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An Economics Lesson From The World's Longest Yard Sale


Every August, thousands of people get together for the world's longest yard sale. It runs 690 miles from Alabama to Michigan. Nick Fountain and Karen Duffin from our Planet Money podcast drove the whole entire thing looking for economic stories.


THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Keep me hanging on.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: So much traffic.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: We're going 8 miles an hour?


DUFFIN: All right.

The world's longest yard sale is not one yard sale; it's hundreds of them - some professional, some just people selling their junk on their front lawn, all lined up in a row, mostly along one rural highway.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, like, this looks like a yard sale I would mess with. OK.

In Alabama, we meet Marcie Crump...

MARCIE CRUMP: I am a third- or fourth-generation junk hoarder.

FOUNTAIN: ...Who tells us yard saling isn't just any microeconomic transaction. You've got to be ready to haggle.

CRUMP: As soon as I walk up, I just start, like, downing everything they have. And I start getting in their mind, just thinking, you know, did I price things too high? Will I ever even get this stuff off the ground? I mean...

DUFFIN: You break them down first.

CRUMP: They may be on an antidepressant by the time they leave this yard sale (laughter).

FOUNTAIN: We say goodbye to Crump and get back in the car.

The rental car is getting very warm.

DUFFIN: I am sweating.

FOUNTAIN: We drive through Alabama and to Georgia. And right about then we realize this is kind of amazing.

DUFFIN: This whole thing was started 29 years ago by a guy who just wanted more people to come to his small town in Tennessee. And now it's six states of small-town commerce.

FOUNTAIN: Cemetery - hold your breath.

DUFFIN: Eventually we get to Crossville, Tenn.

Big American flag - lots of American flags.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, that's some good stuff, actually.

DUFFIN: Pull over?

FOUNTAIN: Yeah, why not?

DUFFIN: All right.

FOUNTAIN: And on a strip of grass by the highway, we start looking through crates of records.

JONATHAN JONES: That's the only $10 album I've got.


JONES: No, it's a dollar.

FOUNTAIN: This is Jonathan Jones.

DUFFIN: We keep digging through his dollar records, and we find the Commodores, Otis Redding, The Pretenders.

FOUNTAIN: The Pretenders? As long as this has "2000 Miles"...

DUFFIN: Yeah. It's worth it.

FOUNTAIN: ...Then we need it.

DUFFIN: We have a stack of three records. But as soon as we hand over the money...

FOUNTAIN: Am I paying you?

JONES: I hope so.

DUFFIN: ...We run into a problem.

We're going to be the most...

JONES: I wasn't - I wasn't going to sell The Pretenders.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, please.

DUFFIN: Jones does not want to sell his Pretenders album.

FOUNTAIN: I feel like this sale already happened. The box was out here.

JONES: Yeah, but you hid this on the bottom.


DUFFIN: We didn't hide it.

JONES: I didn't look close enough.

FOUNTAIN: Jones says, this record means something to me. I really like this band.

JONES: The whole feel of it.

FOUNTAIN: I've seen them in concert.

JONES: It's one of the best ones I've been to in recent years.

FOUNTAIN: Listen; I'll make a deal with you.

DUFFIN: Do you have, like...

JONES: Give this back, and you can take any other two records here. How about that?

DUFFIN: At this point we realize we're giving this guy a really hard time because we're becoming a living example of something in behavioral economics.

FOUNTAIN: I guess we should tell you, like, why - so we cover economics.

JONES: The underground industry that's going on here?

DUFFIN: No, no, no.

FOUNTAIN: No, we don't care about tax evasion.

DUFFIN: (Laughter) But there is this economic term called the endowment effect. And that's...

OK, I got a little too into the weeds here, but basically the endowment effect is the mere fact of owning something makes it more valuable to you.

FOUNTAIN: Because look; this is not a record I've been looking for. I knew one song on it. But once I'd owned it for - what? - like 3 seconds, no way am I giving this up.

DUFFIN: So we realized we were being predictably irrational. And we told Jones, look; we'll take you up on your two-for-one offer.

But you have to put the Pretenders record in your car.

JONES: I'll do that right now. If it's the only one I go home with, I'll be happy.

DUFFIN: And we will hit the road.

FOUNTAIN: We've got 500 miles left to go. Nick Fountain.

DUFFIN: Karen Duffin.

FOUNTAIN: NPR News, Crossville, Tenn.


Nick Fountain produces and reports for Planet Money. Since he joined the team in 2015, he's reported stories on pears, black pepper, ice cream, chicken, and hot dogs (twice). Come to think of it, he reports on food a whole lot. But he's also driven the world's longest yard sale, uncovered the secretive group that controls international mail, and told the story of a crazy patent scheme that involved an acting Attorney General.
Karen Duffin (she/her) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in March 2018.