(Disclaimer: I am a privileged white boy, and am aiming this article squarely at those in similar situations to myself, who have the necessary income to buy things out of want, rather than need. I don’t pretend to understand the struggles of those who have to shop second-hand to survive, or because it’s one of the only available ways to provide for their families. I would love to hear the thoughts of anyone who has been in such situations, particularly if they are aimed squarely at tearing down my argument. Please, if my high horse deserves to be kneecapped, don’t hesitate to be the one with the hammer.)
The other day, I plucked a well-devoured copy of Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Machineries of Joy’ off my shelf, intent on reading a random story from it. (It was a bathroom read, truth be told, and if you’re not reading in there, you’re just wasting time.) The book is one of many I’ve picked up since I moved up here, at prices that come absurdly close to replicating those printed on the covers, despite the titles hailing from a time when paperbacks were a fraction of a dollar. I’ve filled in many missing titles in my now-fairly-respectable collection this way, and found a glorious amount of unsought treasure as well. By way of example, a thrift store in Warrenton recently saw me leaving with a copy of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, Dan Simmon’s Carrion Comfort, an Oxford book of Japanese literature, and a college reader of Irish literature, at a head-ringing grand total of $3.50 for the lot.
I like to imagine myself as an armchair historian, rescuing these books from obscurity and mold, reconnecting the lost threads between now and twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. The age of the books, the beat-up spines, the discolored pages- these are all just the signs I’ve done something right.
Which brings us back to the Bradbury book. Reading the synopsis, I became aware of a faint, near-illegible series of cursive pencil scrawls in the top left corner of the back cover. A certain amount of puzzling later, I was able to discern three of the four lines- Jergen’s, Noxema, and chapstick. The third line of the four I still can’t make sense of- Rins, or Ring, or Rino. Rinse, maybe, written shorthand? I didn’t make too much effort; the mystery appealed to me.
The book became infinitely more precious to me on noticing the impromptu shopping list. This book was not just history now in a vague sense, a tether to another decade. It was a direct line back to whoever had owned the book before me. The table of contents lists twenty-one stories, but I have a half-dozen more, now, written in only four words. It’s a woman’s handwriting, to my eye, and political correctness or not, those are the people I see. Maybe a modern, single woman, for the time, unafraid to show her love of the unusual on her bus rides or idle time in the supermarket checkout line, but still keeping her skin beautiful and her lips kissable, on the off chance that someone worthwhile might start up a conversation with her. Or a husband, shaking his head and laughing a little, annoyed a little, at the list the wife left in the one place she knew he’d see it. Or a child, reading in the park, all too likely to forget the ten dollars in his pocket and the reminder on his book. Or maybe I’m going too far back, and the list belonged to a woman who dropped off the book only a day before I bought it.
I have found an uncountable number of items like this while digging through thrift and antique stores, items that are, to me, fully deserving of the un-ironic title of treasures. And yet, over and over again, when I talk to others about these things, I hear the same thing- “Oh, that’s cool. I don’t really like thrift stores. They weird me out.”
Most of these entries that I’ve started and half-finished recently have been riffs on the past, on its necessity as a part of the modern day, on the need to remember and respect it. I think that promoting thrift culture is a small but important step toward rectifying the lack of connection we have with our pasts. There is a fairly pervasive mentality in our society, or at least in my generation or younger, that places selling used items are somehow only for counterculture youth, or welfare mothers, or the homeless. I don’t pretend to know where this mentality came from (though we all know I blame those big nasty corporations and their profit machines, grr), but it is a mentality that would be wonderful to change. Thrift stores are, to most people, a place to shop for Halloween costumes, and little more. The idea of owning another person’s things in a permanent, non-joking fashion is shameful, and even traumatic. I have a friend who is an avid thrifter, and when he finds an Armani coat or Ralph Lauren shirt for his brand-conscious brother’s birthday, he can’t tell him that the items are second-hand- he equates any second-hand clothing article with a funeral suit, something stolen from a dead man, repugnant and frightening. This is obviously an extreme example, but it illustrates my point about the stigma of second-hand very well.
I want to see this stigma gone, removed, evaporated from society. To me, the idea that buying something someone else owned once is shameful speaks to a much deeper problem, a belief in the sickness of those around us, a pervasive idea that old equals bad, or at least old equals lacking in worth. Long gone are the days of inheriting our fathers’ swords, or our grandmothers’ patchwork quilts, but I can’t fathom how we went from that to throwing things away in terror because they’re last year’s model or brand or style. (Of course, most of us can’t actually AFFORD the new stuff, so we languish with our old clothes and old computers and old cars, lamenting our poor deplorable state.)
There needs to be a shift in mentality here.
The economic and environmental benefits of thrifting are obvious, and don’t need to be recounted by me in great detail. Other people have written on these topics with more eloquence and knowledge than me. Everyone knows the arguments, the affordable-necessities-less landfill-back into the local economy-give people jobs aspects. They’re good arguments. I agree with all of them heartily. But while I am a social-advocate-in-training, I’m still very new, and I want to leave those pieces to those who are far more adept than me at articulating them. The elements of thrift culture I want to emphasize are the spiritual ones, and the human ones.
It doesn’t take much examination to recognize that there is something wrong with our throwaway culture. Items that have served us well, that have done all we asked of them in providing us with shelter, or entertainment, or knowledge, or utility, should be treated with respect. I am an animist, and believe that each item has a spirit, a consciousness of its own, but such belief is not necessary for this point to stand. The respect with which we treat our things reflects on the respect we afford ourselves, our peers, and our elders. I’ll get to that point a bit later.
Maybe your computer freezes up on you now and again, or won’t run games at the best possible graphics setting. Does that change the fact that it affords you access to more information, entertainment and content than you could ever hope to sift through in a lifetime?
Maybe your cupboard is full of old plates, a grab-bag of styles and designs. You can’t even remember where half of them came from. Does that change the fact that they give you a place to put food? What the hell would you do without them? And a better question, why would you replace them with new ones, when they’ve served you faithfully and uncomplainingly the whole time you’ve owned them?
Some people will say that giving respect to an inanimate object is silly, or stupid. I don’t expect everyone to have an animistic worldview, even if we all coax our cars like lovers, and scream at our computers like…well, lovers again. But I remind you that your respect for the world around you, and the objects in it, is reflective of your respect for your fellow man.
The human element is the greater piece here, as it affects everyone, regardless of religious or spiritual belief. Throwing away things based on age or used status is, pardon the language, a huge, double-fisted “FUCK YOU” to those who came before us. On the one hand, we are saying “Your tastes, your materials, your likes are inferior to ours, automatically.” On the other hand, we are saying “The effort that went into the creation of these items, and the stories attendant to your owning them, are meaningless. We don’t care.”
I acknowledge that nearly everyone has some small item that they’ll brandish like a weapon, claiming “I DON’T DO THIS! LOOK AT MY GRANDPA’S RING/JACKET/BOOK COLLECTION/ANTIQUE CHAIR! I’LL ALWAYS KEEP THIS! I’M NEVER GETTING RID OF IT!” That’s good. For that single object, you are at the right level of respect. Now recognize that every item in a thrift store belonged to a human being, and has as much story, if not more. Recognize that the items YOU own are pieces of yourself, and that throwing away useful things at the urging of the ‘I need the new THING’ mentality is disrespecting yourself and your story.
This is not a call to hoard, mind you. I do not believe in hanging on to items that no longer serve any purpose to you. But don’t throw them out. Craigslist them. Bring them to a thrift store. Give them to a friend. But, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t condescend when you do it. Don’t assume you’re giving to the ‘less fortunate’ or ‘helping those in need.’ That mentality only promotes the disregard and disdain of those items that deserve the most respect from us, and stigmatizes those who ought to be praised for doing it right. Recognize that there is a touch of the sacred in ensuring that the objects in our lives are given homes for as long as they are intact, that your old sweater or bookcase or cellphone are superior to something you buy new, in their meaningfulness, in their connection to you.
I flip the book over, halfway through a story, to read those words again. They are a fishhook, caught in the pages, the line trailing back through time, a little slack, a little loose, but unbreakable for all that. A wonderful reminder that similar hooks exist in every object that used to belong to someone else. Far from being a swear word, ‘second-hand’ ought to be a sacred appelation. We should all be proud to own our old things, and proud to add more of them to our households. Every hand-me-down jacket and thrift store spoon is a museum piece and a treasure, if looked at in the right light, and we should treat them as such.-