It is said that you can’t go there again. That once you change and the world around you changes, that you cannot return – even to your home away from home.
As I was growing up, my mother and I used to frequent thrift shops. I can’t remember how we got started, but once we discovered their treasure trove-ness, we were goners. First it was clothing. So what if it was pre-worn? The money we were saving! And, face it, those whose clothing we were reclaiming obviously only wore things once before discarding them. Objects came next, and, depending on which shop and who the donations came from, well, their discards were always higher quality than what we could purchase brand new. The same could be said for furniture, although that was more my own interest than mom’s, since I was the one setting up house.
It was too early to be called recycling, but whatever we were doing, we enjoyed being the beneficiaries of an economic class system. Our world opened up and was enhanced by others’ wherewithal and their convenient top-bracket tax write-offs. My various apartments and, finally, house were filled with other people’s castoffs. I think, along the way, I developed an aversion to new, always aware that I could get better value in old.
My artwork took on elements that were used, and, eventually, my art was built entirely from found objects. A big piece of what I did was to hunt for the raw materials. Every place I lived, I learned the thrift-shop lay of the land. And, on vacations, too, I was going to parts of cities unknown to most visitors – to explore what the second-hand stores had to offer. When I settled in a section of Philadelphia with my own studio, my weekly routine was to scour the thrift shops for items of interest. For about 15 years, I made the trek of approximately 50 miles round trip out to the Main Line thrift stores. Many of them were owned and operated by the big hospitals in the city proper. But what caused them to be located in the older, wealthy suburbs was Machiavellian: the monied denizens of these communities had good stuff to donate to these shops; also, many of the volunteers who ran the stores were often married to the doctors who worked at the hospitals they were working to raise money for, and these very same volunteers lived conveniently near the shops.
If you are at all familiar with Main Line Philadelphia from “The Philadelphia Story,” the residents were originally blue-blooded, off the Mayflower, Junior League/country-club types. Appropriate as the name might first seem, the derivation of Main Line really has to do with the Pennsylvania Railroad line that was built to serve the communities of large estates that were like the Newport, R.I., of the Mid-Atlantic. As you might imagine, wealth was still prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century – and I picked over its bones. I would go to the towns with the names that are still stops on the commuter trains: Paoli, Berwyn, Wayne, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Haverford, Ardmore. Kind of like the Hamptons without the beach. The amazing thing is that nearly every town had a thrift shop, some more than one. A bank, movie theater, hardware store, thrift shop – some as close as just a couple of miles apart.
I look around my house and I can remember which items came from which shops. I hauled a lot of stuff out of those amazingly well-stocked stores. But there is a point when enough is enough. Or maybe, enough is too much. My regular route ended sometime in the late 1990s. The funny thing is, that at this point I probably have owned some of the furnishings longer than the original owners had them. I still value them, despite having paid very little for them.
So, this week, for whatever reason, I took the tour again. I guess I was looking for something, but mostly, I was just looking: at my past, at what would be out there if I was starting anew, at the old haunts. It would be a kind of reunion. These days, I search on Craigslist. I am reminded by this of how technology has altered many things, but in this sense, hunting. It brings to mind the difference between browsing and searching. I think I am a browser at heart, since it is the thrill of serendipity that gives the process so much placeness. Searching and then finding what you were seeking out is satisfying, but not thrilling.
So I made the circuit and found it disappointing. The shops are emptier of interesting, or even nice, stuff. Yes, that could be a difference of the generation that is unloading its stuff now as opposed to the previous one. Or it could be that the idea of thrift shops is a dated one when you can search online. Probably fewer donations are made these days. And the wealth level, even on the Main Line, could be lower now – diluted by other classes wanting to live in among. Also, now there are consignment furniture outlets that are drawing the goods away from these shops – allowing the nouveau riche to get something for their discards. The true blue bloods understood charity. Plus, the volunteers working now are possibly the originals, the same women who were there 20-30 years ago. In fact, one shop had a huge banner across its storefront that read, “Looking for Volunteers.” Again, the world has changed.
It is sad to see meaningful markers of your life reduced to ghosts. These hospital thrift shops are diminished now, but they once filled both my home and heart.