Saturday, June 03, 2006

Shoppers find bliss, bargains and happiness at local garage sales

The Miami Herald


Olga Rodriguez emerges from her Hialeah home at 8 a.m. with a hopeful expression. A quick glance to her left and then to her right and Olga's smile shines as brightly as the warm sun during these early morning hours. Sunshine equals fun time for the Rodriguez family, who have made a ritual of waking up early every Saturday to hunt for hidden treasures at garage sales.

Rodriguez's 15-year-old daughter Alicia and 8-year-old son Alec join her as they stroll down the walkway to their car. ''We're ready!'' Rodriguez, a former schoolteacher, calls over her shoulder to her husband, Mario, who is in the doorway. All four are heading out to their favorite Saturday morning shopping destination, the quiet residential neighborhood of Miami Springs.

Their first stop is the bank for some cash. ''We won't need much,'' says Olga Rodriguez. ''The whole point of the garage sale is to get a good bargain and we've been doing this long enough. We know how to bargain.''

The Rodriguez family began their ''garage sailing'' more than eight years ago as a fun activity to do with the kids. At first they went once a month, then twice a month and soon every weekend they were up by daybreak, eyes wide in anticipation of their next conquest.

''I became an addict because it was affordable,'' Olga Rodriguez admits. ''The more treasures I found, the more things I wanted to find. I started looking for garage sale ads in newspapers, The Flyer, on computer sites like Craigslist and local community boards, too.''

Since the advent of the Internet, garage sale shopping has evolved from a simple trip to replenish household items to one of spotting hidden treasures at a discount for possible resale on eBay, an online auction site.
Rodriguez is among the growing community of garage sale bargain hunters whose part-time passion leads to a new business venture. Part scavenger, part entrepreneur, these savvy investors turn their leisure activity into a source of income by using the garage-sale-to-eBay route.

''My greatest find ever were some Snoopy ornaments that I sold on eBay for hundreds of dollars,'' Rodriguez recalls. 'I also look for old dolls because they sell as well, and used kids' clothes for eBay.''

The monetary gains coupled with the sheer excitement of recognizing the value in an item that no one else does often ignites a certain kind of euphoria.

''It's like what I guess a high would feel like,'' Rodriguez whispers out of earshot of her husband, a former corrections sergeant for the state of Florida. ''Sometimes I think it's even better than sex.''

After visiting the bank the Rodriguez family stops by the police station to get a fresh map of Miami Springs. Here, streets aren't numbered and one could easily get lost among the bird and Indian names of streets. The family also scopes out the community bulletin board on Westward Drive and Apache Street to chart their route.

Like many cities, Miami Springs requires residents to get a permit (at no charge) for garage sales, says Miguel Parages, the local code enforcement officer on duty. Parages is out making his rounds, checking permits and greeting eager shoppers shortly after dawn.

''We only allow each household to have three garage sales a year,'' Parages says. Like some other cities, Miami Springs also limits the number and placement of signs.

Cooper City resident Elsa Zamora, a married mother of two, does the garage sale circuit solo. Zamora, a Broward Sheriff's Office employee, became hooked 15 years ago when she found the perfect watch at an estate sale in New York while browsing with her mother. Now, every Saturday morning she goes out early and returns refreshed to search for a place in her home to showcase her newly found prizes.

''At first it looked like a bunch of stuff in boxes all jumbled up,'' Zamora says of her early forays to garage sales. ''Then after looking week after week, I developed a knack for it. I could go in there and identify things like it was second nature.''

Spring is the perfect time to get up, get out and get personal by going through your neighbors unwanted household goods.

''This is the right time of year,'' Zamora says. ''The weather is beautiful. There's no traffic. It's early in the morning. You meet a bunch of nice new people and you find good items, too.''

Zamora has devised a strategic shopping plan. She leaves by 8:15 a.m. and is back home by 10 a.m. She follows a certain route each Saturday, looking for garage sale signs posted on main thoroughfares. She knows she can't beat the early birds to all of the sales so she hopes the first two arrows she follows lead to a second-hand jackpot.

After she spends 15 minutes scouring the items at each of the first two sales, she relaxes. By then, she knows the good stuff at other sales is already gone so she slows her pace as she finishes her route.

For Zamora, garage sailing is not an activity to generate extra income; it's a way to release the stresses of the workweek.

On this particular Saturday, stress busting is made simple as she completes her rounds and drives away with an armful of goodies including a rhinestone pin for her mom, a coffee tray, a silk plant and hose spray nozzle -- all for less than $8.

Zamora equates the garage sale experience to that of a spiritually empowering event. ''When I'm out shopping I feel very free,'' she says. ''The only thing I think about is finding something that I like. I find it very, very relaxing. It makes me feel like I don't have a care in the world.''

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