MEET THE ... : YARD WARRIOR.
Helen Rawdin slams on the brakes when she spots the day's first yard sale, the first pile of somebody else's stuff sprawled across a lawn. She yanks her nimble Infiniti G20 into reverse and veers violently backward, completely obstructing the driveway.
``I never block anybody's driveway,'' she says, shifting into park and fleeing the front seat. ``Unless they're the ones having the garage sale.''
The tiny, fiery Rawdin has plenty of such advice. She's been blocking driveways and rummaging for 25 years, hitting between 80 and 150 garage sales every weekend.
At the age of 63, she's the San Fernando Valley's yard warrior, having slayed a houseful of treasures and a bagful of stories and compiled them into a self-published book called ``40 Thousand Garage Sales Later ... ''
And as she demonstrates on a recent Saturday morning bargain binge, Rawdin can spot a buried treasure from the curbside. She can find $300 diamond rings inside boxes of trinkets marked ``50 cents each.'' She can find Waterford crystal among piles of broken toys, rare signed lithographs wrapped in strings of broken Christmas lights.
She can riff on the many notes of the Saturday bargain hunt, spouting theories on everything from the sales pitch to the haggle, from the hand-painted telephone pole ads to the price tags, from the thrill of the hunt to how you park the car.
And as she sprints toward the first of the day's 50 targets, she ignores a sloppy pile of clothes and zeros in on a box of Chinese-style painted bracelets. She buys them for $2.
``I'll sell these,'' she says, zipping up the fanny pack she keeps stocked with small bills and change. ``Your mind's always gotta be going. How much does this retail for? What am I going to do with this?''
Gold in them thar yards
Over the years, she has developed habits, tastes and rules, turning shopping in other people's yards into a science. She follows a broad strategy, a Patton-esque battle plan to cover the Valley's driveway unloading sessions week after week, year after year, and find what she wants.
She never spends too much, and she doesn't buy what she can't use. Or what she can't add to a collection. Or put in her bathroom. Or sell for a profit. Or donate to the Motion Picture & Television Hospital, where she volunteers a few days a week.
``When you go to garage sales, you can't go to the store anymore,'' she says. ``You get spoiled, even if you've got the money.''
And if you know the rules, Rawdin's Rules, you, too, can find $220 rhinestone handbags for $1.50 and $175 Gucci picture frames for $1. You, too, can boast finding, as she writes, a ``brand new Dior green silk suit with black bugle beads and black garnet buttons, with $645 price tag attached'' for $15.
(She's never actually worn it, though.)
``Anyone can buy a dress for $1,000,'' Rawdin explains, ``but it takes talent and work to find it for $5 at a garage sale.''
Her talent and work now fills her house, which doesn't look as if it was decorated with other people's leftovers. The first-class front-yard finds blend in seamlessly among many framed portraits of Rawdin and her cousin, superproducer Aaron Spelling.
Fruits of her labor
By taking her time, by searching through hundreds of sales a month, by settling for only good deals on quality merchandise, she managed to furnish the bedroom with four $5 lamps that actually match. She added touches such as a porcelain mermaid statue and a real marble night-light shaped like a pyramid. And various den and dining room corners swell with $5 and $10 booty she has built into impressive exhibits.
``I collect clocks,'' she explains. ``I collect perfume bottles. I collect porcelain figurines. I collect cups and saucers. I collect lithographs.''
But more so than bargains, Rawdin is on the streets every week collecting war stories. She tells about the $2,000 raccoon coat she found for $15. She tells about the time she bought an $8 luggage set (it retails for more than $1,000, she says, according to a catalog she saw). She tells about the time she hit 83 sales in one day - a record - and bought one thing.
For years, she shared these stories on a garage sale hotline advertised in the Daily News classifieds featuring her best finds and tips (``I have noticed ... that used ovens, ranges, dishwashers and trash compactors are not in demand, and because of this, I feel it best to price them lower than other appliances.'')
And now, the shopping has become habit, a fix, something she must do. Even when she's visiting family out of town.
``If I don't do it for a weekend, I get very upset,'' she says. ``I go home to Texas, and the sales just are no good there.''
Don't go chasing Waterford
The hunt begins at 6:30 a.m., when Rawdin sits down in a Calabasas restaurant called Label's Table and sorts through the week's classified ads. She compiles a list of the best prospects, a scrap of paper she keeps on her seat throughout the day, and scratches off addresses as she visits them.
It's the same thing every weekend. As her husband, an advertising executive, plays golf at the Calabasas Country Club, Rawdin prowls. She keeps the task close to home, though, venturing no further than the West Valley, finding all she needs in Canoga Park, West Hills, Woodland Hills and Calabasas.
``I don't drive the freeways,'' she says, as she proves an expert navigator, cruising the Valley floor's ranch-house maze without a map or Thomas Guide. Even the most obscure cul-de-sacs and dead ends fail to throw her.
With sharp, sickening swerves, she sends her Infiniti chasing a series of fluorescent signs tacked to lampposts to find three sales on the same block, a mini-bazaar.
Within 90 seconds, she has found them all barren. Not to worry, though, the surrounding streets hold more sales than even Rawdin can hit in a day. Her foot on the pedal, eyes on the list, she wonders, ``Where to next?''
And by 9:28 a.m. she has stopped-started-shopped 28 times, and the car brims with stuffed animals and dinner trays embedded with sea shells. She breezes through a few more sales, picking up a coaster set (75 cents), a boxed Santa Claus doll ($3), 22 sets of Christmas lights ($1.25 each) and a music box carved like a sewing machine, crawling with mechanized mice ($3, but, she says, ``It's worth $70. Look at this! Everything turns!'').
But in another two hours, by Yard Sale No. 50, she's just doing drive-bys, barely braking for wardrobes dumped in piles, for lawn mowers and strollers, for a man and his sofa on the grass of the Canoga Park DMV. This late in the day, she explains, the good stuff has already found new homes.
Rawdin follows a series of orange signs to an apartment complex garage containing only a rack of clothes and a few chairs.
``What a joke!'' she says, stomping out.
No matter how sparse a sale may look, Rawdin insists, there may be gold (or scrap gold, or fake gold, or diamonds, or rhinestones or whatever) in there. Just keep looking.
``She's probably a real grinder,'' says the caustic chaperone of Yard Sale No. 19, watching Rawdin scan his junk, expecting a grind, an intense haggle and debate over a salad bowl set she grabs.
But she takes his price of $3.
``The seller is always right,'' she explains, walking away. If the asking price is too high, offer something only slightly shaved, she says, ``don't insult them by offering half. I'm no grinder.''
Rawdin doesn't waste her time niggling over dollar bills and quarters. She has other strategies.
``If you notice, I always say `Good morning,' '' she says. ``That way they might give me a better deal.''
Of course, sometimes the gesture is wasted on gemless tables full of playing cards missing the aces and mystery novels with no covers, on Thighmasters and Easy Gliders purchased in infomercial stupors, on ashtrays from Vegas and toy cameras that produce pictures of Hulk Hogan.
Let's make a deal
But sometimes Rawdin's persistent, consistent methods pay off, such as at a sale where Rawdin points out a tongue-lapping, tail-wagging Felix the Cat clock. The dirt-streaked timepiece wears a $50 price tag.
``If I really wanted that clock,'' she says, confident in her abilities. ``I'd come back in the afternoon and buy it for $2.''
Sometimes she'll wait all day for a deal. She's even held out six months for an overpriced item to reappear for only a few dollars. With the patience of a Middle Ages spice trader, trekking to China for a good deal, Rawdin slowly pursues the wares and collectibles that rule her weekends and her home.
``How much for your candle?'' she asks a stern-faced merchant, early in the day.
``Will you take a buck?''
So she drives away, searching for the next cardboard ``Moving! Must sell everything!'' sign, the next potential steal, the next reason to slam on the brakes and block a driveway, the next 40,000 sales.
Photo: (1--Cover--Color) The Art of the DEAL
Into the Valley of secondhand treasures with the queen of garage sales
(2--3) The West Valley teems with garage sales, and a bargain-hunter seldom has to go far, according to Helen Rawdin, who is proud of the treasures she's found in a quarter-century of yard-sale shopping.
(4--5) It takes a trained eye to unearth a treasure from a box full of junk, says Rawdin, 63, a veteran of over 40,000 sales. ``When you go to garage sales, you can't go to the store anymore. You get spoiled, even if you've got the money.''
David Sprague/Daily News
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|Title Annotation:||L.A. LIFE|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Mar 29, 1997|
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