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A mixture of US and Canadian coinage is common in The Other Maine
The Other Maine

The Art of Bartering

By Alex Seise | February 22, 2012

There is something to be said for a person blessed with the talent of trade.

These virtuosos can talk down a stoic car salesmen, negotiate deals of international proportions and take couponing to the extreme, frequently leaving stores with goods and extra cash to boot.

The Brand New Consignment Shop in Downtown Madawaska, Where Price Haggling is Encouraged

However, in the Other Maine, you might refer to these thrifty souls as Bob. Or Mary. Or any other name, for that matter. Bargaining and bartering are integral parts of culture in the Saint John Valley, and you can hardly drive a mile without seeing vestiges of thrift on the roadside, in shop windows and sprawled across lawns. Nearly everyone participates, and the impact on society is fascinating.

A few weeks ago, while ordering a delivery of heating oil, David gave it a shot for the first time. It didn’t take long to see what all the fuss was about; through a series of brief calls in rapid succession to various fuel companies, peppered with some friendly banter, he was able to negotiate the oil price down by ten cents per gallon. For him, the thrill didn’t come from the meager $10 saved; it came from the haggling process itself.

During the spring, garage sales overwhelm the sidewalks and front yards of Aroostook County homes all the way from Allagash down to Houlton. These social events, often complete with snacks and comfortable seating, are a spectacle to behold.

Between negotiations, friendly conversation and the steady stream of intrigued would-be buyers, each sale is much closer in nature to a fete than a bazaar. But if you look closely enough, the small details tell dozens of stories.

Some goods bounce around from sale to sale over the years; others are pieces of collections that never quite matured and are being sold off rather than collecting more dust in an attic. Others show which homes have had components upgraded during times of prosperity, while just as many others display signs of downsizing and fundraising.

The only constant variable about these sales are the people who have a penchant for perusing.

It doesn’t take a large sale to ignite the spark of capitalism. Many individuals simply park an old piece – be it a car, snow blower, tractor or other equipment – on the side of the road with an asking price. Some sell quickly; others wait outside for months and months, collecting snow as the seasons slide into deep winter.

A Snow-Covered Snowblower in Madawaska, Which Has Been For Sale Since Last Summer

The better-marketed goods, like those advertised on community tack boards in most local businesses, have a higher turnover rate than their comrades sitting unassumingly near the curb.

The widespread use of social media has spawned many more opportunities to propel the Northern Mainer’s love of bartering. None is more dramatic or notorious than the Facebook group “Aroostook County Maine For Sale, Trade or Looking For.”

At any given time, dozens of personal dramas unfold online against the backdrops of business transactions. On one occasion a few months ago, a poster put an old stereo for sale in Van Buren; within hours, comments flooded in. Some attempted to jostle the asking price; others inquired about its condition and technical specifications.

Then, a series of posts accused the seller of petty theft, alleging that the electronic equipment was pilfered from a scorned lover. Before long, family members and friends were taking sides in a scathing verbal barrage; but, the only issue that was never actually resolved in the thread was whether or not the stereo itself ever sold.

With money on the line, even offline transactions can turn vitriolic. On a recent visit to a shop in the Aroostook Centre Mall, David noticed a check and several papers taped up near the cash register. A woman’s name and address were clearly visible, and a passive aggressive note about her bounced check was printed alongside it to serve as a warning for other potential flaky dealers.

Whether you love it or could leave it, bargaining and haggling are constant reminders about the quality of life in Northern Maine. They speak volumes about the enterprising nature of its people and their uncanny ability to successfully do more with less.

Unlike many other parts of the country where denizens rush out to big box stores for their every need, the people up here have learned to make do; and with this knowledge of thrift in hand, they’ve created a genuine art form out of necessitated bartering.

It is as much a part of the culture as snowy winters, bilingual chatter and warm family gatherings.

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