Message in a Bottle

Recently I went to a huge sale held by a man who cleans out local estates, auctioning the best stuff and selling the rest out of his warehouse. Rows of tables filled the room, all of the covered with boxes filled with everything from commemorative plates to old VHS tapes — all the detritus that fills up our storage spaces and junk drawers. I was moving quickly through the rows when I stopped short. In a box, mixed in with plastic jewelry and old pens, was an old bottle with a photo of a boat shoved into it. It was just my kind of thing: a small object involving old paper and old glass. But that wasn’t the reason I stopped short at the sight of it. What really surprised me about the bottle is that I had seen the very same one before, about ten years ago, when I sold it to a customer in my little shop on Main Street.  More than that, the old bottle had a vintage photo inside because I was the one who curled the photo up and pushed it through the neck of the bottle, like a message.

I made a bunch of these photos-in-a-bottle for my shop. All the bottles were old, all of them were different from each other, and eventually, someone always came in who understood the spirit of the thing and found it charming enough to buy. And that was that. When merchandise left the shop, whether it was something I made, or something I found, I never expected to see it again. In fact, like anyone with a store, I desperately hoped that people wouldn’t return anything, ever.

This was how my retail store worked: I found things or made things, I brought them in the store and put them on display, someone came in, found something they liked, bought it, left with it, and then — I generally had no idea what happened. The object continued its life without me. Which meant I always hoped that the object went on to a better life. And I know for a fact that some of the pieces people bought from me had a very good time of it, heading directly to lovely places, installed in kitchens and living rooms that I would pay an admission fee just to look at. Some even traveled overseas to live in Europe (which made me just a little bit jealous).

It was bittersweet to see the bottle again. Because it was like recognizing an old friend. An old friend who has died, consigned to a graveyard of stuff. The whole warehouse, in fact, began to look like a graveyard to me, and everyone pawing through the stuff was there to exhume the bodies, picking them clean of anything of value. This little bottle with the curled-up photo wasn’t valuable of course; no one would have wanted it except me.

So I bought it, I took it home, and now it has another shot at existence, at least while I’m around to keep an eye on it. And now, every time I look at it, I see a message in a bottle. A message sent from the self of ten years ago to my older self of today. Something a little ominous, about mortality, the passage of time, the obsolescence of stuff. All of this stuff, passing from the living, to the dead, and then back again, if luck prevails. But sometimes — usually — it doesn’t.

Message in a Bottle

Shopping: Portland Trading Co.

We stopped in Portland, Maine for a few days and I wandered into a relatively new shop, Portland Trading Co. Kazeem, the proprietor, is stylish in all the right ways. Which is to say he is totally current without being a snob. He was so engaging I could have talked at him for a long while, but fortunately for him some regular customers came in and rescued him from my enthusiasm. The aspect of the Portland Trading Co. that intrigued me the most, beyond the well-edited selection, is that Kazeem buys across several categories — the place is like a general store for the modern man — and yet it all hangs together in an entirely cohesive way, from clothes to jewelry to textiles to vintage items to food. He even manages to incorporate elements from Africa, and the colors and pieces he brings in look amazing juxtaposed against American-made, regional goods he sources.

Find the Portland Trading Co. on facebook or in the real world the next time you’re traveling up the coast of Maine. An online store is in the works too, just in case a jaunt to Maine isn’t in your immediate future (but if not, it should be…)

Old Display counter

Canvas bags

The long view of the counter


Vintage Crate Display
Great magazine selection

Clothing racks

Rolled ties

Handmade goods from D Mfg
Leather boots & more
Goods up close
Pillows on sofa
Vintage typewriters
Old Photos
Chesterfield & textiles
Handmade sign with logo

Let’s Talk Retail, Eeyore-style

“That Accounts for a Good Deal,” said Eeyore gloomily. “It Explains Everything. No Wonder.”

I just heard on the news that retail sales were up this past quarter. It almost made me nostalgic for the days when my little store on Main Street was open, a tiny crumb of the vast retail pie in this country. Maybe my store could have been part of the Great Resurgence that is going to follow the Great Recession! But the news of the uptick in retail sales only almost made me nostalgic. Because, readers, retail is really, really hard.

I had a shop for 8 years, and if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me how I did it, because they’ve always wanted to open a shop — or something along those lines — I would be rich-ish today. At the very least I would have made more money answering that question than I did selling stuff. No, not really. Clearly, I exaggerate. But I’m not exaggerating the fact that retail is really, really tough. (Have I already said that? I plan on saying it several more times before I’m through with this topic.)

A few things For Your Consideration:

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In Consideration of Stuff, Part 1

The New York International Gift Fair is taking place next week, and I’ve been receiving the usual pre-show flurry of marketing materials.  Seeing all those glossy pages advertising just who will be selling what at the show brings me to a point somewhere between intrigue and despair.  Just like a bad romance.  Actually – for most of us anyway – our relationship with stuff does qualify as a kind of troubled romance.

For those of who don’t know and would like to, the Gift Fair is a wholesale show, open to purveyors of stuff from all over the world, bringing together the people who have stuff made (note the passive voice) with the people who sell stuff to the end user.  (This dynamic has shifted in recent years, with the people who actually make things showing up more and more, herded into their own section called “Handmade”.)

Entering the show you discover a mountain of stuff, a mountain broken into bits and spread out over several giant convention halls.  You see stuff that you never realized someone actually bothered to make, like pink and purple princess slippers created from some sort of synthetic fabri-tek (one size fits all!), cranked out by the pallet and shipped to the U.S. of A. for our buying pleasure. Some areas of the show actually smell like a Dollar Store.  If you’ve never been in a Dollar Store – and I trust this is not the case if you are a patriot – the smell is remarkable.  Crisp plastic goods (encased in copious amounts of packaging) that haven’t seen daylight since…never really. But at least not since leaving the factory floor in China or India, or for the purposes of this conversation, Chindia.

It’s a lot to take in, even if you are only slightly aware of the tension of living in such a massive consumer-based economy that needs to continue consuming (or so we’re told) to stay approximately solvent, while contemplating the problem of what to do with all this stuff.  Especially the stuff we don’t want anymore.  Because we’ve just bought new stuff.  Right now most of us prefer to adhere to the Out of sight, Out of mind maxim when it come to what we don’t want anymore, especially the stuff that falls somewhere between recyclable and fixable.  And if someone  chooses to kindly arrive at the end of your driveway to take it away, nicely done up in opaque bags, who are you to argue?  It disappears onto the truck and out of your life.  But then you go to a Temple of Stuff, like a shopping mall, where the “out of sight” part is not an option, and it becomes harder to keep believing.  Or you go to a serious Temple like the New York Gift Fair, which makes a shopping mall look some sort of provincial altar, and you can lose your faith in stuff altogether as your awareness of the sheer volume of newly-manufactured crap reaches a full, screaming pitch.

For me this translates into a sort of existential crisis as I find myself delighting in the visual overload – like marveling at the excess of Versailles (if Versailles were outfitted by Wal-mart buyers)  – at one level while being appalled at another, more subconscious one, where questions run through my mind over and over again as though on a loop, with that same insistent hum that comes from the florescent lights at the doctor’s office. You try to ignore that humming sound but you know it’s there. Questions like  “Where did all this stuff come from? Who makes it? Why do they make it? Who buys all this stuff? Why do they buy it? Why am I here? Did stuff make man or did man make stuff?” No, I don’t really ask those last questions, at least not in the context of the Gift Show. And lest you think I’m being too angst-y, the time has come to introduce you to a few ads – straight from the official Show publication – for products attendees can find at the 2011 New York International Gift Fair:


I'll take a billion of everything.

Breaking it down:

1. Interchangeable Marble Jewelry. Yes, I do have all my marbles, thank you for asking. Or at least as many marbles as I need to know that if I ever buy a product like this, you may kill me. Consider this my Living Will.

2. Poo-poo Paper. The manufacturers of this product have the audacity to invoke the S-word when selling you on the idea of  paper made from animal excrement: Sustainability. As though this is Waterworld and we’ve resorted to drinking our own urine along with Kevin Costner.  So of course it only makes sense that we also use excrement as stationery. This is the letter I would write on my animal dung stationery should I be so lucky as to acquire a few pieces, so to speak:

Dear Poo-poo Paper Makers:

I”ve got an even more sustainable idea for you and it involves another S-word: Stop using the earth’s resources to make your shit product.



3. Poo-Pourri. I have no idea what is going on with this one. None. Does it smell good? Does it smell bad? But there the Poo-Pourri manufacturers are, with an expensive booth at the New York International Gift Fair, apparently with money to burn on marketing. Maybe the Poo-Pourri family of products is just a money-laundering scheme for a crime syndicate.  Or the genius business idea of one of those eccentric old-money Yankees, supported by her lawyer who agreed to the enterprise as a tax write-off. (“Kipper! I’ve got a marvelous idea for a product! I simply must create a potpourri and name it after that darling paper made we had made from Mr. Ruff Ruff’s excrement! Poo-Pourri! And it will smell just like Daddy’s favorite yachting cap!)

These unfortunate products highlight the legitimacy of my Gift Show anxiety, my uneasiness about this whole industry and its glorification of making and buying stuff for its own sake. At times it seems that the event showcases, in big piles of animal dung, all that is wrong with our culture. But there are glimmers of goodness, and I’ve managed to find a few at every wholesale show I’ve attended. Especially during these last few years, as the retail industry experiences the enormous upheaval of a recession and changing technological landscape, remaking how people buy.  The Handmade section expands every year, with sophisticated small producers – almost a modern version of a pre-mass-manufacturing cottage industry.

This lighter, lovelier side to the wholesale show will be featured in The Roving Home’s post-Show wrap-up: Part 2 in the consideration of stuff – what it means to make it, to buy it, to possess it.