I'm no early riser, but I have been known to creep downstairs on a steamy morning while my hosts were asleep, grab the newspaper, settle onto the porch, and begin plotting. How can I convince the friends I'm staying with that the paper's roster of tag sales is more enticing than the tennis, canoeing, or other sporty activities they have planned?It's not that I don't relish the great outdoors. After all, what could be more thrilling than basking in the sun on a stranger's front lawn, rifling through a box of 1950's dish towels or lace hankies or Bakelite-handled cutlery?

As an inveterate city dweller, I don't know how to drive a car, which complicates the life of an admitted flea-market junkie. But then, I'm not above resorting to bribery. I have unabashedly traded a lobster salad-and-Mimosa brunch at Silver's in Southampton for a ride through the town's rustic-chic back streets. Over the years those kinds of adventures have yielded, among other collectibles, a paperback edition of Olive Higgins Prouty's Now, Voyager (for a quarter), an only-partially ruined 19th-century needlework sampler, and a number of rickety summer-house furnishings that I'm certain will look great in my apartment. In the case of an old music stand found in Greenport, Long Island, it actually does.

I've had my triumphs, but a friend really hit the mother lode, though it almost cost her a friendship. Driving past a yard sale in Amagansett, Alice spied a sofa and chair in the clunky, highly desirable Mission style. Her houseguest (not me that fateful weekend) sprinted from the car with larceny in her eyes before my friend could hit the brakes. Things got ugly, but Alice, a Mission fanatic, eventually prevailed. Either she got the goods, she reasoned, or her guest would be stranded in a wheat field.

In a pasture in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, I was able to satisfy a lifelong desire. A 1933 Mickey Mouse wristwatch—a Mickey One, the watch that single-handedly saved the Ingersoll company from going belly-up in the Depression, a watch I'd wanted practically since I was born—was laid out on a blanket for $200 rather than the $700 it would cost in a shop, if you could find it. The grizzled seller agreed to $175. I offered to write a check, with my passport to back it up. He preferred a driver's license. "No driver's license?" he asked, incredulous. "Did you just get out of jail?" No, I explained. I just got out of New York City. He took the check.

Outdoor Shopping Tips

  • When you're planning a day of thrifting, make up your mind to hit the lawns either early, for the best selection—or late, for the best bargains.
  • Check the weekend classifieds in a local paper for tagsale listings.
  • Ritzy resort towns—Palm Beach, the Hamptons, Palm Springs—have prime tagsale opportunities. The fabulously wealthy have to purge their closets somewhere.
  • Kutztown, Pennsylvania, holds the 1,200dealer Antique & Collectible Extravaganza three times a year (the next one is Sept. 26—28); be sure to cruise the back roads, where local residents post garage-sale signs to lure shoppers.