As musicians, we all love the feel, the smell, and the creative inspiration that come with a new piece of gear. Whether it’s an instrument, a rack effect, live sound gear, or studio equipment, the love of new stuff keeps us running up purchases on our credit cards. Sometimes we even spend more than our musical income warrants. Then there’s “vintage” gear, which usually costs even more than brand new! But there is a third category: the yard sale find.
Every once in a while, news stories crisscross the planet about a Bugatti automobile or van Gogh painting, assumed lost for decades and found in someone’s attic or barn. Your own yard sale find may not be worth millions, and it may not make the papers, but these hidden treasures have three things in common: they’re rich in character, they’re available cheap or free, and they’re better off in your hands than wherever they were sitting, forgotten. Here are a few examples of lost treasures, found again.
It’s a well-worn aphorism that people don’t take very good care of stuff they didn’t pay for, and the best example of that can be found at a college. At the end of a semester, with final papers overdue and students facing imminent eviction from their dorms, college kids scatter like billiard balls at the break. And they tend to leave a lot of good stuff behind. Often, this loot is found days or weeks later by housekeeping staff who have the thankless job of cleaning up after the students. The interval between the the students’ departure and the arrival of hard-working cleaning staff is called “looting day,” and opportunistic looters affiliated with the colleges often swoop in to see what’s been left.
“I once found three pairs of shoes, all still in the box, all in my size,” says Jack, a former college housing official who scored loot while doing his annual May walk-through. But it was his friend Josiah who had the real score: a Washburn acoustic guitar in a hard case. A lack of fret wear or dust identified the campfire axe as a never-played gift from well-meaning family members—likely for a kid who always thought guitars were cool but was less interested in practicing.
Depending on where you hail from, they might be called tag sales, yard sales, or garage sales, but they all mean the same thing: people hauling their unused stuff out front, hoping to make a few bucks getting rid of it. On warm Fridays and Saturdays in the suburbs, you’d better be prepared to hit the brakes as people suddenly pull off the road to check out the sales. Of course, by Sunday afternoon, everything that was in demand is gone, and people leave the leftovers out by the road with a hand-lettered “FREE” sign stuck to the mailbox. Usually these piles don’t bear too much examination: stacks of damp romance novels, chunks of mystery wood from carpentry projects, and crutches, lot of crutches. But once in a while there’s still something worth stopping for.
In the Southwest, there’s a tradition of enormous nighttime flea markets. One of the best is theTanque Verde Swap Meet in Tucson, Arizona. Known locally as the Palo Verde Flea Market, this sprawling enterprise pops up each summer, covering acres of dusty desert plain once the summer heat has receded each evening. The parking area alone is so big that security guards on makeshift towers monitor the lots to scare off car thieves. Inside, the Meet looks like something out of a Mad Max movie: carnival game booths, people in weird costumes, and folks leading donkeys down corridors festooned with Christmas lights.
At one booth, you’ll find 8-track tapes and old LPs. At the next, a ’52 Ford pickup full of watermelons. The melons and the truck are both for sale, with a discount for buying the whole works. Are there great musical finds there? You bet…if you can find them. Shopping one of these meets is an exercise in open-mindedness: you’ll be disappointed looking for something specific, but if you go without expectations you might find a prize. And of course, you don’t have to live in Tucson. They’re all over, and probably in your town. There are used instrument booths in there. You’d better go see what they’ve got.
There’s a great thing about old houses: they tend to accumulate interesting items that are left behind by each owner. “When I was a kid, I became friends with the new kid who moved in two doors down,” says Pat. “The house dated back to the Civil War, and all kinds of things had been left behind as people moved out.” These objects included an old pool table, a small kit helicopter, and tons of antique glass medicine bottles that the family turned into decorations. But one day, the former owners turned up with an unusual request…and a surprising oversight.
“These folks came to the door while my friend and his family were eating dinner and asked if they’d seen a bag of gold coins. They’d left them behind when they moved, and weren’t sure where. My buddy called me immediately and we turned the place upside down. We knew his parents would give them back, and we were determined to find them first.” The frantic search proved almost fruitless. There was no gold, but the two boys did discover a very old, handmade violin, or most of one, in a cracked leather case, hiding in an old cabinet up in the attic. “It was missing the bridge, strings, and a couple of tuning pegs,” says Pat. “But we figured half a violin was a good start.” A little bit of garage tinkering and a visit to the local music store, and two days later that violin was squealing out some beginner scales.
That’s the beauty of yard sale finds, barn treasures, and flea market pickups. They may not be vintage and they may not be new, but they might just provide you with a fun rehab project…and a unique sound. They’re waiting for you, in garages, attics, and swap meets. And they’re only a summer adventure away.
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