Erik Boss, a gentle giant in dark sunglasses, peers beyond the lemonade stand, used toys and household detritus to a pair of racks positioned discreetly at the back of a cluttered Scarborough driveway. Bargain hunters mill around tables on a sunny Saturday morning, oblivious to the illegal goods that lurk amid the flotsam and jetsam of a run-of-the-mill garage sale. But something illicit has caught the eye of Mr. Boss, 300-plus-pounds of civic authority in work boots and a city uniform.
"You shouldn't be putting that out for sale," declares Mr. Boss, a burly, gregarious municipal standards officer for the Scarborough region who spends many summer weekends monitoring the city's thriving garage-sale circuit. He looks toward a collection of brand-new greeting cards, displayed on two wire stands."By the time I get back, hopefully you've taken those down."
The vendor, a lean homeowner named Peter, is trying to offload excess stock from his card-distribution company – cards that normally cost $3 each for 75 cents apiece.
"I wasn't looking to do anything illegal. I'll take it down," he sputters, as family and customers gawk at the scene.
This time, Peter escapes with a warning.
Toronto City Council clamped down on garage sales six years ago, limiting residents to two a year and cracking down on businesses masquerading as yard sales, in an effort to prevent quiet neighbourhoods from turning into traffic-jammed commercial corridors (the city previously used the zoning bylaw when residents ran businesses from their driveways). The penalty for failing to heed the warning of bylaw officers, such as Mr. Boss, could result in a fine as high as $200, and repeat offenders could be hauled into court and fined up to $5,000 under the Provincial Offences Act. Other municipalities also restrict the number of garage sales residents can hold, enforcing the rules through zoning bylaws. Guelph, for example, permits residents three garage sales a year.
If that's not enough to make you think twice about setting up tables with your rejected household wares on your front lawn, Health Canada recently issued a bulletin warning that garage-sale items should meet regulatory standards, or else vendors are breaking the law.
Bill Blakes, manager of municipal licensing and standards in Scarborough, said most residents abide by the rules. But there are times when Torontonians tread into murky waters, sometimes unintentionally (i.e. by selling new greeting cards; garage sales are for miscellaneous household goods, and are not meant to be run as retail businesses).
"I think people have the right to get rid of some of their stuff. That's why it's not prohibited, it's limited," Mr. Blakes said. "But it [the bylaw] is to stop residential neighbourhoods from becoming business neighbourhoods where every second house will have something for sale on their driveway every Saturday morning."
Mr. Blakes said that when garage sales start operating as a business, and sell new items rather than personal property, it takes away from companies that are paying taxes and following the law.
"Don't get me wrong, people can have garage sales. They just can't have it every weekend and they can't operate it as a business," Mr. Blakes said.
Garage-sale offenders are caught primarily after neighbours complain. Residents phone the city, annoyed that the person next door has had a slew of yard sales, clogging up their otherwise quiet street. Others are fed up with seeing their neighbour's driveway lined week after week with stereo speakers, car parts, refinished furniture or racks of new clothing – clearly not your typical yard-sale knick-knacks.
The city receives as many as 50 garage-sale complaints a year, but only handed out about five tickets last year; the majority of times officers warn residents. A business operating as a garage sale falls under zoning bylaws, and carries heftier fines.
On a typical Saturday morning, Mr. Boss drives by his usual haunts to make sure that residents who have been previously warned are not disobeying his orders. In his 26 years as an inspector, he has heard it all: the phony garage sale dealers have their list of excuses; residents who are mostly stunned, then apologetic; and those who simply lie about how often they've had a yard sale. More often that not, people tell him they just didn't know the bylaw.
There are families moving out of the city trying to get rid of as much as possible, for example, and didn't know they were limited to two yard sales a year. Neighbours call to complain. Mr. Boss will approach the family, and inform them of the bylaw. Then there's the 84-year-old man at Victoria Park and Danforth Avenues, who effectively shut down the laneway by opening up his garage to passersby for a few weekends. He was lonely and wanted to meet people, he told Mr. Boss. Neighbours complained that it obstructed traffic. When Mr. Boss warned him, he packed his wares and promised to stop.
For most, a warning is enough. Mr. Boss is not out to stop garage sales in the city, but rather to keep them from getting out of hand. It's the big-wig dealers that he's really after, the ones trying to supplement their store income through yard sales without paying taxes or having the necessary permits. A man on Brimley Road in Scarborough set up tables outside a Persian rug store almost every weekend and called it a yard sale. Mr. Boss received pictures, but the offender eluded him every time. The last Mr. Boss heard, the man shut down his operation after learning that property owners and the city were on to him.
"Everything I'm doing I am assembling evidence for potential litigation, if it's going to go there," he said. "Everything I do potentially is going to be one step closer to a charge."
Don't worry, though, Mr. Boss and Mr. Blakes are not about to ticket those eager, business-minded kids operating lemonade stands: "I think if my guys come and say 'I busted six or seven six-year-olds,' jokes Mr. Blakes, "well, there's a lot more serious things happening in Scarborough."
That's good news to Peter's children, whose lemonade stand was doing brisk business just a few steps away from those illegal greeting cards. The street sale around Warden Avenue and Highway 401 was in full swing, and Mr. Boss was welcomed, chatting amicably about the weather and his job. The racks that were once lined with greeting cards stood empty.
"He was a good guy and complied," Mr. Boss said of Peter. "The ultimate goal is education and compliance with garage sales. After I get through my responsibilities and the homeowner still continues then that only leads to prosecution."
Municipal standards officer Erik Boss has heard it all. Here are some of the best excuses that garage salers have offered up:
This is only my first yard sale.
I have a disability and I need to make more income.
Why are you after me … what about the guy up the street … now he is going every weekend.
I am trying to clear out my garage so I can park my car.
I had to have more garage sales because I am moving in two weeks and have to get rid of everything.
My mother was a hoarder and I am just trying to get rid of her things.