Antique bikes for sale along Route 90 in upstate New York. Cayuga County Office of Tourism

For one weekend each July, Route 90 in upstate New York is a bargain hunter’s dream.

Down the eastern side of Cayuga Lake in upstate New York, Route 90 cuts a narrow, tree-lined path. This is rural territory; apart from tractors rolling along with barrels of hay, not a lot of cars use the road.

But the last full weekend of July, it’s jam-packed. Since 1987, the businesses and homes along Route 90 have emptied out their basements and shelves for the annual garage sale that stretches 50 miles, from Montezuma in the north to Homer in the south. This year, it will officially kick off at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 30, though intrepid merchants will place some wares out on Friday evening, hoping to capitalize on early crowds coming in from over 20 states and Canada.

In the late ‘80s, the Finger Lakes region of New York—through which Route 90 flows like a vertical artery—faced a tourism problem. The five long, skinny lakes form a sort of obstacle course for drivers; to get anywhere in the area, cars have to snake around and in between the bodies of water. The Cayuga Wine Trail pulled visitors to the west side of the lake, says Connie Reilly, the original organizer of the 50-mile garage sale, but few of them ventured east.

At the time, Reilly owned an independent bookstore in Union Springs. She and a couple other local merchants had banded together in a small-business association to devise ways to boost foot traffic in their town. “We tried everything,” Reilly remembers: photo contests, treasure hunts, road rallies.

But Reilly, talking to a friend one day, realized: “I love garage sales, everybody loves garage sales—let’s just have one big garage sale along Route 90.”

That first year, the Route 90 Garage Sale was an organized effort. Reilly and the small business association members took out ads in the local papers and pennysavers, and charged participating homeowners and merchants $3 to join in, a sum that was rewarded with a brightly colored flag stapled to a wooden dowel, marking the property as a stop along the treasure hunt. Reilly says she handed out around 400 flags.

“We thought we had to control everything,” Reilly says.

Reilly’s efforts worked: thousands of people descended on Route 90 in 1987. “The area didn’t know what had happened to it,” she says. Owners of old farms and households trawled through their basements and barns, resurfacing with rare antiques and selling them “like crazy,” Reilly says, for peanuts.

An antique ceramic bull named Ferdinand for sale along Route 90. (Cayuga County Office of Tourism)

For two days, the east side of Cayuga Lake buzzed with an energy seldom seen in the sleepy region. “If a barn wasn’t open for the sale, some people would go up to the house and ask, ‘what’s in your barn, and can I look at it?’” Reilly says.

It was a hit. The next year, the flags and the advertisements were unnecessary. Local churches and fire departments and restaurants got involved, serving up pancake breakfasts and opening their restrooms to road-weary shoppers. While Reilly’s small business association remained at the helm, the sale “really took on a life of its own,” Reilly says.

For the next dozen years, the Route 90 Garage Sale just kept growing. Tourists marked their calendars months in advance; hotels booked up. For those two days, local business boomed, and out-of-towners struck deals with local property owners to haul their wares in from elsewhere and set up shop on a roadside patch.

But by the late ‘90s, Reilly says, “it just kind of plateaued.” Garage sales thrive on novelty and discovery; after so many years, the well of antique finds was running dry. “For a couple years there—I’m just going to say it—there was a lot of junk,” Reilly says. “I started to think: ‘okay, how do we end this thing?’”

Reilly’s bookstore closed and the small business association dissolved, but the sale refused to die. “Somehow, it righted itself, and got better,” Reilly says. Fewer antique finds litter the lawns now, but people have gotten creative. “You see boats and cars out there—you don’t know what you’re going to find,” says Meg Vanek, the executive director of the Cayuga County office of Tourism. Vanek has worked with the organization since 1997; she’s seen the sale slump and take off again.

Even if the wares are inconsistent, the atmosphere holds steady. “There’s definitely a bargain-hunter frenzy that takes hold,” Vanek says. It’s not uncommon to see people stop each other on the road and ask for tips, or show off their proudest finds. “You have to see it to believe it,” Vanek adds.

Year after year, people flock by the thousands to the Finger Lakes for the 50-mile sale. Since the first year, the number of vendors has probably bloomed to around 500, but nobody really knows for sure. That’s the remarkable thing about the Route 90 sale: pointing to a specific statistic or appeal to logic can’t explain how the it keeps going. The best answer Vanek can give is: “It just happens.”

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