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Updated: Jul 23, 2022

It’s time to don your safari jacket and scour the suburbs for valuable treasure. We’ve got four prime targets for you and your wallet.

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Late-stage Baby Boomers (b. 1956-1964) are presently entering their mid-sixties, which, for our purposes here, means two significant things–

ONE, now that their children are (finally) out of the house, they no longer need quite so much living space and thus they are ready to downsize into cozier living quarters. And TWO, they’ve learned some hard lessons from their own aging parents– the “Greatest Generation,” who, having survived Depression-era childhoods and the concomitant deprivations, then devoted much of their sudden post-WWII financial comfort to becoming borderline hoarders and accumulating whole house-fuls of crap that had to be abruptly disappeared when they finally transitioned to assisted living. And nobody wants to be like their parents.

And so this final wave of the Baby Boom Generation is rapidly ridding itself of its own surplus possessions, which is one reason why tag sales (or garage sales, or yard sales) are better than ever. Another reason is that they simply don’t make quality stuff like they used to. Taken together, we have a tremendous opportunity to get some great things at great prices. Seasoned hunters always set out with specific quarry in mind, so here are four things worthy of a dedicated search:

Garden Tools

As discussed in an earlier rant, they’ve ruined the f-ing shovel. This is a fairly recent change, which means that there are still plenty of sturdy shovels (and rakes, etc.) in circulation that have outlived their original owners and are crying out for adoption. I recently forked over $50 for a brand-new old-school shovel… I’m guessing that one can obtain something similar at a tag sale for one-fifth that amount. Should you find an apparent treasure, be sure to check the wooden handle for cracks and confirm that it is securely connected to the blade. Most importantly of all, perhaps– for a proper frame of reference before hitting the tag sales, consider stopping by a big box hardware store to examine for yourself the comically flimsy excuses for shovels they now offer.

Iron Skillets

Behold– the greatest pan EVER, as it combines vintage cast-iron wonderfulness with sloping, flip-friendly sides, making it the ultimate omelet device. No, I won’t sell it for any price.

Iron skillet cookery has been a hip “thing” for a couple of decades now, and for good reason– there is simply no better way to cook your steak indoors, and it works well with a number of other dishes as well. It is therefore utterly perplexing to me that the new iron skillets we currently see in stores are pretty much unusable as sold– because they have a coarse finish (evidently from sand-casting) that defeats their purpose. You see, a proper iron skillet has a perfectly smooth finish of black “seasoning” (multiple layers of chemically inert polymerized lipids) that, coupled with the heat-retentive properties of the thick iron beneath it, make for a non-stick surface that fosters delicious browning like none other. And just such a surface is what we find on old pans at tag sales. Twenty bucks should get you a good one– just give it a good scrub, dry it, and then wipe it with grapeseed oil and bake it for a while. Repeat the oil-and-bake a few times. After a few layers of this, you’ll have a great pan that will last for generations. OR– you can buy one of those new iron pans for twice the money and painstakingly hand-grind it to smoothness.

Vintage 10-Speed Bikes

My ultimate dream machine– a 1975 Austro-Daimler "Vent Noir" in

Lotus John Player Special Black & Gold trim

Americans didn’t always go out of their way to exercise. Hell, back in the sixties, joggers were considered masochistic geeks, and sports coaches commonly forbade weightlifting because it supposedly made their players “muscle-bound.” But as the 1970’s dawned, the masses suddenly discovered the joys and health benefits of recreational running, weight training, and tennis… and also of riding a European-built 10-Speed Bike.

Peugeot, Austro-Daimler, Bianchi, Raleigh, Batavus, Motobecane… their names sound like the line-up at a 1960’s Monaco Grand Prix. These were the 10-speed bikes that joined the American-made Schwinns on America’s country roads as millions (myself included) took novel delight in shifting the Campagnolo derailleurs and engaging the Weinmann center-pull brakes as we gleefully glided for dozens of miles in a single day. It felt so healthy and so, well, European… which was cool then, just like those fabulous Adidas soccer shirts we wore around campus that screamed, “Hip Jock.”

(Don’t even bother looking… you’ll NEVER find one of these anywhere unless it’s a fake.)

Twenty-three pounds was a light bike in 1971. Since then, wider yet lighter aluminum tubing replaced the sleek and lively Reynolds 531 steel frames, and then carbon fiber replaced aluminum, at least in the upper price brackets and among racers. The current top road bikes weigh half as much as the originals and sell for about ten times the price.

Meanwhile, we 10-speed road warriors of the pre-disco ‘70’s are now forty-something years older and maybe that much heavier, and those steel-framed masterpieces with the contrasting gussets have been hanging from our garage rafters since Bill Clinton left office… and finding their way into GYT sales, making it a buyer’s market.

Keep in mind that you are essentially buying the frame, so make sure that it is your size AND that it is rust-free and undamaged. Removing the seat-post will give you a glimpse inside. If the front and back derailleurs both work, big bonus. You’ll probably need fresh brake cables and shoes, and perhaps new wheels and especially new tires. Don’t forget to consult your local bike shop for a butt-friendly seat that doesn’t feel like it’s slicing you in half. Vintage parts available HERE. Properly matching the components to your bike requires expertise, so bringing the frame to your local bike shop and having them completely outfit it for you would be well worth the investment.

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Sturdy shovels… real frying pans… European bikes… great stuff indeed; but as GYT sale safaris go, those are merely small game. Wanna go after the suburban equivalent of an African “Big 5” dangerous beast? Something that, like a charging African cape buffalo or bull elephant, could actually kill you in a momentary spell of inattention? You’re gonna need a pickup truck and an able-bodied helper, because we’re loading up our magnum double-barrels for the ultimate trophy, the great White Whale, the Holy Grail of the GYT sale…

Vintage Troy-Bilt “Horse” Rototiller

Make no mistake– vintage Troy-Bilt rototillers are constructed like Russian tanks and are accordingly heavy, ugly, and unwieldy. Electric start? HA! You’ll be sore in new places for a week after pulling the starter rope on this sucker. And yet, if you feel the need to transform a compacted expanse of rocks and roots into your personal agricultural bounty, you could spend $400 no more wisely than this. (Great video HERE. However, I do NOT recommend off-loading it from a truck like this because you might die.)

The reason that the 1970's models of the "Horse" are widely available is that they NEVER wear out. And trust me-- $400 for equipment this solid and useful is a steal. For comparison, the current new, state-of-the-art tillers are the Honda FRC800 (~ $3,000) and the Italian-made BCS, essentially the Lamborghini of rototillers and what they intriguingly call a “two-wheeled tractor.” It comes in models priced at up to $9,000… and you might as well purchase two, because that’s probably the only way you’ll ever get genuine replacement parts in your working lifetime.

If I owned a large piece of personal farmland (say, five acres) then I would certainly consider buying a new Honda. However, most of us suburbanites tend to require rototillers only for specific projects rather than continuous use. Renting one for a day is an option (not really viable if you don’t own a pickup truck) but 4-5 rentals will cost the same as a vintage Troy-Bilt. After just a few uses, I feel that mine has paid for itself twice already and has plenty of life remaining.

Just a quick buying guide– aside from the sturdiness of build, the important variables associated with rototillers are the location of the tines (front or rear) and the direction of their rotation (forward or reverse.) I cannot delineate the intricacies of this any more succinctly than the pros, so click HERE for an expert explanation.

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Good luck and happy hunting as you hit your local Garage/Yard/Tag Sales. One last pro tip:

I was kidding about the safari jacket…don’t actually dress like this in public, or they might charge you double. But if you fancy these campy yet cool jackets as I do, check out the selection at Tag Safari, where your purchase will not only drape you in retro Hollywood chic but also benefit families in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

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1 Comment

Aug 01, 2022

As providence would have it, I was shopping for a cheap emergency t-shirt at a MARSHALLS store this past weekend when I stumbled upon a current edition of the legendary ADIDAS SOCCER SHIRT that I had mentioned in this essay. What did my $9 get me? The good news is that it made me publicly presentable for another day on the road. In other news, it was made in Jordan out of recycled plastic garbage spun into a sumptuously soft yet gossamer-thin, nearly see-through fabric that doesn't breathe. It certainly looks like the classic version, but certainly doesn't perform like it. I give it about three washings before I'm picking its remains out of the lint screen.

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