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One woman’s garbage

on September 21, 2010

A typical yard sale shopper might simply be looking for a chance to buy someone else’s junk at a good price. But Richmond resident Debbie Lew isn’t a typical yard sale shopper. Lew is a garage sale junkie who says her love of second-hand buying and selling started with childhood make-believe in San Francisco, where she spent her early years.

“When I was about 10-years-old, we used to grab stuff from our garage and go to the corner and pretend to play store,” Lew said. “People thought we were so cute and would buy stuff from us or just give us money.”

As she got older, Lew’s make-believe yard sales became a professional hobby. Now she holds them three to four times a year to purge household items, make some extra cash for her son’s college fund and perhaps even change someone’s life.

“My brother met his wife at one of my garage sales 22 years ago!” Lew said. Lew’s sister-in-law-to-be was a Yugoslavian immigrant who had just arrived in the United States to work as an au pair. She came to the garage sale looking for second-hand clothing, Lew said, and left with a date. “Within two dates she was already at our family dinners.”

After holding several successful yard sales of her own, Lew decided to broaden it to the community level, and took the idea to the North and East Neighborhood Council.   Together, Lew and the Council have organized five annual yard sales, with 17 families participating this year.

Debbie Lew, Founder and Organizer of the North and East Neighborhood Labor Day Yard Sales

It’s not just luck or good Richmond weather that tie the pieces together for an event of this magnitude. The council takes care of the mass advertising while Lew provides participants with extensive detail on how to comb every room in the house for things to sell and how to be an intelligent buyer. When the sales are over, Lew sends out a 10-step follow-up for a successful “Aftermath Celebration.”

“I hear comments like ‘I not only made 600 dollars but I have a clean garage!’” Lew said, “or ‘I found a former student I never would have found.’”

North and East neighborhood resident Angie Gutierrez said she likes yard sales because they give people a chance to buy things they can’t get other places. Gutierrez says she got angry recently during a trip to the Salvation Army, looking around at prices she thought were noticeably marked up.

“A yard sale is somewhere where you can go if you need stuff, but can’t afford Salvation Army,” she said.

Midway though one Saturday recently, Gutierrez had $100 so far and a front yard covered in tarps that were laden with clothes, electronics and books. “I was in a purging mood but I didn’t even know I owned all this!” she said.

To get rid of her items faster, Gutierrez says she sets low prices. “Last year one woman bought $600 worth of stuff and I sold each for one dollar!”

It’s not always cheap prices, though, that draw people to a yard sale. For Lew, it’s the stories behind the items she buys that excite her; she currently has a collection that has grown to what now comprises 70% of the things in her home.

“I have many treasures in my house that have wonderful stories behind them,” she said. She recalls a stool she bought from a family years ago. The parents wanted to get rid of it, and the son was crying because he didn’t want to part with his beloved stool.  “I told him don’t worry, I will take care of it and cherish all the wonderful feelings you have with it.”

It’s as simple as that.  Debbie Lew has been hosting garage sales all her life for the memories she collects, the connection she makes with neighbors and the joy she gets helping people clean out their junk.


  1. Not a Fan of Garbage on September 24, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Not all of use who have to live near this woman are a fan of what she does. These “events” bring unwanted traffic and others to the neighborhood. They have so much stuff it blocks TWO different streets. This is annoying and makes our neighborhood look bad. If you want to do this sort of thing, rent a space at the flea market. Additionally, if you want to give something away for free, don’t leave it on the corner with a “free” sign. More often then not, the city’s roving garbage truck has to clean this stuff up.

    • Jeffrey Marchant on September 25, 2010 at 11:58 am

      The annual garage sale creates a welcome festive atmosphere in the neighborhood. Some extra traffic and people out of their houses having a good time, brings a sense of community. I’d welcome more such events.

      There is a tradition in the neighborhood of leaving unwanted furniture out for free pick up by anyone who needs it. Once in awhile junk is left out that nobody wants. But my experience has been that furniture I put out is picked up by someone who needs it before I finish writing the “free” sign. I think it’s a great way to recycle and help our neighbors.

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