Britons dive into the 'boot'

Tailgate sales - or 'boot' sales, as they say in Britain - are drawing scores of bargain-hunters.

It's only breakfast-time and already the Loxtons are doing brisk business. Caroline has sold her shoes and plenty of soft furnishings, while Steve is happy with the proceeds from a blue-and-white porcelain set.

No, they're not a couple of new eBayers making a few bucks online.

Strange as it may seem, when Steve and Caroline wanted to clear out their junk and raise some cash for home improvements, they drove to a muddy field in the heart of England and waited for the hagglers to come.

"One person's junk is another person's treasure," says Caroline. "We've never done a car-boot sale before. But I've quite enjoyed this. We'd definitely do it again."

The Loxtons are part of a growing army of Britons turning to a fad popular 20 years ago that is surging back into fashion.

A variation on the US-style yard sale, car "boot" (or trunks, as they're called across the Atlantic) sales are multiplying at a startling rate. More than 5,000 big events gather scores of sellers together in Britain every year, which collectively turn over £1.5 billion, according to a recent survey.

Almost two-thirds of people have been to at least one boot sale, according to the research by insurer Prudential, and an estimated 10.5 million people have run a stall.

"This is the retro version of eBay," says Paul Keeble of Prudential. "It's extraordinary how many people do turn up. The UK is a nation of hagglers who like to find a bargain. And car-boot sales are a great source of bargains."

Some put the trend down to the British appetite for retro and kitsch. Antiques programs are a regular feature of television schedules.

Others say that in a country once described by Napoleon as a "nation of shopkeepers," many find a certain satisfaction in clearing out the clutter and making a bit of cash in the process. A third theory is that dull merchandise has encouraged people to look elsewhere for distinctive accessories.

"On most [main] streets you see the same shops with the same goods and it's difficult to sniff out a bargain," says Mr. Keeble.

Not so at Cold Ashby, a small hamlet 80 miles north of London that organizes regular boot sales. Here, the range of goods is indeed far broader than that of your average mall. There are mowers and shoes mixed in with light fixtures, pulp fiction, bicycle wheels, and old Lionel Richie LPs.

All around lie neat piles of pungent evidence that on weekdays this spot is used for more pastoral purposes. Four centuries ago, Britons used these pastures near Naseby to conduct one of their most epic Civil War battles. Now they spend their spare time engaging in more constructive, mercantile activities.

"You accumulate a lot of things over the years," says Grace Harris, gesturing at the china ware and ornaments on display on her stall. "Most of it is stuff we've been given by his mother," she adds, nudging husband John. "We need the space again."

The Harrises are apparently taking the boot sale quite literally, by putting their old hatchback on the market. "If we sell it, we're walking home," says John with a grin.

The sudden popularity of these flea markets comes at a time when British retailers are struggling to shift goods and economists are worried that a slowdown in consumer spending could slam the brakes on the entire economy.

Boot sales will do little for fretful retailers. Indeed, regulars here say that the nearby town of Northampton discontinued a hugely popular car boot event because it was taking business away from shops in the town.

Also, there is growing concern that organized crime groups may be using the informal markets as a convenient way to launder money, trade illegally, or deal in counterfeit merchandise.

Some car-boot sales have been raided in England and bogus goods worth hundreds of thousands of pounds seized. One member of Parliament wants legislation to force organizers to record personal details of every stallholder to prevent gangs from operating.

In both England and France, where car boots are growing in popularity, stallholders are vexed at the growing professionalization of the event.

Traders and hawkers descend on stallholders before they have even set up, looking for bargains, antiques, and anything that they may be able to sell at a profit.

"We were still parking, and they were trying to unload stuff from our boot to see what we'd got," says Anne Webster, who is helping her daughter Lindsay sell off second-hand stuff to raise money for a new fridge.

"Then you see your stuff on their stalls later in the day at a higher price," she says. "One man even offered to buy my umbrella." She pauses as I move to leave.

"Oh," she adds, "you don't want to buy a bathroom cabinet, do you?"

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