Ashley Archibald, The Union Democrat

The amount of stuff people can accumulate over the course of a lifetime can be mind-boggling.

A trip to a yard sale can unearth inspirational books left unread,

paraphernalia of hobbies that never took off, the well-meant but

ultimately useless gifts that gather dust in the corner - all the things

people don't notice until it's time to move to a new home, or go to

store the latest acquisition and realize they're out of room.

For sellers, it also brings in a few bucks in otherwise tight times, which is particularly important for those trying to divest themselves of belongings as they downsize lifestyles and find more affordable housing.

Yet, for others, they're a business and a source of intrigue and, occasionally, high drama.

Take Marianne Phipps, for example.

Phipps owns Angels Attic Antiques, a shop on Main Street in Angels Camp. She frequents yard sales, estate sales and thrift shops looking for diamonds in the rough that she can resell at her own business.

Surprising things turn up. Ten years ago, a fellow collector came to Phipps with a small plastic horse figurine that she'd bought for 25 cents at a yard sale.

"It was an odd looking thing," Phipps recalled. "She said, 'Oh I can't put that in the store.' We looked it up in the book, and it was worth over $1,000."

The toy turned out to be a Breyer horse, part of a popular collection in the 1960s. It sold on the online auction site eBay for $1,050, Phipps said.

The past year has been busy with yard sales, partly resulting from the high foreclosure rate in the area.

"People are just clearing out. They're practically giving things away," she said. "There's nice stuff turning up because people are moving, downsizing, getting rid of mom's and grandma's stuff."

Much of the time, sellers don't know the value of what they have just sitting in their attics, Phipps said.

"The key to this business is that knowledge is everything," Phipps said. "I do research. I have books on everything, and I use them to research prices. If you know what you're looking for, you can tell within five minutes if it's worth anything."

Phipps isn't alone in regularly combing yard sales.

"Sure, we all do," said Sheryl Breaux, owner of Antiques Etcetera in Sonora.

Breaux has been in the antiques trade for more than 40 years.

She's an established name in the Sonora area, and people who know her shop call to alert her to yard sales they think she might be interested in.

"I think that what we do is the ultimate recycling," Breaux said. "When you go out to sales like that, people want to get rid of stuff. It's a good way to move it on, and people appreciate getting good deals."

Retailers like Phipps and Breaux represent the major league of antiquing, but you must look no further than Sonora to find the semi-pros.

Mary Davis and her husband, Daniel, pursue "yard saling" as a hobby. They shop the sales in Tuolumne County, but they go much farther afield to Monterey and Southern California to find interesting things to bring back.

Conversely, the items they find in the foothills make their way to Modesto, where the Davises host a sale at Daniel's father's house.

"The community gets together and does one at a club house," Mary said. "That's good, because I can take things I bought from Sonora and take them to Modesto, because there's nothing worse than going to a yard sale and seeing your stuff there."

If it's for the income or just for fun, which yard sales the initiated choose to visit depends on a few definite factors - like the income level of the neighborhood it's held in - and a few personal quirks.

Wealthier neighborhoods tend to have better stuff, Phipps said.

"What attracts me is if it's at a nice house. If it's a rundown shack, I'm not going to bother," she said. "Unless it just happens to have a stash of good stuff, you can usually tell by the neighborhood it's in."

Many times, church rummage sales hold hidden treasures because there's less emphasis on the true value of the items, she said.

The Davis' are split on their yard sale preferences.

While Mary tends to target younger people's sales - "If you look carefully, you'll see something a great-aunt gave as a wedding gift that they don't know what to do with," she confided - Daniel opts for sales with attractive, legible signs.

One common thread connects these three yard sale junkies - they know what they want, and are willing to work hard to get it.

That sentiment produces competition between those who take yard sales seriously, and it can go too far.

In August, Tuolumne County Sheriff's deputies responded to a home on Via Este in Rancho Poquitos on a report of a 70-year-old man who'd assaulted another man with a cast iron cornbread pan.

The conflict had its roots in the driveway leading up to the sale, where many diehards milled about over half an hour before the sale was officially set to begin.

What began as jostling for position turned at the base of the driveway quickly turned physical, and left the victim with a cut to the back of the head and the responsible party with a felony assault with a deadly weapon charge to contend with.

Breaux, who knows both of the involved parties, said it was hugely uncharacteristic of the men, but sometimes the yard sale spirit gets away from you.

"It was just a crazy situation," Breaux said. "I've had someone sidearm me before, but she was horrified when she did that."

Mary, who has hosted and attended a fair number of yard sales, has a few suggestions on how to keep things organized and civilized for both the buyer and the seller.

First, don't come before the posted time, it only causes problems.

Once, a customer came four hours before the start time of one of the sales in Modesto, Mary recalled.

"Some of the things were not unpacked yet, and we had the driveway roped off and two cars blocking it," she said. "At 4 a.m., we heard something. I looked out the window and here were two men going through the boxes."

Second, be sure to have wrapping materials, bags and about $100 in spare change if you're hosting, and plenty of flexibility if you're not.

Third, get up for the thrill of the hunt. It's game day.

"To me, it's about who had this, and why are they getting rid of it," Davis said. "Wow isn't that kind of neat to have somebody else's treasure? And now it's your treasure."