stuff romantic.

A friend of mine stayed a few days at my house recently. The spare bedroom is also the room where a lot of my yard sale purchases end up. My stationery collection is in there, as well as random crafting things, a collection of pictures that need to hung on the wall, and, well, just a bunch of mismatched crap. My general policy with stuff is to get it, and then figure out what to do with it later. My friend called sleeping in this room like sleeping at Grandma's house, because Grandmas have had a lifetime of collecting all manner of random crap. And that's why I like estate sales.

Now, that's a pretty funny story, and I've since adopted the name "Grandma's Room" to refer to that particular bedroom. But it's a little weird, too. I have kind of a lot of stuff. Sometimes I'm not sure what that indicates about me.

Upstairs from Grandma's room, there is a small blip of a room. It's set under the slope of the roof, and you can't stand upright in a third of the space. The last owners used it as a nursery, but it is now Josh's library. The twenty-first century called to say that books are on the way out, but Josh did not get the message. If anything, he took it as a sign of the apocalypse and decided that he needed to be prepared to be the last man standing against the tide of digitalization. He is trying to get all the books into his attic before the Germans came knocking. He probably brings home an average of ten books from a morning of yard sales, though twenty is not uncommon. He is constantly on the lookout for shelves, because most of the ones we now have are stacked two deep.

He has a library, and I have Grandma's Room. We are both comfortable in our self-made clutter. We don't necessarily understand or appreciate the other person's clutter, but we realize that to complain would be hypocritical. Even so, we can both see that the situation as it is is not sustainable. We can't keep taking on more stuff at the rate we have been. Aside from the fact that our house is only so big, we might actually want to have children someday. Sorry, Mama, no grandkids from this daughter, there's no room among the bookshelves, and besides, a kid would just break the Pyrex.

So. What to do?

I'm going to take a slight detour and talk about why I love secondhand stuff. Because I have no idea if you get it at all. Maybe some of you do, and maybe some of you think I'm capital-n Nuts. We could sit here and come up with a lot of reasons for my love affair with stuff, most of them not very flattering to me. We could call me a hoarder, an elitist, a shopaholic, a material girl, a miserly spinster (getting nasty in here). You know, it's probably a lot of those things, too. I collect like a magpie. I think that a mere glance at my living room full of spectacularly cool stuff would convince anyone that I am spectacularly cool myself. I spend hours shopping every week of the year and I work my schedule around my Saturday morning shopping frenzy. I never feel like I have too much stuff. And I will haggle anyone for fifty cents.

I started thrifting for the practicality of getting equal quality for less money, and then all that other stuff came later. Including the romantic aspect of secondhand, which is where I am now. Rather than all those nasty other terms I offered, let's be generous and call me a romantic, a Stuff Romantic. Used things come with a story. They have a past. Now, these are not necessarily exciting histories. I do have some things which probably have incredibly interesting histories. We have a dummy WWII cartridge. That's not just a find, that's a freaking artifact. We bought it from an electrician who found it in someone else's crawlspace. Even the purchasing story is more interesting than usual. However, most stories are excruciatingly boring. They are so ordinary, so everyday, like that guy who tells you everything he had to eat that day. Boring. I have some chairs in my living room that reek of the seventies (figuratively). They sat in someone's finished basement for thirty years before I bought them. That is their story - sitting in the basement for thirty years. It's not a particularly thrilling tale. It could use some pirates maybe, or at the very least some political intrigue.

Most stuff is boring. Just look around your house at all the stuff you see every day. That cup holds your toothbrush. You bought that blanket in college. Your kid gave you that magnet on the fridge. These are little, daily, unimportant things, and yet they make up the bulk of our lives. More of our existence is spent in the basement sitting in an ugly orange chair than it is with pirates. These objects are real life as we know it. And just like people, they carry their stories with them. Sometimes I ask the seller to tell me everything they can about what I'm buying: how old it is, how was it used, who owned it, any of those memories that come to mind when you see your toothbrush cup. Sometimes they volunteer that information out of nostalgia and Southern friendliness. But even if nothing is communicated, I saw the house and the people who owned it before. Later, when I see the thing in my own house, I can picture where I first saw it and how it came to be mine. I can feel the history.

Now. You think I've snapped the tether because I'm talking about magical mystical auras of past lives floating around toothbrush cups. I know that these objects are in actuality no different than the similar objects on the shelf at Kohl's. They are no different than they were decades ago when they were on the shelf at Woolworth's. However, I personally feel different when I look at them. I get a sense of that history. I know that feeling is coming from inside my own head, rather than anything the object itself is actually giving off. But you know what? That counts. Therefore, by the perception is reality principle, I have just proved that there are magical mystical auras of past lives floating around toothbrush cups.

So. That's my attempt to explain the romantic side of it. To get back to the practical aspect of it, what am I going to do with all this stuff?

Buy less, obviously. You might be surprised to find out that I do. When I was new to thrifting, I bought most everything that ever caught my fancy. It was all so cool and so cheap. But then I grew out of that, and I became more selective. Just think: those weekly entries where I describe the ridiculous amount of stuff I acquired in four short hours - that is me being selective.

That is only a partial solution, and it's not a very fun one. A real solution would be to stop going to sales at all. But I don't see that as a solution at all. It is the anorexia of solutions. I'd rather have the sensible diet and exercise of solutions, one where I can still have this hobby that I love, but I won't be found dead in my house one day, suffocated by vintage clocks. I could go to sales and then not buy anything. There is a lot of fun in just looking, and I often am excited by the things that I had the rare opportunity to even see. I don't think I could do that, though. First I would buy just one thing, then two, and then pretty soon I have a fully stocked Grandma's room.

Right now, I'm using more of a bulimia solution. I purge regularly, taking carloads of stuff to Goodwill. Some of them are going back to the very Goodwill I bought them from. Some things are easy to get rid of, like if I've already bought another thing that serves the same purpose that I like better. But sometimes something will live for a long time in Grandma's room before I have to give up on the idea of ever finding any good use for it. However, my purges are never as great or as often as my binges.

I have noticed that I find it much easier to get rid of stuff when I can give it away to someone I know. There are things I've been holding onto for years for no good reason, but if someone mentioned that they had use for that thing, I would offer it in a heartbeat. I would like to claim that I just have a very generous nature, but I'm not really into talking about my qualities here. I'd much rather use this blog for exploring my flaws in the hope that airing them out will make them easier to overcome until I'm finally a Good Person.

So I don't think of it as being generous, because I get a warm fuzzy out of giving stuff away. And if I'm doing something for the warm fuzzies, no matter if someone else is benefiting, then my motivations are selfish.

So this got me thinking. What if I expanded the circle of people who are able to receive my surplus of goods? And what if I started charging a finder's fee?

There are people who do this. There are antique dealers and consignment shops, and those have been around a long time. I see those people at yard sales. More recently, there are online dealers. The internet has opened up the market such that anyone who has some junk can sell it online. I read some of their blogs, and I recognize them as kindreds. They are people who love to treasure hunt, who really believe that secondhand stuff is way better for all kinds of financial, environmental, community, and awesomeness reasons. They write posts showing off their latest finds, and I am excited with them, just like I am when Josh shows me his new first edition Hemingway.

I have been very, very resistant to the idea of reselling. I read reseller blogs, and I know that I could do what they do. I see the exact same things at sales that they are selling. Even reading those entries makes me look at things differently at sales. I look at a pile of linens, and I'm partially looking for some new kitchen towels, but I'm also keeping half an eye out for the little ladybug brand name, because I know those are collector's items.

And that change in perspective is precisely why I've decided not to resell. Right now, I go to yard sales, and just looking through the piles and piles of stuff is a kind of labor of love. I can pick things up, admire them, file their uniqueness away in my mental filing cabinet. Then I can buy them or put them down, solely on the basis of whether I want to own them. I don't have to think about whether they are secretly valuable, or what I could possibly get for them. I just have to decide if I like them enough to pay what the seller is asking. Later, I can do research to find out the history, and if it turns out that people regularly pay $50 on eBay for them, then that is just gravy.

I don't want to start seeing stuff as commodities, rather than as stuff. If I started reselling, I would see price tags, not the past stories and potential future stories that I see now. I don't want to be like that. I get a lot of joy out of this goofy hobby.

And yet, and yet. I can't buy all the stuff that I see, and I can't keep all the stuff that I buy. I either need to find some new friends that would appreciate the kinds of gifts I've got to offer, or I need to sell some of this crap.

It is fair to say that I have an unfairly low opinion about resellers. I come in contact with them in their stores, and I see them at sales. Neither encounter makes me like them at all.

First, let's talk about their stores. I've talked about vintage stores before, and how they make me so angry. They are like a cruel joke, and they trick me every time. I look in the window, and I see a plethora of amazing old stuff: the prettiest Pyrex, the funkiest lamps, the softest faded linens, the most beautiful stationery. Then I go inside, and there is even more than I could have imagined. It's like the most amazing yard sale ever, where every table is covered in fantastic finds, rather than three piles of baby clothes covering one pretty good find. But then inevitably, I look at the price tag and my happy illusion comes crashing down. This is not a yard sale. It's a vintage store, where people are trying to sell me stuff that I could have found myself. Those aren't finds at all, because the store people put them on the table for me to see. I never buy anything at these stores, because I know I will find something just as good eventually. I refuse to pay a finder's fee.

It's the same thing as online dealers. The Pyrex on eBay is prettier than mine. But it's more expensive, and I wouldn't get the experience of finding it. Entering a couple of words into a search box is easier than digging through crusty boxes of old dishware. I earned my Pyrex. Also, if the appeal of secondhand items is that magical mystical aura of past lives, having a middleman between me and the previous owner breaks that connection. The purchasing experience seems sterile and lifeless, which colors my ownership experience. Might as well have gone to Kohl's.

So I go to their stores, and I leave angry. What about when I see them at sales? You can tell them from the casual buyers, because they have a sort of no-nonsense air about them as they poke through a sale. And then there are the scanners.

You can buy a small hand-held device that will scan a barcode and then bring up information about the item you scanned. Book resellers use them to find out how much they could possibly sell a book for, so they can decide whether the profit margin is big enough to justify the purchase of the book. I try to be generous with my feelings towards scanners, but the truth is that when I see one, I kinda want to kick them in the shins, just a little bit. For one thing, they are in the way, and I want to look at the books. Plus, they are buying books solely on a monetary basis. They might be buying books that I actually want to read, and they don't intend to read them at all. They just want to make money off of them. They are book pimps. And they are in my way.

But see, that's not fair to these people at all. This is a way that they make money. It may be their only job, or it may be a little side job that they do to have some extra cash. In all likelihood, they love books, too. Why else would you resell books unless you actually loved them? If I met someone who owned an actual, brick and mortar used book store, I would immediately assume that they were raging bibliophiles. In fact, I would instantly like that person. I would not assume that they were using books just to make money and I would never call them book pimps. For the same reason, I should not feel so cheated and angry at those who resell stuff from Grandma's room. Who would go to the trouble of accumulating this stuff if they did not have their own little love affair with it? These are the people who did not have to read the explanation about why I thrift. They already get it. I read their blogs, and I like them. I see their pictures of great finds, and I am happy for them. The fact that they then sell those finds doesn't make me like them less. It actually makes me like them more, because they are spreading the Gospel of Secondhand.

So, given the fact that I have just logically determined that my bias against resellers was completely unjustified, could I become one of them? If I imagine my potential buyers as fellow stuff romantics, then I could compare myself to someone who works at an animal shelter, rather than to a pimp. I'm just trying to find a good home for some pieces of daily human history.

I just want to say, for the benefit of my mother, that reselling is not something that I am seriously considering as a career option. I'm not going to quit my software job and hunt Pyrex full time (but, oh man, doesn't that sound really awesome?). It's just something that I've been thinking about lately, and when I think about something, I usually end up writing about it. Honestly, the thought of dealing with the shipping aspect of it sort of makes me all tired inside. But I dunno, maybe on a small level, it is the kind of solution I'm looking for - one where I get to keep doing the goofy hobby that I love.

No comments: