Sale away with me
At the sidewalk sale, every merchant becomes a hawker under open skies
This is the fifth and final installment in a series of essays by the 2019 CBC Montreal/Quebec Writers' Federation writer-in-residence, Emira Tufo.
Nothing says summer like the sidewalk sale.
Ephemeral as spring blossoms, it usually kicks off on Mont-Royal Avenue on a weekend morning in June and then spreads across town like wildfire with the advance of summer, engulfing the city's main thoroughfares, including Wellington, Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent.
Stepping out into the main commercial artery of any Montreal neighborhood in search of eggs and milk on a random Saturday in June or July, one finds the street closed to traffic and the sidewalk sale in full swing.
It is a resplendent spectacle filled with endless racks of random shoes and garish shirts, stands of dog-eared paperbacks, colourful displays of costume jewelry, disheveled plants and the inescapable paraphernalia of the local seeker: beads, incense and Buddha figurines, all immersed in passing clouds of sausage smoke which is the sidewalk sale's official odour.
Montrealers are especially fond of their sidewalk sales, which call them forth from hibernation into a magical world of possibility.
All those tawdry goods that no one's wished to purchase in the local shops since the fall are suddenly transformed into desirable objects that one must get to before anyone else does — items like gold-embroidered belly-dancer bras — and so the treasure hunt of the sidewalk sale keeps hopes and spirits high from morning until night.
There is a tinge of rebellion in the sidewalk sale. Not only do the pedestrians take over the streets, wreaking further havoc on the appalling city traffic, but this is also the turning point in the year when shoes are shunned in favour of flip-flops, regardless of the weather. Weight-loss diets are put on hold to sample Korean pancakes and samosas.
The motley mélange of mismatched merchandise stands in stark contrast to the orderly displays of, say, David's Tea, hinting at the chaotic markets in faraway lands where anything can be found, from fresh herbs to genies in a bottle.
Every merchant a hawker
The sidewalk sale is a democratic affair. No one's goods are better than anyone else's. In the absence of storefronts, sandals stand beside soap which is displayed next to the grilled chicken stand which wafts its fumes onto the gothic dresses leaning against the bookstall.
This is where walls come tumbling down, and every merchant becomes a hawker under open skies — even the barber on Mont-Royal Avenue, who on a recent Saturday pushed one of his elaborate chairs out onto the sidewalk, snipping hair and grooming beards right across from a live Latino band.
The sidewalk sale hints at holidays to come: seaside towns lined with stalls of souvenirs, music drifting through the streets. Milling about the stalls like ants, Montrealers take in the sights and sounds as if seeing them all for the very first time and sneeze their way through the late spring poplar fluff.
The middle-aged find the comics of their childhood. Fetishists land leather goods at a bargain. Children chance upon unicorns. And hot dogs abound, smeared with mustard and ketchup, irresistible under the spell of the street fair.
One person's trash …
Then there are the garage sales — more modest in scope, yet equally popular. A hand-crafted sign usually points the way: to doorways and down back alleys, where one can catch a glimpse of the intimate contents of private lives.
Strangely, these contents are remarkably similar and consist mostly of old vinyl, kitchen appliances eclipsed by time, loved-to-death stuffed animals and trinkets of various kinds — especially in the shape of cats.
The garage sale is the opener to the sidewalk sale's main act, and its promise is more outlandish by far: that one person's trash might become another's treasure.
Whether it does or doesn't — and surely, at times, it must — does not really matter. The pleasure remains in the quest and the hope that lingers on either side of the stall: that some value may yet be squeezed out of the one-eyed teddy bear, or that a priceless item may be acquired just around the corner, in an alley, for five dollars, if only one follows the sign.
Like the circus, both the sidewalk sale and the garage sale are in town for just one more day and then gone tomorrow. Like the summer itself. Like holidays. Like all long-awaited things, some trace of which perhaps remains in a T-shirt never to be worn or a figurine never to be displayed but happily purchased in the elation of the street parade.
Happy summer, at long last.