sale veteran put. In a three-year study of this backyard marketplace, State University of New York doctoral (anthropology) student Gretchen Herrman and sociologist Stephen Soiffer found that more than a penchant for a bargain, these sales were popular because they incorporated socializing and skill, with emphasis on skill.
Perhaps because of its not-too-big-not-too-small size, because of its solid core of charitable organizations, and certainly because of its higher-than-average population of the rich and famous, Santa Barbara has its fair share of what could only be considered the Rolls-Royces of rummage sales.
The qualifying four include the Treasure Sale, the Clothes Gallery (April 19-21, also sponsored by the Museum of Art), Music Academy of the West's May Madness (May 3-4) and the Junior League's Rummage Sale (Nov. 1-2).
Anyone who doubts the truth of the adage, "One man's trash is another man's treasure" has but to note that among them Santa Barbara's fabulous four attracted more than 13,000 people last year who divested themselves of about $348,000. All major fund-raisers, the proceeds go to programs operated by these nonprofit organizations. But the sales provide a more immediate service as well, serendipitous purchases aside.
From a practical standpoint, people who are on a limited budget can literally outfit a family, top-to-toe, in quality merchandise (none of the organizations sell ripped, dirty, stained or otherwise tattered clothing) for what it might cost at moderate retail prices to clothe just one.
The Junior League's Jo Wideman says that, "We have families of four and five come year after year to buy their clothes. One of the reasons we haven't raised our prices much over the years (Junior League is the oldest annual sale beginning in 1928) is that even though we use the profits for many community projects, we consider the event itself a community service. Individuals and families can buy good things that they need but could otherwise not afford."
Nancye Andriesse, the museum's Clothes Gallery and Treasure Sale manager for seven years, put together a basic wardrobe for a professional woman that came to $75 including underwear and accessories. She then furnished a one-bedroom apartment with "good" furniture, major appliances and linens for $450.
No special treatment is given to dealers or collectors. In all cases, organizers say these are equal-opportunity bargains but that because of the nature and reputation of the merchandise donated (a large portion from estates) dealers are usually the ones encamped outside the doors at 4:30 a.m.
"You can always tell the professionals and the dealers," Wideman says. "They just have a look about them. They are the hard-core shoppers--they want the most of the best the fastest. Some come in with boxes strapped through their belt loops."
Estelle Ritter, chairman of the Music Academy's May Madness event, agrees. "You can spot them right away. I remember one pair who, the first year they came, gave us this story about their daughter's house burning down just after her wedding. They didn't have much money but they wanted to buy her some really nice things to replace the wedding gifts that had burned.