There have been, I suppose, a couple of times when the weather on the Saturday of the South Riverdale Street Sale was anything but sun-kissed and blessedly summer-like. However, in my mind, the first Saturday in June is always the brightest, the foliage is always the most in bloom, and the sidewalks are always busiest they’ve ever been.
I don’t know what woman or man had that stroke of genius whereby instead of the odd garage sale occurring scattershot throughout the summer, there was one street-wide, block-wide, catchment-wide garage sale. Whoever they are, I’d like to buy them a drink. And then I’d like to buy whatever junk they might have for sale, particularly if they’re kitchen items.
The South Riverdale Street Sale is one of my favourite times of the year. Riverdale is a sleepy little hamlet in the heart of Toronto—big trees, old houses, small families, new money. I live in my basement apartment paradise here because of its quiet and beauty. The South Riverdale Street Sale is a moment when all of a sudden life, teeming and powerful, emerges south of the Danforth and east of the Don. Everyone is out, meeting their neighbours, wandering the streets, talking to people they only just met.
All to look through the stuff someone doesn’t want.
It’s a neo-conservative’s dream: community springing up in the name of commerce. Only it’s neither, and both.
I’ve only ever limited my wanderings on this day to the few blocks around my apartment. Some years I come back with nothing but the achievement of a pleasant walk. Some years I come back laden with books I’ll probably never read, CDs I’d otherwise never buy, kitchen supplies I’d never think of getting and even more than that still.
This year, I came back with some track lighting for $3. A couple of lamp units in my apartment’s track lighting have broken down and, even if these aren’t compatible, I can at least dismantle it and see if I can puzzle out how the lamp units are connected. $3 for a demonstration module ain’t bad.
Wandering the unfamiliarly crowded streets I made ports of call at the houses with a table out front decorated with one-step-away-from-Goodwill and/or thank-god-it’s-not-on-eBay. I visit every lawn festooned with discarded items like an island of misfit toys waiting for Rudolf to rescue them.
God I love this sort of thing. It’s like Christmas in postmodernity.
I found one house selling a Tommy Talker. Tommy Talker was a ventriloquist doll made by Ideal in the early 1970s. They’re hideous, but compelling. I loved one my cousin owned when I was eight—so much so that my Aunt and Uncle gave me the doll for my ninth birthday (I got bored with it in slightly more time than the accordion my other aunt gave me from Consumer’s Distributing) I might have bought it too, except the mechanism to make the mouth move was gone.
I move on. More to see. So much more to see.
I love looking through the books that people try to give up, and how you can tell the vintage of it from the size of the cover—the 1970s and 1980s are all small paperbacks; the 1990s and 2000s have ballooned to trade paperback size. I discover one neighbour has been hoarding a copy of The Winds of War for God knows how long. I’m briefly tempted to purchase a biography of Elvis. Someone is offering a complete set of Charles Dickens in hardback—battered brick-red books that look as though they had spent the better part of the past three decades mildewing in a steamer trunk, though that assessment might be a titch romantic. There’s someone else who has a couple of New Canadian Library paperbacks of authors I’ve never heard of but I still love the familiar NCL branding—white covers, big Roman typeface (the title in colour) topped off with a black and white photo—that instantly takes me back to University.
One year, I bought a copy of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road from a very attractive woman on Logan Avenue who had a nose ring. She told me the book was a gift from her ex-boyfriend. The very invocation was enough to scare me off—if I even stood a chance anyway—of asking her out. I didn’t want someone getting bargain copies of John Irving and George Orwell the following year. But I still have the copy, inscribed “To my love, and our love. Joe” with a cartoon of a flower growing out of a heart growing out of a flower pot. I should just tear the page out, but I’m amused at the idea of the executors of my estate scratching their heads at the revelation of my torrid affair with Joe.
I usually use this event as an excuse to buy lots of cheap stuff for my kitchen, as my quarter-Scottish, thoroughly bachelor DNA prevent me from just buying things at Ikea like everyone else. Over the years I’ve picked up a garlic pot here, a gravy boat there, a mug somewhere else. This year I note that early ‘90s kitchen styles are headed out—someone from down the road was selling hermetically sealed glass pasta containers for a buck each. My kitchenware is piebald with purchases from years of these sales and likely will continue until the future mother of my children throws herself between someone selling a crock pot on their lawn and my wallet.
Don’t let my descriptions fool you. Some of the wares being peddled are actually very high end. Someone three doors down from me sold a very swank-looking table and chairs for a couple of hundred bucks. Every year I find something I really want and can’t afford. Up until now, the benchmark has been a framed Indigo Girls poster that I didn’t want to give up—or couldn’t afford—the $25 being asked for; something I’ve regretted to this day. This year, I found a nice couch for $75—hey it’s better than the entropy-ridden futon currently occupying my living room—but alas even if I had the money, someone got to it before me. A pox on them.
(By contrast, there are the things I own that I still don’t know what to do with. A long time ago, I bought two creaky, wooden chairs with the intent of stripping them and painting them. Five years on, they’ve made an excellent surface for my still-clean-but-can’t-be-arsed-to-put-it-back-in-the-closet pile of clothes.)
Then there’s the low end. There’s a few places near Broadview that’s always selling loads of technological cast-offs which have collided with obsolescence like flotsam thrown out of a car on the Autobahn. I approach the reel-to-reel tape recorder with awe. I gaze with nostalgia at the 286, and shake my head sadly at the fax machine the size of the Imperial cruiser at the beginning of Star Wars. Someone’s selling what I think is a Sega Genesis. Or its predecessor. Or its predecessor, which means the games can probably be played on a cell phone today.
One of the many stray keyboards I come across still has the WordPerfect 6.1 tutorial taped to it—Shift F7 is print.
The whole place is abuzz. I pass by teenagers chattering at a rack of so off-season-it’s-in-season apparel. There’s a new father looking through baby clothes that have liberally covered someone’s lawn. There’s a guy selling big ugly flowers—that everyone seems to like—out of a wagon that he’s walking with up and down the street. People are getting entrepreneurial. One of my neighbours is selling hotdogs for prices like the Dome. I demur, because my landlord has informed me someone on Simpson Avenue is selling home-made sushi.
The life cycle of the sale is, at best, four hours. By 2 in the afternoon, people start resigning their cache of goods to Goodwill, or the attic for next year. A few will leave stuff out by the curb with signs emblazoned “PLEASE TAKE”. It’s amazing how many Young Adult novels you can get for free if you time it right. I got a perfectly good version of the game Master Mind—minus a couple of pegs—that way.
Every so often I think that one day I’m going to move out of this apartment and this neighbourhood. But then I think of the many compelling reasons that keep me here. And, occasionally, I think any sedate middle-class neighbourhood where once a year you can find Christmas decorations, 1970s TV trays, jigsaw puzzles of the Hay Wain, copies of The Gay Guide to Amsterdam, Muppet Calendar-maker software, Spice Girls CDs, and ugly flowers and sushi can’t be all bad. And it’s not.