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Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Wednesday, October 11, 2000

A case for
garage sale

Charles Memminger is on vacation. We will be running some of his favorite columns from the early days of Honolulu Lite. This column first appeared June 10, 1996.

SOMEONE should publish a list of ground rules for garage sales. My wife and I recently bought a piano at a garage sale and it was rather disturbing.

We have been looking of a piano for ages. The price of a piano seems to range from about $1.37 to $43,000. I have little background in pianos. I know they are chiefly made up of white keys and a gaggle of little black keys sprinkled haphazardly over the keyboard. When you poke at one of the keys, the piano emits a sound. This is called music.

There are all kinds of pianos, but they share one basic characteristic: they are extremely heavy and hard to move. There are upright pianos, not-so-upright pianos, pianos with shadowy pasts, grand pianos, baby grand pianos, fetus grand pianos and pianos that only have a vision of grandeur.

If you are searching for a piano, you will find that the harder you look, the more expensive they get. If you aren't trying to buy a piano immediately, but just checking out prices, you will see many in the classifieds for sale for about 200 bucks. As soon as you are ready to buy a piano, all of the $200 pianos are long gone.

So I was surprised when I saw a used piano (only the filthy rich can afford new pianos) advertised for sale for $500. That's a pretty reasonable price, so I called the guy, knowing it had probably just been sold. He said the garage sale had not yet started and so the piano was still available.

My wife and I raced to the other side of the island to get to the garage sale first.

When we reached the house, it turned out that we actually knew the wife of the couple who owned the piano. She called to her husband to show us the piano. He said he had another couple at hand who also wanted to view it. We walked into the house. Out of courtesy, we let the other (older) couple enter first.

Because we knew the owners, we knew the piano had been cared for and the price was more than fair. The older couple asked some serious piano-related questions while I quickly scanned the instrument. It seemed to have all the requisite splatter of keys.

"We'll take it!" I announced, going for a preemptive strike. The other couple blanched. We were told that the other couple had the first pick since they had entered the house first.

I wasn't about to let this opportunity slip though my fingers on a vague garage sale technicality. Yes, the other couple had entered the house first, I said, but that was because the door wasn't wide enough for us all to enter together and we were just being courteous to our elders.

The older couple pressed the first-in, first-offer rule. They were shocked at my failure to abide by their idea of garage sale etiquette.

But I wouldn't budge. So we agreed to flip a coin. I even let them call it. They lost.

In the driveway, I said I was sorry for the way things worked out. The wife began to cry and said, "You're only making it worse," like I had killed her cat or something. Then they climbed into their Mercedes (for real) and drove away.

I don't think we were wrong in the way we handled the situation. But I'd be interested in knowing if there actually are some rules to garage sale negotiations. Shopping shouldn't be so traumatic.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802
or send E-mail to

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