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Garage Sales Go Glam

Susan Johnston

Yard sales have traditionally been a suburban phenomenon that allows homeowners to clean out their attics or basements and turn their old clothes, dusty furniture or other undesirable items into cash. But thanks to the lingering frugality of the recession and growing interest in vintage and upcycled goods spurred by the do-it-yourself movement, that's all changing. In fact, urban professionals are adding their own twists to the traditional garage sale.

Last month, three self-described fashionistas hosted roughly 700 people at The Urban Girl Garage Sale at a speakeasy-style event space in downtown Seattle. Organizers called it the "ultimate pop-up shop," and the event featured a DJ, networking cafe and on-site "stylists" ready to help shoppers find fitting, fashionable clothes.

At the Rock and Roll Garage Sale in Providence, R.I., and Somerville, Mass., shoppers can peruse used vinyl and handmade goods while listening to live music. In Miami, the Les Dames d'Escoffier Miami--an organization for women in the food, farming hospitality and wine industries--hosts an annual Gourmet Garage Sale, selling such goods as gently used bakeware and aprons as a fundraiser for its culinary and agricultural scholarship program. Even the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted a "Meta-Monumental Garage Sale" last November as a solo exhibit featuring works by New York-based artist Martha Rosler. Rosler solicited donations of used items from the public for the sale, and museum patrons haggled with her over price.

[Read: Online Consignment Shops Turn Clothes Into Cash.]

Melissa Massello, an avid bargain hunter and founder of the Boston-based ShoestringMag.com, says urban yard sales typically offer a variety of clothing and other wares. "In the city, you're going to get a more eclectic mix because cities are more diverse by nature," she says. "Suburbs and rural areas tend to be more demographically homogenous. That's what makes urban garage sales and clothing swaps so much more fun."

The growing popularity of yard sales is largely driven by the desire to conserve natural resources and earn cash for unwanted items, according to Massello, who has hosted clothing swaps through The Swapaholics, an organization she co-founded. There's also a social component to these events. "The more digital we get, the more technology infiltrates our lives, the more we crave that old-school, human-tactile intimacy," says Massello. "In urban areas, unless you have a dog or a child, we aren't as neighborly as we used to be. We want to feel like we're part of a community of living, breathing human beings."

Jennifer Gill, a Seattle resident who attended the Urban Girl Garage Sale with friends last month, enjoys the social appeal of yard sales. "We ended up going out to lunch afterwards and sharing all our finds," says Gill, who bought jackets, jewelry and two pairs of shoes. "If I were going to go and find those pieces at Goodwill, I would have to sort through tons and tons of items, but almost everything at this event was really unique and fashionable."

[Read: How Much for This Lamp? Tips from the Garage Sale Millionaire.]

Like Gill, many yard-sale shoppers are also driven by the joy of the hunt. Andi Zeisler, co-founder of the Portland, Ore.-based magazine "Bitch: Feminist Response of Pop Culture," discovered this when she married a man she describes as a "secondhand fiend." "He grew up going to yard sales, so that became something that we did together," she says. "It's a fun challenge. What do we need to buy and refuse to pay full price? I found a perfectly good hand truck for less than $10 at a yard sale."

Whether hosting a yard sale in the suburbs or the city, attracting customers is key. Here are some strategies yard-sale hosts use to create buzz and persuade shoppers to buy:

Start marketing early. When Massello hosted monthly clothing swaps for several hundred people, she would create Facebook events, have people RSVP and post promotions on Twitter to help get the word out. "The key is to promote early, often, and to everyone you can think of who fits your target audience and ask them to do the same," she says. "Beginning promotions four to six weeks in advance is ideal--longer if your desired turnout is over 100."

Pick a theme. Elizabeth Smith, a founding member of Les Dames d'Escoffier Miami, says focusing on culinary-themed items when promoting her yard sales helps draw crowds of people who are interested in food and beverages. "It's more marketable to curate items with a theme than a regular type of garage sale, that a lot of churches do in their side yard," she explains. The Rock and Roll Yard Sales in the Northeast attract music lovers, while Urban Girl Garage Sales are more fashion-focused.

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If your merchandise doesn't have a theme, consider mentioning unique items like midcentury furniture or vintage cookbooks in your marketing to make your yard sale stand out. Playing up the charity angle can also help if your yard sale benefits a cause.

Style your wares. Instead of tossing clothes in a box or pile, hang them like you would in a stylish boutique to give your event a more upscale vibe. "We hung clothes on the bricks, which created a very urban feel for the pop-up shop," says Zong Her, one of Urban Girl's organizers for Urban Girl. "Each seller did their own visual merchandising."

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