One man's trash is literally another man's treasure. Maybe it's the recession, or maybe it's just a new twist on the old sport of recreational shopping -- where you hunt down bargains because doing so just makes you feel good -- but curbside scavenging has gotten greater respectability lately.
Cindy Bagwell, an assistant news editor at the Dallas Morning News and part-time jewelry-maker, recently discovered the sport. She was working a late shift and had the morning free and decided to investigate what some neighbors who were in the midst of a major remodel were discarding. Taking her dogs out for a walk was the perfect camouflage for the scouting mission.
Her score: a five-drawer wicker dresser in excellent condition and a solid wood door that with some refinishing and sealant will make an excellent dining room table top. Buoyed by the experience, Bagwell roamed a little further into a neighboring community with bigger homes and better cast-offs. This trip yielded a stack of old books that when sold into her favorite used book store got her an $18 credit. Not bad for not much effort.
Bagwell, an experienced shopper who is on a first-name basis with many Dallas boutique owners, has a keen eye for the good stuff. It's important, she says, that you just not grab something because it's there and free. Free has a price tag if you don't need it, don't have a place to store it, and it's just going to junk up your garage or yard while you "fix that broken table leg" or get that lamp rewired.
Has the practice of curbside shopping increased in the recession? For Bagwell, it's just the fun of finding something that still has usable life. It's part joy of shopping and part recycling.
Princeton University sociology professor Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk, a book about sidewalk book scavengers and vendors, says that there are hundreds of people in Manhattan who eke out a small living scavenging books out of the trash and reselling them on the street or to used book stores.
While scavenging isn't a new practice, more people in this economy are likely keeping an eye out for stuff left curbside -- just in case. A few may even be setting their alarms to beat the garbage trucks on trash day, although that is largely limited to people seeking cash recyclables like bottles and cans.
Some tips for a successful scavenger hunt:
1) Most communities designate certain days of the year for bulk item pickup (known in some scavenging circles as "big trash day."). Do some research and find out which days are so designated in the wealthier neighborhoods near you. Rich people have better stuff, tend to remodel more often and discard what they no longer want.
2) Get there early. People put their trash out the evening before in most communities. While it makes it harder to see what you're taking in the dark, a flashlight may help. And if the glass end table you pick up has a crack, you can always toss it back out.
3) Bring a friend. You may need help hoisting heavier items and knocking on the homeowner's door and asking him to give you a hand isn't an appropriate option.
4) Be realistic about what's a good find. Will you really fix that broken toaster? Will your son really want 20-year-old skis? People get rid of stuff for a reason. If you can use it, take it. If you can't, let it be. It is not your role in life to find a home for every old bookcase.
5) Bring a big enough car to accommodate your haul, some padded gloves, rope for tying things to your roof and towels or tarp just in case.
And for those who find the idea of inspecting the neighbor's trash unappealing, there's always Free Cycle, a community-based listing of who's giving away what.
Curbside scavengers find bargains in the rough