Digging for Bargains (and Stories) at Thrift Shops and Other Places

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In Toy Story 3, Woody, Buzz and the gang grapple with the existential problem of being unwanted, of being discarded into a pile of toys their previous owners have grown out of. The movie is entertaining to watch not only because of such underdogs to root for, but also because of the writers’ care in developing the backstory out of each toy. It seems to remind all of us, half-seriously, to think twice before throwing out our possessions – consider Mr. Potato Head’s feelings. How would poor Slinky Dog take it? Or Barbie (self-image issues notwithstanding)? Oh the inhumanity!

And yet, most of us still accumulate things faster than we needed or have space for them. And instead of tossing out that antique lamp grandma gave you or the fake vampire teeth you impulsively bought after reading Twilight (yes, admit it), you’ve been told, rightly so, to donate them to charity stores or thrift shops. It’s better for the environment, better for the community, and better for writers.

Wait – Did you just say it’s better for writers?

I have to confess I used to avoid going to second-hand stores – not because I’m a snob, but because I’m sort of a hypochondriac. I always imagined those places teeming with viruses and crawling with germs. But my recent move to Ann Arbor as a grad student forced me to evaluate living a more practical lifestyle. It didn’t hurt that the “vintage” fad took some of the stigma out of shopping at thrift stores. But above all, I discovered that millions of germs do indeed lurk behind many of the “re-use” shops – it’s of the strain called fabula ideas.

Take our dining table from Salvation Army – I didn’t see them at first, but while eating my gnocchi alla sorrentina one day, I noticed faint markings on the wood grain. I tilted the light over it to reveal scratches of handwriting and drawing. Since I’ve never used the table other than for food, the numbers and letters could only have belonged to the previous owner – or owners. I stopped my meal, cleared the table, and proceeded to a full archaeological undertaking to decode the hieroglyphics. My hypotheses and observations as follows: A 10-year-old used to do math homework here; he or she was from an immigrant family or was being taught a foreign language, likely Japanese or Korean. He or she also potentially suffered from ADHD, judging by the squiggles and drawings one can only categorize as “abstract.” So that the adults can eat in peace, the tot was plied with activity books – puzzles and mazes, the lines of endless loops indicating a definitive lack of expertise. Some unsolved mystery remains: Where is the family now? Did they donate the table because they upgraded to a Pottery Barn French White Keaton Extending Table? Or, knock on wood, was it the result of irreconcilable differences between husband and wife brought about by too much stress (hopefully nothing to do with our hyperactive kid)?

Then there were the two old-fashioned chairs I recently acquired – one rocking and the other, well, just rickety. The wooden rocker I found through Craigslist, through a seller who instructed me to meet her at the outskirts of Ann Arbor one night. Both of us inside our respective cars, she flashed her headlight and indicated for me to follow. I wouldn’t have done so except that the rearview mirror prodded me to trust her: all I saw was a Midwestern lady who looked like she just came off from work. So we drove into a private alley, arriving at a gate, where she punched some numbers and the heavy iron fence slid open. Inside was a National Monument dedicated to our Founding Fathers’ capitalistic and hoarding ideals, as enshrined in the Constitution’s “pursuit of life, liberty and… things.” We were at a storage facility, which looked like tract housing, except here it’s block after block of garage doors and no windows, lawns, or backyards. We came to her plot (she almost forgot which), and she took out a key to unlock the garage door. She asked me what I wanted the rocking chair for (was it for the nursery, for your pregnant wife?) and I disappointed her by saying it was just for me to read books with. I further disappointed her when she asked whether I was studying to be an engineer, and I said no, merely a writer. But at which point, she started to open up and told me the chair belonged to her mother, a small but “very clean” woman, who “took care of things.” She said she’d had her mother’s possessions stored up for a while but now felt it was time to let go. I could only guess that it meant the mother had passed away, the lady was moving on, and I – a total stranger – was inheriting some of the things that might once have held precious memories. So every time I rock back and forth in that chair, in the solace of my room, I briefly transform into an 80-year-old woman.

As for the rickety chair, I’ve yet to unearth any interesting backstory. Except to say that I bought it at the University’s disposition facility, which is where all the school’s ancient and unwanted furniture go to die. I could only imagine the many hallowed butts that have once graced the chair, perhaps including Arthur Miller’s, James Earl Jones’ and Lucy Liu’s.

There were also stories just waiting to be discovered behind some of the used books I’ve bought from Goodwill and the library – one of them was signed by our very own Laura Kasischke to her student back in 2001: “With so much admiration and many best wishes for your work” it said. I wondered what happened to him and why he gave up a book with such a complimentary note? Here’s another dedication on the front cover of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies: “Mom & Dad, Thanks for starting me off on a life of international experiences…” Perhaps the previous owner was a military brat who traveled frequently as a kid? Or maybe it just meant her parents supported her study abroad, in Asia if I have to guess. Finally, a 4×6 photo was used as a bookmark in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Stories. I found the owner staring at me in her ’80s jean jacket, clutching a tiny kitten who obviously would rather have been someplace else. The picture was inserted on the first page of “One Day After Saturday,” and I wondered if the book had a premonition of its own journey that day it was dropped off.

So if you do find yourself broke and in need of story inspiration, just head to the nearest thrift shop and you’ll likely find the muse there, trying on some Christmas sweaters. And someday when you’ve finally made it, and see your own book – the one you signed for a friend – in the bargain bin, don’t fret. Just write about it, like how this poet* did:

I see you got a Guggenheim.
I see you sold my book online.

I bought it back and now it’s here—
my signature addressed to “dear.”

Reclaiming makes us square at last.
We’re even now, oops! Not so fast—

that lover whom you took from me
in Venice, fall of ’83.

*”One Poet to Another.” The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho. Eloise Klein Healy. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2007.

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