It's a gloomy Saturday morning, 5:45 a.m.; I clutch a steaming cup of coffee.
"If you're not hitting the streets by 6 a.m., you're wasting your time,"Bonnie Dolan says. "I definitely believe that the early bird gets the worm."
If you're in the market for beach gear-surfboards, umbrellas, wetsuits or fold-up chairs with cup holders-Dolan knows the perfect spot to find them. Pacific Beach yard sales. But you have to be early.
It's barely light out, but the yard-sale crowd is in full swing as Dolan, a petite woman with deep blue eyes, pushes her way-politely-past a woman with a stroller to inspect the wares.
The first worm Dolan plucks out of a heap of items atop a card table is a blue and gold rash guard. It's too small for her and she doesn't surf, but at $3, she'll find someone who can use it. They go for about $30 new, she says.
She and Joel Newman, a fellow early bird, don't go "yardsaling"with an actual list, but they do decide on a general category of items they're shopping for and then map out a neighborhood.
"Different areas yield different finds,"Newman explains.
Newman is a slight man who's donned hiking boots for this morning's trek. He and Dolan have been at this for years. It all began when Dolan's first grandson was born about 10 years ago and she started shopping for baby stuff, like a car seat and a crib, to keep at her house. As the baby grew, so did their strategy for hitting garage sales.
"There's a method to our madness,"Dolan says, rummaging through a cardboard box full of shoes and snorkel masks. "Is there a mate for this fin?"
Dolan and Newman think of their shopping territory as a grid and divide it up into four categories: South Bay (Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and Bonita), East County (mainly La Mesa), Pacific Beach/La Jolla, and Uptown (Hillcrest and North Park).
South Bay, especially Bonita, is a sure bet for good deals on kids' stuff.
"Behind the fire station on Bonita Road is an expensive neighborhood with lots of families,"Dolan explains. "I get kids clothes, books, furniture, even shoes still in wearable condition up there."
Palm Avenue, the main drag through Imperial Beach, also has some good hits for kids' stuff, Newman adds, because of "all the military."
The quaint older neighborhoods behind the Spring Street trolley station in La Mesa is where Newman finds antiques and collectables to add to his collection. His favorite find?
"A miniature tin lunchbox with the Lone Ranger on it,"he says. "Guy was asking $20, but I walked away with it for $10."
Bargaining is part of the game plan. Dolan offers three rules: First, never pay more than half of what the used item would retail at new. Second, always have plenty of small bills and coins so you don't have to ask for change-this boosts your bargaining advantage. Finally, if you make a purchase, always ask sellers to throw in something extra at no charge.
If she purchases the fins, she says, she'll ask for the inflatable Corona beach ball (still in its package) as a freebie.
The two admit they don't have as much experience in the Hillcrest/North Park area, but lately they've been exploring it more.
"I don't need as much kids' stuff these days,"Dolan explains. "My grandson's become pretty picky about what he'll wear and yard-sale gear won't cut it."
They've found a little bit of everything-from a Persian rug to a scratching post for Dolan's cat-in the new territory, but yard sales tend to be sparser Uptown, they say.
"People are less happy to bargain, too,"Newman adds.
Back in Pacific Beach, Dolan settles on the fins ($2) and gets the beach ball, too. This is the neighborhood they count on to score summer items, and this year Newman is hoping to find a patio set with a budget of around $30. Last year Newman and Dolan picked up coolers and beach chairs, but this year they said they've vowed to be smarter shoppers.
"The chairs we bought didn't have cup holders,"Newman says, sipping his coffee and glancing at his watch. "So, at the beach, every kid that runs by kicks sand into our drinks."
It's almost 7 a.m. now and Newman reties his boots. He's ready to move on.
"We can get another 90 minutes or so in still before all the good stuff's gone."