While Americans hold garage sales and the French have flea markets, the English have a distinctly British activity in which to sell one’s personal second hand goods. The preferred method is a public, social gathering, often outside in the rain, known as “Car-booting.” Car-booting has perhaps evolved from the buying and selling at market towns, although the current phenomena increased in popularity in the 1990’s. The Brits are a very private people, and the home is a very private space, so much so they often don’t bother hanging house numbers on the outside of the building – a practice Americans (and emergency vehicles) find very annoying. Inviting the public into the homes (as is typical at the American estate sale) or into the garage (if they have one) might be seen as a violation of privacy for the British. Hence the car boot sale.
First, the boot. Brits call the trunk of the car a “boot.” I’m not sure of the origin, but perhaps it goes back to carriage days. For an American familiar with estate sales and garage sales, the first impression may be that not much could fit into a car’s trunk, especially the smaller sized cars Brits prefer. Not so. An amazing amount of things can fit in a car’s boot. Especially since many carbooters nowadays arrive in vans, trucks, SUV’s and estate cars (station wagons). Granted, you’re more likely to find smaller objects than large furniture, but as the Brits know, you can find anything at a British Car Boot Sale! In many ways, car boot sales are similar to other fairs and second hand sales. While some are held in the market stalls where local agricultural auctions or food markets take place, most car boots are held in fields. Occasionally in urban areas you might also find them held in empty car parks.
If you’re an American, the first difference you’ll notice is that there is an entrance fee for attendees, charged by person or car. Most events associated with second hand markets have entrance fees: a church bazaar or village fete might charge 50p per entrant, while a car boot might charge £3-4 per car. This may be a bit of a shock for Americans who are used to everything being free. It just depends on who is organising the market. City or council sponsored events, like the famous Portobello Road market in London, may have free entrance. The sellers will also pay a fee for their allotted selling area (sometimes called a pitch or a stand).
One thing will certainly be familiar to American bargain hunters: things start early. Real early. Especially when the sun rises well before 5am during the British summer. By then set up is well underway, with buyers and sellers quickly driving in around 6am or earlier. Things get busy quickly as more and more sellers drive up. Of course, numbers are impacted by the weather. A warm sunny morning might bring out 700-1000 sellers at the larger car boots. A cold rainy morning in summer may bring out only the devoted few buyers, while during the winter season the car boot might be held in a different location or close altogether.
The early hours seem to warp people’s perspective on food. During setup the boys in the bright yellow “high vis” jackets may crack open a beer by 6 am and the chippy stand will be selling chips (french fries) and hamburgers by 7am. If you are lucky, like I am, your local car boot will have a fresh donut stand.
It’s not unusual to see professional dealers and other bargain hunters swarming around the cars as they pull in, even reaching into the car and rummaging through boxes before the boxes are removed from the car. I refer to this as “the scrum.” Many British behavioural norms get tossed aside during the early morning activities. Bargain hunters have no qualms about reaching into a stranger’s car to root around. Under any other circumstance (imagine this happening in a supermarket parking lot) such behaviour would not be tolerated! The scrum occurs from the earliest selling moment until about 8:30-9:00am when vendor arrival slows.
Given the reserved British nature why is the scrum so grabby? Among the buyers are quite a mix: Some are hobbyists, some are addicted to the hunt, some are bargain hunters, some are professional antique dealers who just are trying to make a living. Some only hunt for children’s toys. Others only hunt for designer purses.
There is no queuing in the scrum. Just a mass of people pushing & shoving to take a look at what is being unpacked. In spite of the physicality, it generally tends to be a quiet mob – perhaps it is just too early to be loud. If you see something you like, call out and raise your hand to the seller so it is placed in your hands. Keep hold of it until you are sure you don’t want it. By placing it back down on the seller’s table implies it is literally “up for grabs” for someone else. Be mindful of conversations around you – an inexperienced seller may not know the “rules” and sell the item to someone else while you are still holding it – chaos will ensure.
We can easily categorize sellers by their shared characteristics, be it by the similarity of their stock or their motivation for being there. For example, the ToysNKids Seller seems to sell only children’s toys and clothes. Likewise the Specialized New Stock Seller might sell only sunglasses or trainers (gym shoes). Among the many motivations for selling at the car boot, include the Dealer Cleaning Out Excess Stock, the Empty Nester Seller, the Charity Stall Seller, the Recent Divorcee Seller, the I’m Just Helping A Friend Seller and the I’m Retiring to Spain Seller.
Sellers usually come in pairs. Often one of the two is Useless (being up so early and having not consumed enough cups of coffee) while the other is Organized. The Organized Seller knows what price they want for things and what is actually in the car. The Useless one is supposed to be setting up the table and organizing the stock, but, being Useless, they just stand there and yawn. The Organized Seller ends up doing all the work and informs the buyers of prices. The worst thing that can happen is for the Organized one to leave the Useless one on their own, perhaps trying to track down some coffee for said Useless seller, when the scrum hits. If the Organized seller isn’t there to take control, the scrum moves on quickly and the sellers have lost out on a lot of sales. Since sellers make most of their money during this key period, it is essential they are prepared. Other ways for sellers to lose money during the scrum is 1) not having change 2) not being able to find the change and 3) taking forever to get the stock out of the car. I’m always amazed that cars roughly the same size can achieve completely different results in which one group of sellers has everything out and are busy selling, while the slow car hasn’t even gotten their table set up or any boxes unloaded, let alone unpacked. The slow car will miss out considerably.
Woe be it to the seller who lets themselves be pushed around by eager buyers. I’ve observed sellers trapped by their tables, unable to unload and unable to stop buyers from grabbing boxes. If the seller does not take control and demand basic ground rules, mayhem (albeit a British mayhem) will ensue. A stern “Do Not Open the Boxes!” or a firm shutting of the boot will remind early birds of standard British social norms. The scrum usually only lasts for about 20 minutes, until the next row of cars arrives, and the scrum moves on. A busy car boot can be a bit of a surprise for those who expect Brits to be reserved and mild mannered.
Politeness, nevertheless, reigns. There seems to be an unwritten rule, perhaps based on the queuing culture, not to interrupt a transaction until it is clear that the potential buyer is NOT going to purchase the object. This is particularly practiced after the main scrum passes and the seller & buyer wander to the side for a quiet, private haggle. The next potential buyer only jumps in when it is clear the first buyer is not buying the object.
Specialist professional dealers are the most organized, swooping from car to car, asking “any jewelry, luv?”, “any records, mate?” hoping the seller will bring out a box of desired objects, but quickly moving on to the next car if the seller has none. If you see a cluster of women gathered, chances are high that the seller has brought a lot of beauty products, boxed perfume or clothing. Men huddled together most likely are looking for CD’s, cell phones, tools and jewelry. Hate to stereotype but it is often observed.
Some General Car Boot Guidelines:
1) Wear appropriate shoes. This is Britain, after all. No flip flops! It’s a cow field, with holes, mud, rain, long uncut grass, and the occasional poo. “A ruddy mess,” as they say here.
2) Be prepared for rain. All weather trousers & raincoats are a must. I prefer quick drying hiking trousers and top.
3) Bring small change. After a few hours of trading, sellers will be able to break larger bills. But don’t lose a great find because you didn’t bring enough small change.
4) This might be obvious, but cash is king. No checks, debit cards or credit cards. Cash only. Occasionally a seller will take PayPal or Venmo or other payment apps.
5) Expect portaloos (portapotties) unless the car boot is held at an official indoor market. Note the careful queuing at the loos & chip stands. Bring your own bit of loo roll (That’s TP).
6) Some markets have tighter standards as to whether new products can be sold, while others are strictly second hand. Inquire ahead. Second hand is far more interesting.
7) Forget newspaper classifieds, most small car boots and church fetes are advertised by a couple fliers posted around town. Don’t expect “flashy” marketing. In fact don’t expect signs at all. It can be very difficulty to figure out exactly where the car boot is. Many car boots place signage a few hundred yards from the entrance, made up of old boards sprayed by aerosol can with telltale drippy arrows. None of the store printed laminated signs that you might see in the States. In fact, Brits are quite proud of their inability to advertise. God forbid they appear fussy, or, even worse, eager. “Can’t be bothered!” they would remark. If there are signs, don’t trust them. They are often out dated or plain wrong. Britishness is all about insider culture. They hate to explain things. The unwritten rule is that you are just supposed to know things. If you are an “insider” you would, of course, just know that St Alban’s Grammar School Car Boot is always the August Bank Holiday. But, it’s also wise to check Facebook, Craig’s List, and those sites to learn dates and times.
8) The official English car boot season runs Easter Bank Holiday to August Bank Holiday. Many organizations, such as sports clubs or town festivals will have a once-a-year car boot, often on one of the May or August Bank Holiday weekends.
9) Haggling is expected. Some sellers know they have something of value, others do not. Some are dealers and clearing out stock. Some are clueless and are giving away heirlooms. Some sellers are completely unrealistic about their prices. They’ve been watching too much “Cash in the Attic” television or have found the highest priced version on online. If it is not in your price range, politely move on.
10) Bring a bag to place items in. I find the large blue Ikea bags ideal, plus they are waterproof and can carry a lot of stuff, including bulky items.
11) If you are purchasing an especially large or heavy item, the seller usually offers to keep the item in their car or to the side (after you’ve paid, of course). You can come back for it when you are done roaming around. This is an excellent arrangement, as long as you remember where the seller is! Remember what the seller looks like. But not just one of them, who could be in the loo or buying tea when you come back and you’ll never find your item. Remember, as the day warms up, coats & hats are removed, so they are not the best reference to use. I scribble down their general appearance in a notebook, car make and color, as well as a brief note about a location reference point -a large truck, a tree, a telephone pole, a chippie at the end of the row, etc. If you are there very early, it will be very difficult to remember which row you have left your item, as the rows grow with each arriving car. Plus who is thinking clearly at 6:30 am?
12) Bring appropriate supplies: boots, small backpack with water, hat, sunglasses, all weather trousers, mobile phone, small notebook, dry socks, etc.
13) Remember sunscreen. I always apply sunscreen in the car before heading out: it might be cloudy at 6am, but British weather is unpredictable. By 11am you could have easily been out in the sun for hours.
14) Each car boot has a different vibe to it. Some are organized and proper. Some have a more relaxed pace. Some are frantic and hectic. All have regular characters, who are just as much fun to see as the items for sale.
A car boot is not an antique fair, although you will find antiques in the mix. It is this wonderful juxtaposition of old and unusual with new and banal that makes car boots so much fun to explore. Car booting is a great way to observe and interact with the British people. As a unique shopping experience, I highly recommend carbooting to anyone who wants an interesting perspective into British culture. Even though garage sales occasionally occur they are still relatively rare, ensuring that the car boot tradition and domestic privacy will continue to be practiced by Brits for many future years.