How To Read
Classified Ads

by Craig Stark

#38, 14 March 2005

BookThink's Dictionary of
Classified Ad Code Words and
Phrases for Booksellers

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I'm lucky. I live in garage sale heaven. Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter - it doesn't matter. On any Thursday, Friday or Saturday, there are hundreds of ads in the garage sales section of the classifieds. This is one of the perqs of living in the Sunshine State, and given the fact that so many retirees retire in Florida, estate sales are plentiful as well. With this many possibilities, I can't expect to visit more than a small fraction of sales during those painfully narrow, 2- or 3-hour premium buying windows on Friday and Saturday mornings. If there are two quality estate sales that require waiting in line on a given morning, I might not get to any other sales at all.

The decisions I make on which sales to go to, therefore, can make or break an entire morning. Break too many mornings, and it could adversely affect a business. Years ago, shortly after I started going to sales, I realized that I wasn't very good at making these decisions. Although I'd begun to notice the same faces (i.e., dealers) at some sales, especially estate sales, I also noticed that there were some sales they didn't show up at. At first it puzzled me when this happened because the ads had convinced me of their promise, and yet their instincts (or whatever they were using to make their decisions) were usually spot on - that is, if they weren't there, the sale was almost always a loser. Seemingly, they knew something I didn't.

Later, when I got to know most of these dealers, I learned that part of their good instincts derived from at least some insider information (as I'd suspected), also some acquired knowledge, but there was one other factor as well - they were good at reading classified ads. Deciphering them. This is no small matter. If you've been at this long, I'm sure you'll agree that one of the more frustrating things that can happen on the garage sale trail is to be asked by a fellow dealer, "Man, why weren't you at that estate sale yesterday? You wouldn't have believed it. There were walls of books!" Well, if the ad didn't say "walls of books," how was I supposed to know there were walls of books?

Of course, nobody gets it right every time - or even most of the time. Luck will always be a factor. But what I'd like to do today is take a whack at increasing your luck (and mine) with a permanent, organic addition to the website - a dictionary of code words and phrases for translating classified ads into useful scouting information. This will be a work in progress, and if you'll be so good as to suggest additions or changes to it, either by email at or by posting them in the forum on the appropriate sticky topic, I think we can come up with something special. My contributions today are deliberately incomplete and probably obvious to veteran garage salers. Also, inevitably, every definition has its exceptions.

BookThink's Dictionary of
Classified Ad Code Words and
Phrases for Booksellers

Antique, collectible, rare or vintage books:

Red flag. Often indicates that the seller thinks they have something special (yeah, right) - and their prices will often reflect this.

Baby items or clothes, toys, games, etc.:

Red flag. Usually suggests a young family, and consequently, books are probably not plentiful or of good quality.


Books. Ok, obviously, but if your local newspaper has a searchable online database of classified ads, a keyword search should include this and other intuitive abbreviations.

BOOKS or Books!:

If the word is capitalized, followed by an exclamation point, or appears as the first item in an ad, it's probably an indication that there are a significant number of books.

Dealers welcome:

Red flag. Dealers are always trying to get other dealers to buy their junk. They invite them to. Private individuals holding garage sales, on the other hand, often don't like having dealers shop at their sales, whatever it is they're selling. Therefore, this phrase usually indicates that the sale is being held by a dealer and will probably consist of low-value, low-quality inventory that couldn't be unloaded at a shop or flea market.

Entire contents:

A reliable indication that the quantity of items available will be large and varied.

Estate sale:

Technically, the term estate sale refers to a sale conducted to liquidate the assets of an estate, usually following a family death. Sometimes, however, the term is used synonymously with moving sale, often when an elderly relative is moving into an assisted living facility or a family is moving out of the country. Less often (but often enough to be annoying), the term is a deliberately deceptive attempt to lure more buyers to what in reality is nothing more than a garden variety garage sale.

Estate sale items:

Red flag. Usually means that items were left over from a previous estate sale - that is, things are either overpriced or junk.

Everything goes, must sell, etc.:

This doesn't tell you anything about what everything is, but it usually indicates a seller who's willing to negotiate.

Huge, mega, tons, etc.:

Sometimes an exaggeration of what you'll actually find when you get there but not always, and since it at least indicates a somewhat sizable sale, books are more likely to surface.

Inside sale:

A reliable indication that the quantity of items available will be large and varied.


Usually a green light for a bookseller because it suggests both large numbers of books and higher than average quality.

Moving sale:

A reliable indication that the quantity of items available will be large and varied.

No junk:

In one sense, this probably will mean no junk, but often, it also means that the merchandise offered is new (or nearly new), overpriced or both.

Old books:

Usually this indeed means old books. Often, however, it also means books that are in poor condition but not particularly old at all - that is, age is sometimes equated with condition, and "old" may translate into ragged, obsolete textbooks from the 60's an 70's.

Old magazines:

For some reason, the term old magazines often doesn't mean old either - or very old, even more so than is the case with books. Perhaps this has something to do with a perception that magazines age faster than books?

Pots and pans (or whatever):

Many newspapers have different rate structures for different clients, and private parties usually get the best rates. Estate liquidators don't like to pay the inflated business rates and often attempt to circumvent them by placing a seemingly private party ad and using code words to identify their businesses to dealers. Example: if I see "pots in pans," "hidden treasures," or "add to your heritage" in an ad for an estate sale in my area, I immediately know who's holding the sale. This is important because some liquidators pre-sell to dealers, skim the cream for themselves, dilute sales with unsold items from previous sales, or otherwise make things unproductive, and knowing their code words helps you avoid them.

Thousands of books:

Red flag. As tempting as this sounds, in the past year or so, more and more booksellers are shutting down their online businesses, and more inventory liquidation sales are taking place disguised as something else. Since so many books are involved, however, this is one occasion when it makes sense to call ahead and find out what's going on before committing to a drive. If there's no phone number in the ad, try doing a reverse lookup.


Sales held on Wednesdays (or, sometimes, Thursdays) or those which have unusually early or late starting times may indicate that a dealer is involved. Why? Because dealers are too busy going to sales themselves during prime time to hold sales themselves.

Years of accumulation:

Ambiguous. Sometimes this actually means years of accumulation by a family. (Look for other clues in the ad to confirm this.) Other times it may suggest the presence of a dealer who is trying to unload junk that took years to accumulate.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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