The Yard Sale King

The Long and Winding Road to Treasures
By Maria Puente USA TODAY

This month, a 450-mile yard sale that snakes through three Southern states will beckon savvy shoppers from around the country. Ours is a yard-sale nation, and nowhere is it more apparent than in this Tennessee backwater. Here the World's Largest Yard Sale runs right up Route 127 and straight into Jeffrey Hood's well-stuffed house. Hood has shelves piled high with McCoy pottery and Blenko glass. He has Depression-era primitive tables and funky '50s lamps in his living room. He has a hoard of antique Christmas ornaments and handmade bluebird houses on his deck. He has a dozen rare Ballerina Ware (think poor man's Fiesta) tumblers he got for 10 cents a piece. This is the stuff they used as props on I Love Lucy -- and now they're worth at least $200 for the bunch. ''I've practically furnished my house,'' Hood says. ''Someone told me it's a cross between Pee-wee's Playhouse and the Great Depression.'' And he got it all at the Highway 127 Corridor Sale, a four-day August event starting next week along 450 miles of U.S. 127 -- from Covington in northern Kentucky (just south of Cincinnati), down through east Tennessee, scooting through a corner of Georgia down to Gadsden, Ala., on the Lookout Mountain Parkway. Along the two-lane road through beautiful countryside, thousands of folks set up tables and tents in their yards, in fields or intersections, in barns or sheds, selling everything from antiques and collectibles to junk from the back of their garage. ''In this area, there's a long tradition of people putting things in their front yards to sell on Saturday mornings,'' says Hood, whose family has lived here on Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau for more than 200 years. This is the area where the most vendors are concentrated: The 45-minute drive from here to the next county can take three hours during the sale. Along the way, you might find a lot of rubbish, you might find some real treasures. You might even find eternal salvation in a sweltering camp tent, where preachers reach out to browsers. At this point, you might be scoffing. Picturesque or not, how many people could possibly want to drive through the heat-smacked South in August just for a long string of yard sales? Scoff no more: Last year, local officials estimated 400,000 people stopped at the sale at some point along the route, pumping big bucks into struggling small-town and rural economies throughout the region. ''You would have a hard time convincing me that this isn't paradise,'' Hood says. ''It's the best and the worst of America -- right on the side of the road.'' In fact, the Highway 127 sale has grown dramatically in popularity every year since it started in 1987, even though it's only loosely organized and the whole amazing spectacle relies mostly on word of mouth. The first year was a dud; no one knew about it. But when the 2001 sale starts Thursday, thousands of buyers and sellers will pour into towns like Crossville, filling up scarce hotel rooms, packing scarcer restaurants, snarling traffic, even forcing the closing of some schools. ''It's become a monster,'' half-jokes Mike Moser, editor of the Crossville Chronicle, the triweekly paper here. ''Most of the locals hate it. But I've heard people say they pay their property taxes every year by renting their land (to vendors), or they take their Florida vacations every year.'' The sale was the brainchild of county leaders in Tennessee who sought to draw tourists from the interstate highways. (Yes, technically, it should be the World's Longest Yard Sale, but don't be picky.) ''By the third year, we were seeing (license) plates from California and Pennsylvania,'' Moser says. ''Last year, I counted plates from 38 states just in Crossville'' and nearby. The event has been showcased on PBS and HGTV and in magazines like Martha Stewart Living. In keeping with the somewhat ad hoc nature of the sale, vendors are already setting up and selling two weekends in advance. Which brings us back to Hood, 41, bargain hound and tchotchke-chaser extraordinaire. Last week, Hood stopped at an intersection outside Jamestown, where a seller was unpacking boxes of stuff wrapped in old newspapers. On a table filled with junk, Hood spotted a deep-green water pitcher. His eyes widened, his jaw dropped. ''That's a Ballerina Ware pitcher, and it's in perfect condition!'' he whispered excitedly. The seller wanted $18; Hood hesitated, then paid up. ''I wouldn't pay that much during the sale. But I've seen it go on eBay for $45 to $60.'' Hood is a time-share manager at a large retirement resort in Crossville, a successful artist, and what some antiques types call a divvy -- someone who can instantly spot the valuable and authentic object in a pile of dross. This skill has come in handy, because Hood has gone to the 127 sale every year since it started. He is full of fond memories of great finds: There was that time when a little old lady in a U-Haul truck auctioned off collectible pottery and glassware to a crowd of eager buyers, telling the history of each piece as she held them up. And that time he got three exquisite pieces of McCoy for $20 from some guy selling from the bed of his pickup truck on the side of the road. ''I should have bought the whole lot -- it's haunted me ever since,'' he sighs. He has never paid more than about $30 for one item, and virtually everything he has bought is worth two or three or even 10 times what he paid. ''I think the most I ever spent in one year was about $200, for 212 items,'' he says. ''My strategy is to buy things that are not yet popular but at some point will be.'' He takes a week's vacation to ''do'' the sale. He's found his best things on Monday and Tuesday before the sale starts. He might go north into Kentucky first, drive home that night to unload, then head south into Alabama the next day. ''By midweek, I can shop from first light to dark and never drive more than 20 miles from my house -- and I'm exhausted.'' Why this mania for yard sales? Ron Simmons, president of the National Flea Market Association, says these markets are ''the birthplace of the free enterprise system -- what America is all about.'' Hood is less misty-eyed. He grew up in a military family that moved around a lot. ''We never got to collect things,'' he says. Besides, people love ''the thrill of the chase, the joy of the find,'' he says. ''As people become more educated by eBay and Antiques Roadshow, they start looking at things in their house with dollar signs in their eyes. And in economically depressed areas like here, people tend to keep what they have for a long time.'' Frank DeCaro, the movie critic on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, knew he had to go to the sale last year after he heard about it from a trendy home magazine and a couple of drag queens who work out at his New York gym. ''Any activity popular with the audience of Country Living magazine and East Village drag queens was something I really needed to see,'' DeCaro declares. ''My faith in flea marketing was renewed.'' Filmmaker Rick Sebak, whose Flea Market documentary just aired on most PBS stations, thinks people love yard sales as much for the social interaction as the bargains. He was impressed with the extremes the 127 sale presented: professional vendors sell quality collectibles arranged carefully on tables in front of well-tended homes, right down the road from sulky teens sitting on blankets in front of an old barn, selling old baby clothes and broken toys. ''That's what's really attractive about it -- the volume, distance and quantity of stuff is mind-boggling,'' he says. Terry Kovel, who with husband Ralph has written numerous books about antiques and collectibles and hosts HGTV's Flea Market Finds, describes ''junking'' as a sport, ''like going to golf matches.'' ''When we got married, we went to house sales and flea markets, and we were considered oddballs,'' she says. ''Now it's become every man's habit.'' The downside to all this, Hood says, is that prices are going up, even at the 127 sale. Nevertheless, he's plotting his strategy for this year: He's heading farther north into Kentucky than ever before, hoping to hit a pottery jackpot. He'll be on the lookout for Ballerina Ware, Haeger and Roseville pieces, along with his latest passion: two mysterious lines of dark green pieces that are beautiful but unmarked, maker unknown. He has a gut feeling they may be worth even more than McCoy some day.

Bargain Hound and Tchotchke-chaser Extraordinaire

The large story I received in the August 2002 issue of USA Today started a series of other exciting projects including a TV segment on my collections in a special broadcast on Home and Garden Television ( HGTV) called "The Endless Yard Sale". Since the only thing I've really ever wanted to be is an artist, it felt very strange to suddenly be receiving national coverage for my prowess as a Yard Sale divvy. This exposure led to more behind the scenes work with the Hollywood production team on future shows. What an incredibly kind and cool bunch of guys. I collect Art pottery from various companies including McCoy and Haeger & European pottery from Denmark and West Germany. I have collections of American made Blenko glass and Finnish glass including exceptional original 1950's pieces from the celebrated Tapio Wirkkala. I have a growing collection of Japanese Hakata Uraski and Sato figurines and American Pueblo pottery, especially Ute, Acoma, and Navajo. I continue to seek out modern art paintings and sculpture, Eames era furnishings among other wonderful things. In August of 2001, USA Today asked for readers to submit information or an article regarding the Hwy 127 Corridor Sale, a giant 450 mile yard sale that snakes through KY, TN and AL. When I sent in my e-mail, little did I know that the article I wrote would soon grow to become the subject of a two-page feature article in their Living section. After a few phone interviews, the editor called and suggested that instead of publishing my article, they wanted to interview me and do a story on my collections and the 127 Corridor sale. A few weeks later, I met up with Maria Puente, Staff writer for USA Today on her first ever trip to Tennessee. We had an incredible time as I introduced the hardened Washington reporter to the unique southern spectacle called the mount Everest of Yard Sales. We traveled 60 miles of sales and the bargain Gods were smiling on me as I found some bona fide treasures to our mutual delight.