Hard Times at the World's Longest Yard Sale

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Floto + Warner for TIME

A vendor on the strip of highway between Frankfort and Danville in Kentucky

If you ask how the yard sale is going, Wayne Lauffer will tell you: it's great. There were so many customers this morning, Lauffer barely sat down for five hours. Most of the baby clothes are already sold.

"We've had more customers than ever before," says Lauffer, 46, "and we've been doing this for 10 years."

But there's something about Lauffer's optimism that somehow feels forced. His mother Gretchen stands behind him. Her eyes lock onto a woman holding a pair of slippers who reaches into her purse for a $5 bill. "Oh, hallelujah! She's going to buy," says Gretchen, 68. "Why do we have all this stuff out here? Because we're broke."

Gretchen Lauffer bought this cedar-sided house on Douglas Street in Hudson, Mich., in 1963. She will lose it in October. She hasn't been able to afford the property taxes since her husband died three years ago. Wayne lost his job installing carpet last year. He hasn't worked since.

Hudson's annual yard sale used to be a chance to get rid of junk, Gretchen says, and free up space in the house. Today that's changed. She prays that she'll make $125 this year, enough to fix Wayne's Cadillac. That way he'll be able to drive to work, if he ever finds a job.

"I want to sell as much stuff as I can before they come and kick us out of the house," Lauffer says. "This town is falling apart."

This year, the town's annual sale has been absorbed into the World's Longest Yard Sale, an event that stretches 675 miles down the Route 127 corridor from Hudson, some 10 miles in from the Ohio state line, all the way to Gadsen, Ala. It could not have come at a better time: Hudson prospered throughout most of the 20th century because of its metal and plastics factories, many of which sold products to the car companies in Detroit. About six years ago, the factories began closing. Just down the hill from downtown, grass pokes through the parking lot at the corporate headquarters of Metalloy, a once prosperous manufacturing firm.

For now, the families of Hudson are able to maintain the appearance of a middle-class life. Most houses seem well maintained, and most cars are relatively new. "We're living off the leftovers of better times," Shannon Johnston, 36, says as she crams sweaters and T-shirts into plastic grocery bags. Johnston's daughter Brittany, 17, complains that the jeans she's buying for $2 are way too long.

"Roll them up!" Johnston says. "If they fit the butt, they fit." Until this year, Johnston purchased school clothes for her four daughters and three sons at Kohl's and Kmart. Then the steel factory shut down, forcing her husband Brian out of his job. The post office cut Johnston's hours from full to part time.

Which leaves Johnston marching her daughters from yard to yard, as Brian follows behind in the family's new Ford Expedition. "We've only spent $20 so far," she says. "If I'd bought all these clothes in stores, I'd be out at least $250. We just can't afford that anymore." Johnston stands in the driveway of Stan Stevens, who tends his yard sale from the porch of a two-story house with new red siding. But the yard doesn't belong to him. Until last year, Stevens owned the house next door. Then he was laid off from a factory that made gas tanks for minivans. His wife Michelle was laid off from her job as a hospice nurse. They lost the house to foreclosure and the minivan to repossession. Big crowds at the yard sale are the first good financial news that Stevens has received in months.

"This has been huge," says Stevens, 46. "You can tell that with the economy people are shopping more at garage sales like this and less at stores." In past years, many in Hudson say, buyers rarely haggled. This year, sellers were keeping their prices especially low, asking $2 or less for most items. Even so, shoppers were still looking for deals.

"We priced everything really low, and still most people are offering half of what we put on the sticker," Michelle Stevens says. "That's how you can tell that people are really struggling."

In Kentucky and Tennessee, where the Route 127 sale is an established tradition, professional antiques dealers rent spaces all along the road, and traffic is gridlocked. In Michigan and northern Ohio, the sale is less well known, and less hectic. Most people in Hudson, including those with their own yard sales, had barely heard of it.

"This thing goes all the way down to Alabama? Really?" asks Connie Varney, who knew about Hudson's annual sale but was unprepared for the tourists from California and New Jersey walking across her yard. "We didn't hear about this whole 127 sale until a couple of days ago."

For long stretches of Route 127 in northern Ohio, the only indication of the event was the occasional full-size motor home with an out-of-state license plate prowling the narrow two-lane road. Signs encouraged drivers to pull off and drive a few miles east or west of Route 127. Few took the bait. "If we can't see the sale from the road, we don't stop," says Sabrina Kropp, 38, who drove with her sister, mom and aunt in a Dodge pickup. "We can't waste time."

Thirty or so miles south of Hudson, near Bryan, Ohio, Carole Thomas discovered how to make big money from the 127 sale. She calls it "rebating." Over the past year, Thomas bought 60 Glade air fresheners. Normally priced at $8.99 apiece, she turned in store coupons worth $4.99 and mailed away for the manufacturer's rebates, worth another $4, bringing her cost down to 99 cents. Then she sold them for $2 each. She did the same with razors and toothbrushes.

Late on Thursday, stacks of clothes and furniture remained in Thomas' barn. Her discounted toiletries and household items sold out by 2 p.m. "It's completely different this year," says Thomas, 84. "You can tell people are hurting. I've never seen toothbrushes sell so fast."