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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Selling The Family Heirloom


Donna Murphy's granddaughter Madeeson reaches for the day's earnings at a roadside yard sale. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

BETWEEN ELLISTON AND SHAWSVILLE, Va.--Donna Murphy had been saving the china cabinet to hand down to her daughter, who might then have passed it along to hers. But instead it has come to this: Murphy sold the piece on the side of the road for $35.

“It was probably worth about $200,” Murphy said. “But you got to do what you got to do.”

Three generations of Murphy women – Donna, 45; her daughter Rachel, 18; and granddaughter Madeeson, 22 months – were sitting by the side of road near the boundary between Elliston and Shawsville when Michael and I drove by. Their belongings were spread out on blankets and tables. There were videotapes, jeans and knick-knacks of all sorts. A doll in a faded, battered box bore the name, “Your Dream Bride.”

"Anything and everything," Murphy said.


The dolls were among the items for sale at Donna Murphy's roadside yard sale. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Her family started selling their belongings by the road three weeks ago and sometimes spend eight hours at a stretch on this dirt patch, she said. A man called "Duck" often joins them, setting up across the lot. Among the objects he sells are wooden birdhouses he makes by hand. He has trouble getting even $5 for them. “Is my time worth nothing?” he asked.


A man who identified himself as "Duck" sells his belongings across the way from Donna Murphy. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“On TV, they say it’s improving," Murphy said, "but they need to come out here and talk to the real people. It’s not." She works as a home health care aide, but said her company can no longer afford to give her enough clients. She added that her daughter has also been looking for a job, even applying at fast food joints, to no avail. “Myself and a lot of people I know, they don’t want handouts. They want to work.”

The day before we met her, Murphy had earned just enough to buy $39 worth of groceries, get juice for Madeeson and have a little left over. When we saw her, she was working for “gas and bill money” and was $5 short of her goal of $82.

What she had made, she kept close to her, folded neatly in a pink jewelry box that belonged to her daughter. I didn't ask, but wondered later, if the jewelry box, too, was for sale.


A fly rests on a set of knives for sale. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 9, 2009; 8:57 AM ET
Categories:  Scene along the Street  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Mirrors, Thin Walls And Cheap Motels
Next: Goodwill Hunting


This a heartbreaking post. The absurdity is that the people who would probably pay more for these goods, especially those bird houses, are not that likely to even see them.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 9, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

It's my hope the bankers, mortgage brokers and bureaucrats in the Fed and Treasury -- and the politicans and whoever else I may have missed -- I hope the whole bunch of them have nighmares every night and need to drug themselves to sleep.

Shame on all of you...

Posted by: Vunderlutz | June 9, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Quick, hurry-up. Get that stuiff sold now before King Obama and Queen Nancy Pelosi enact a 10% National Sales Tax!

I regret to say, that the sale of one's possessions due to the economy is a sad situation. I thank King Obama for his efforts, which have obviously failed the people within the Commonwealth of Virginia.

King Obama has been compared to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and JFK. Now he's impersonating Tiger Woods, out at Ft. Belvior.

While Rome burns, huh King Obama? Go figure!!!

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | June 9, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Who the hell would buy any of that crap?

Posted by: wangbang747 | June 9, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

There are 3 generations - the mother is 45, her daughter is 18 and her granddaughter is just under 2. So the 18 yr old, when she was 16, thought it was a good idea to have a baby. No. Sorry, I don't feel bad for them. She should have been doing her homework. Unfortunately, the one who will pay the price is the baby.

Posted by: ms1234 | June 9, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Hey wangbang747:

"Who the hell would buy any of that crap?" For one -- people who have compassion and care. Unlike you, that would be people who actually give a crap about the misfortunes of others.

Posted by: DOps | June 9, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"“On TV, they say it’s improving," Murphy said, "but they need to come out here and talk to the real people. It’s not."

Here is your problem..."Real People." While Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness wants to blame Obama for not fixing in 5 months what took the GOP and Bush 8 years to screw up, you've got this nut job still clinging to the belief that someone he is more "real" than anyone else.

I think the economy is better and I'm real.

Posted by: eternalemperor | June 9, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Poor little Madeeson, with her 18-year-old mother giving her a misspelled version of an overly trendy name and nothing much in the way of resources.

Posted by: mediaskeptic | June 9, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Hey, if you haven't sold all your OWN personal junk yet then please take this advice: don't bother.

You won't get anything for it because it is not worth anything to anybody else.

More importantly, by focusing on nickel and dime stuff, you waste precious time and brain power (don't laugh) that could be used to earn real dollars.

It's the marketing premise writ large: don't try to sell what you have - instead, try to figure out what people are willing to buy.

If you knock on their door and ask them you will likely find that, on any given day, everybody needs something.

For example, right now I need somebody who can fix my car.

Posted by: Heerman532 | June 9, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

It is true that this is a sad story. People who live paycheck to paycheck tend to get hit harder in a recession. But there are others to blame then the bankers and Obama. Look at the people themselves -- baby with a teenage mother living with her mother in an impoverished part of VA. The sad part of it is that the baby in the stroller will probably have a baby of her own in 18 years and be in the same shape as her parents. It's nice that they want to work and not get a handout but they need to accect some responsibility for their situation too.

Posted by: blh123 | June 9, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for writing this article.

May it help to open (more) eyes, hearts, & the good-natured' souls of our fellow human beings who call America, "home of the free!"---to the plight that is to be shared by all of us throughout the USA and the world at large.

Hopefully it will aid in opening the minds and giving nature of the citizens who share this world.---With all of it's struggles, challenges, rewards, and hope for a better future,...that should be shared with/by all.

President Obama is trying to do his best to help "fix"---a huge mess, that was started LONG... before he was ELECTED into the highest, most challenging office, our American Government has,...I believe he has no illusions of grandeur, nor would he want/ask for,...the sarcastic--"label" of "King." Interesting how soon some forget,...the former President went "golfing,"vacationing, etc...--more times than any other president, in recent history.

*Perhaps, the commenter, -C_F_E-C_E_Witness,...should consider contributing by helping our world in a more positive, thoughtful way,...other than,...lambasting those who are trying to rectify the situations, & HUGE issues/ challenges facing our world.

Posted by: rrcurran13 | June 9, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Welcome to Obamanomics. Putting America into the toilet.

Posted by: AlbyVA | June 9, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Wow some of you people are heartless and judgmental! Have you heard yourselves?

Posted by: dontbestupid | June 9, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Don't these people know about EBay? Sure, the one two punch of Ebay/Paypal fees sting, but at least it's quick and it's an extremely efficient market.

Posted by: wolfcastle | June 9, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Donna Murphy could stand to miss a few meals.

Posted by: BaracksTeleprompter | June 9, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

A very sad but all too common story. What does this poor family do next month or the month after? The poor are getting poorer, both relatively and absolutely. The only way I know to break this cycle is education and training along with huge dose of personal initiative and discipline. Does anyone know how to get there from here?

Posted by: gjhinnova | June 9, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

To the GOP this is Mission Accomplished- another family reduced to poverty and willing to take a job at any wage at all.

Posted by: hairguy01 | June 9, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I wish I knew how to contact Duck. I'd like to buy some of his bird houses and would pay him a fair price.

If anyone reading knows which days he's likely to show up and sell, please post. I'll happily drive out there to look for him if there's a good chance the trip won't be in vain.

Posted by: nlynnc | June 9, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

To the idiot who blames Obama for economy you're probably the same idiot who failed math in grade school and now works for below minimum wage. 5.5 months cannot solve 8 years of mess by Bush and Co.

To mostly everyone else I say have compassion on your fellow human beings. Yes some people do put themselves in dire situations but why not lift them up so they can get on their feet and teach them how to make it and then they can do the same for others. Get real people most of us are but a few paychecks from the street.

Posted by: rowz141 | June 9, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

hey,computer expert!you forgot to mention one thing,and that is that king obama,as you call him,inherited this messed up economy from queen bush,who coulndt care any less about the least king obama is trying to do something to get us out of this mess,but its people like you who try to keep the negativity flowing.where were you and your comments when the queen was selling out america,and lining his and his cronies pockets?

Posted by: billydee123 | June 9, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Everyone on this blog slamming Obama is way off the mark. Obama got to inherit the current mess we are in thanks to the previous administration and their lack of regulation on Wall Street. Thanks a lot.

Its going to take years to undo the damage done by GW Bush and his cronies. Those of you expecting to see results in less than six months are living in a fantasy world. Don't expect it to get better anytime soon.

The average American home has over $2000 of unused items just waiting to be sold...

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | June 9, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

If these abusive comments are representative of people in this country, our economic health is the least of America's trouble.

Posted by: boomkids | June 9, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

But for the grace of God, there go I.

Posted by: dashriprock | June 9, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

"Welcome to Obamanomics. Putting America into the toilet."

yep, under McCain/Palin these folks would be in tall cotton...

Posted by: HankC_57 | June 9, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately this is the REAL america for far too many of our citizens.We are rapidly turning into a two class society.The lords and the serfs.The REAL america died many years ago,a corrupt shadow government now deeply entrenched has taken its place.Any real changes in the country will have to be violent

Posted by: jellyhouse56 | June 9, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Rich folks aren't making off with these poor folks' stuff. It's people who are just one thin level above the sellers that are making out. I sold most of my antiques this year at auction. No one but yard-salers were in the audience. They bought my just refinished walnut buffet, 120 years old, for $80. It should have sold for $1200. I'm mad at the auctioneer for not advertising enough, but I'm happy that somebody who previously owned second-hand Ikea gets to have a William and Mary dining room suit in their home. Obviously, since I was willing to sell the things, they weren't of utmost value to me. Truly good stuff will be valued by all who own it. Someday my buffet may end up at a yard sale, in need of some Minwax, but still holding strong.

What IS a shame is that each time my computer crashes, I lose gobs of digital family pictures that I have been too lazy to save onto disk.

Posted by: UsedToBeGOP | June 9, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Sitting by the road, selling junk for three weeks, up to 8 hours a day. That's absurd! First of all, no viable buyers are coming along that road. Secondly, grandma and mom working a real job for those 3 weeks would have jointly earned at least $2000 and they could have kept their "heirlooms." It's this destructive, self-defeating attitude -- the same one that compels her to have a baby while unmarried and underage -- that leads to a life in the underclass. You can blame the current economy, but I guarantee they were like this before and, when the economy improves, their continued self-defeating ways will assure them a spot in the underclass.

Posted by: leaping_gnome | June 9, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

The irony is - these are the people that voted the Great One in!!

Posted by: thornegp1 | June 9, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

People, please, please, pleeeeeease do not judge. If some of us are more fortunate than others, and therefore, are not in the same plight as those in the story, please be thankful and grateful for everything you have, material and otherwise.

Posted by: ra1123 | June 9, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

I know what they need are real jobs, but hope the start of summer vacation means more potential customers driving by. If you don't need a birdhouse or a doll or something else give them as gifts or donate to a thrift-store.

Who knows? You may one day find yourself on that same lonesome road.

Posted by: dadada | June 9, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

unbelievable judgment.

remember your words when you expect someone to help you.

Everyone comes upon a time when they need help.

What about there being absolutely no jobs available do you not understand?

America stopped buying goods made in these parts of america that are suffering most from lack of industry since back in the 60's and 70's. Obama would have been, like what a kid? Democrats bought votes and kept their nose just above water by offering a stipend for breathing rather than developing businesses and requiring people to participate and make decisions about their lives. Monthly government checks to able bodied people taught them to have no dreams. By making Uncle Sam their father it stole their very lives.

Before too many wealthy DC folks get too involved with judging these people, keep in mind sending your IT jobs overseas will likely only continue. Even now, many have to compete with people who will do the same thing you do for less than $10 an hour. Keep telling yourselves "they" have to have you.

After the economy, then what will fall is the government, where will that leave the DC area?

Posted by: | June 12, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

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