12 Oct 2009

Not Safe on the Sidewalk: a Cautionary Yard Sale Tale

from damnwoodchuck's photostream

from damnwoodchuck's photostream

Having a yard sale is highly entertaining way to spend an afternoon, provided you earn enough to post bail.

The treasures, oddities and great steals you find, they’re the thing of fiction. All those Antique Roadshows can’t lie. Yet, suddenly, yard sales are in the news — and coming to the attention of the MPD, so set up your card-table with great caution.

I, like most of you probably, have too much stuff. I certainly have too much stuff to live in a 1910 rowhouse, built when the ideal wardrobe consisted of about a dozen items. My husband regularly reminds me of the average number of shoes owned by US women (37!) — and I, in this way, regrettably, I am not average. After 10 years of squeezing into my house, I’m certainly more careful about what I bring in, and something in, something out has become house policy. Every season there’s a little more vetting to do and a few bags go off to Clothes’ Encounters, Goodwill, Riverby Books, the library donation box, or the clothing bins at Safeway. I’ll even try the tried and true most local of Freecycle techniques – putting something out on the sidewalk with a happy “I’m free” note. Just a few weeks ago, someone was lucky enough to find a long abandoned Billy Banks tae bo VHS tape. Once in a while, the culling yields something I think someone will want, and because I’m lazy, I generally don’t look to Craigslist; I pop it the yardsale box.

Saturday, despite the threatening showers, I dragged out the box(es) and I set up my table out on the sidewalk. Actually, I was in the “tree box” area, one without a tree.  Scattered on three tables were some interesting things (polaroid camera, lavender footies, cocktail stirrers anyone?), ranging from about $15 to $1. Sales were not swift, but between 11 and 4, I made about $45. Ultimately, my proceeds covered a tasty brunch at Indigo Landing this afternoon.

I was a savvy seller, but not smart enough to stay under the radar. A good friend is moving back to Spain, and he’s emptying out his house. JL lives in Takoma and his ‘hood doesn’t enjoy the foot traffic that’s typical in my part of the Hill. His stuff is a little cooler, more “ooh, I really might actually use that” but he doesn’t have my “I’m doing this once, and then giving it away” approach, so his prices are higher. And, full disclosure, he has set his wares on my sidewalk about 5 Saturdays throughout the summer. The dude does not want to carry his tchotchkes back to Madrid.

So there we were, two mild-mannered capitalists selling nice stuff and a bit of junk, but no contraband, no “Coach” bags, nothing you’d find in a pawn shop, nothing edible – nothing recently recalled or of questionable origin. But we were on public property. And apparently we were causing some trouble on the sidewalk. The dozens of shoppers who perused or just walked right by on their way to Safeway seemed none too concerned. But, it turns out, we were breaking the law, and could easily be fined, and even arrested.

Officer Williams was very kind and yet clear in her warning. She knew JL had held a few sales, and she said she was letting us know because the “vending enforcement officers” were making the rounds and we’d definitely be ticketed if they saw us. Arrest actually could be possibility. She mentioned the vending laws as if they were something every citizen should be familiar with. Yet a search of the dc.gov and the DCRA section yields nothing for residents, only plugs for the new wave of street food vendors in the city. But for offending yard-salers, zilch, zero. Which is what we made after 4 p.m.

We’ve been having a significant robbery spree in my part of the Hill, so I was glad to see an officer in the area. HillEast and its WP coverage have caught MPD’s eye, and we’re getting the extra TLC. There are lots of other kinds of trade that happen in the alley behind my house, and I am a bit little frustrated with the “crackdown” my friend and I experienced. Is this a new twist in the former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s broken window theory? Round up the lemonade entrepreneurs, Girl Scout cookie pushers and people trying to make a buck off of unwanted holiday gifts — and you’ll scare those drug dealers around the corner out of the neighborhood? I just don’t get it.

Well, practically, I do get it. Some could say we were in the way on the sidewalk, and in theory, a hoard of enthusiastic shoppers could have made pedestrians (gasp) step on the grass. Apparently that’s called incommoding.  It seems it’s enforced in our fair city more than most, generally applied to badly behaving activists. You can bet JL and I weren’t incommoding in protest, but if we intend to join the IMF-haters sometime soon, now we know how.

Officer Williams suggested I reach out to Lt. Ewell of PSA 107. I just dropped him a line, mostly wanting to know where I could find the “rules” to learn a little more about enforcement and permits. Officer Williams said there was a two yard sale a year limit to residents, yet I’m pretty sure she said they would have to be held in the “yard,” and we’d still need a permit/license. I’ll let you know what I hear.

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  • Gwydion

    This is patently absurd. Yard sales are part of the life of a community. Why should we make it difficult to hold them? Now… I understand how annoying it would be if someone held one every day… but to police people doing it occasionally, just for fun? Ridiculous.

  • I know! I’m interest to see if the Lt. gets back to me. I think I’ll have a response from Tommy Wells soon.

  • Mary

    There is a problem with blocking the sidewalk for the physically disabled if they have to get up stairs to walk through your grass, or if their wheels won’t work on grass…so that’s why I like it when cops ticket cars parked in curb-cuts, but really, if there were so many people browsing that they blocked the sidewalk, those people would just move for a disabled person.

  • Very good points. If the yardsale was in my yard, it definitely would be inaccessible to physically disabled people. We tried not to block the sidewalk – or at very least, the width that remained would have been passable by a wheelchair.

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