Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Thin Line Between Trash and Treasure

Trash. Treasure. Like love and hate, there’s a thin line between the two. I am reminded of this frequently, both in the larger world - I volunteer regularly at my local thrift shop, which is inundated with equal parts treasure and trash – and in my own garage, as I continue to look at the things I once thought were treasures but have since become junk that I couldn’t unload at my yard sale in September.

There’s been so much talk about the economy and its miserable state. I hear all the time how no one is buying anything and that consumers need to open their wallets and start spending again. Unemployment, underemployment and stagnant wages are frequently blamed for people not spending. I will freely admit that I am fairly ignorant about Economics, market forces, etc, etc, and only persevered through my college economics class because of a very handsome boy who I hoped would fall madly in love with me (I am still stumped on two subjects: macroeconomics, and why that boy let me get away). Yet, from my position as a Consumer of Things, I have some opinions on the matter.

I think it is possible that no one is buying anything because…just maybe…we have all bought so many things in our lives that there is just nothing left we need. Maybe we have inventoried our belongings and realized we already have all the crap we need, in addition to a bunch of crap we never needed in the first place. And not only do we have all we need, so does everyone we know. There’s just nothing left to buy because Americans are such excellent consumers that we all have everything that has already been invented. That’s one idea. My other idea is that every expert on the matter is wrong. People are totally spending money. But perhaps they are doing it on the cheap, at places like thrift shops and yard sales and eBay and craigslist, because consumers have finally realized that whatever it is they think they need is available somewhere at a deep discount, because someone somewhere has already become a convert and discarded the once-desired treasure as undesirable junk.

I will use the yard sale as my case study to prove both points. First, some yard sale background info. Several military posts participate in post-wide yard sales. Twice a year, on a designated Saturday in the spring and fall, everyone wanting to participate sorts through their belongings, classifying things into why-the-hell-do-I-still-have-this?! and oh-wow,-I-forgot-I-had-this! In the spirit of “If you price it, they will come,” we bust out the neon stickers and the Sharpie and coldly calculate how much someone might pay us for the stuff we have deemed to be junk. It is really a beautiful thing. Literally, there are probably hundreds of sales condensed into a few square miles; and it is the bargain hunter’s/junk lover’s Mecca. No cheapskate’s life is complete until they’ve made the pilgrimage to a post-wide yard sale. People come from miles away – we’re talking Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, etc – on a quest for discarded treasure. The first of the pick-up trucks drive around so early in the morning it’s still dark, and I have seen people armed with flashlights to get the best deal. While the sale officially starts at 6 AM on SATURDAY morning, you have lost a lot of business if you’re sleeping in that late. I made my first sale this year at 2 PM on FRIDAY afternoon. As a complete disclosure, I’d made my first purchase at 9 AM on Friday morning. Since I live in the glass house, I want to be clear that I’m not throwing any stones.

Yard salers continuously arrived and I, always anxious to unload some stuff so that I can eventually buy new stuff, would ask them, “What can I help you find that you need?” And people repeatedly said, “Oh, I don’t need anything. I’m just looking around.” To which I would always reply, “Well, what can I help you find that you don’t need?” And then I would start showing people various things, like my piece de resistance: a moose-faced egg separator (the egg white pours from the moose’s nostrils, of course, and it looks like a snotty-nosed moose). Frequently, I could convince someone they needed one of my former treasures (FYI, that moose flew off the table early in the sale). Some people were more discriminating. I’d say, “I have this lovely weed eater that works almost all the time,” and they would respond, “Oh, no thanks, I don’t have a yard.” Even without a yard, I might have bought that weed eater for the price I had it marked at. Yet for every discriminator, there’s always the person who sees the purse and exclaims, “Oh! I love purses. I shouldn’t buy it, though, because I already have 200!” and then goes on to purchase Purse #201.

While I do believe that most people just don’t need anything, I also believe that people do spend money all the time, and especially on crap they don’t need and crap their friends and family don’t want. I’m guilty of it myself. Despite the fact that I am always cleaning out, I am also always on the hunt for the next fantastic bargain; and second-hand shops are one of my great weaknesses. Which is why I volunteer at my local thrift shop. In addition to the fun I have interacting with adults once a week and studying consumption habits (I’m still chuckling over how I asked an older woman if she wanted a bag, or if she preferred to wear the leather chaps she’d purchased straight out of the store), I get first dibs on the donated items. And I am frequently startled by the things people give away. Many are brand new, quality items with tags still on. Plenty have gift tags still on, like the fuzzy golf club covers to Uncle Fred from Maddie, or the children’s literary collection for Jessica, with love from Grandma and Grandpa. I hope it truly is the thought that counts, as a lot of people are obviously not that fond of the actual gifts the thought produced.

But one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and I like to think of second-hand shopping as a green alternative to regular shopping. It’s recycling in its funnest form. The transformation of trash to treasure, simply by the changing of hands, keeps things out of the dump and saves money, so that people can have more money to go out and spend on the latest gizmo they never knew they always needed. It doesn’t even matter what the item is because, like beauty, trash/treasure is in the eye of the beholder. See my snotty-nosed moose egg separator as an example.