One of the places I love to check out here on the North Shore of Boston boasts a great selection of piles of old stuff. The only problem: at least a third of this stuff is outside, in all kinds of weather. Just like the fabled mailman — in rain, sleet or snow — except these antique pieces aren’t wearing government-issued rain gear and are left to fend for themselves in the New England precipitation, deteriorating more in just a few weeks than in all their previous hundred years. I’ve seen some really great pieces slowly fall to bits outside the store, the price too steep to justify the purchase — and by the time the price comes down, the piece is in such terrible condition that no one bothers.
Still, I go to this store, because, in spite of its overpriced stock and poor approach to inventory management, it represents what junking is all about. An old building filled with old stuff, with just enough room for customers to poke around aisle by aisle, hoping to spy something interesting at least, desirable at best.
I’ve found that, when it comes to vintage stuff, you either get it or you don’t. You either find the idea of buying someone else’s old junk — no matter how valuable or attractive — faintly (or thoroughly) repulsive, or you find the idea endlessly compelling. If you belong in the latter category, I believe that, essentially, what you love about old stuff is the narrative. Of course this is not a fresh idea, but I am struck afresh by it every time I enter this dump of an antiques store. I am overwhelmed with considering all the stories of everything I’m surveying . Chances are, most of the stories are not worth hearing, at least in the sense we usually mean it. Which is: most of these stories wouldn’t rate being the plot of a movie, or a novel, or even a short story in Good Housekeeping magazine. Most of the lives lived on this earth are composed of the mundane. And in our present era (and place), the mundane nature of our existence is so great that we feel we must spend our evenings watching Reality TV to heighten the suspense (guilty!).
But I’ve realized the mundane is both universal and particular. The way my grandmother spent her days when she was my age is very similar to my own days in many ways — we still have housework, still need to eat meals, still need to tell our children what to do with themselves. But the way she spent her days was also different. So different that in many ways she seems to belong to another species, not just another time. The pictures on her wall, the radio on her counter, the tools she used to clean her house or make her meals — these are the things I stare at in junk shops, which become a sort of time capsule. Or a window into a place and time utterly alike — and so unlike — our own.
Of course other things come into play when you’re looking for old things at junk stores: value, aesthetics — a host of other things. But for me, and, I suspect, most amateurs such as myself, it’s ultimately about the story. That’s why I wander into places full of waterlogged, sagging old stuff, looking through the discard pile for signs of life.