Everyone who knows me knows how devoted I am to secondhand shopping. Even a few people who don’t know me personally might know this about me, since I’ve written about it so darn much. I wrote a book about visiting yard sales with my mother, I wrote a zine that lists and describes all the cat-themed objects in my home and one about my favorite thrift store mugs, and I’ve written many essays on a variety of other old objects I own and the complicated mix of feelings and ideas they stoke in me.
For Christmas this year Joe gave me the entire back catalog of a zine we discovered a couple years ago, then forgot about: Thrifty Times. What an awesome gift. The editor, Sarah B. MacDonald, puts out an issue every month and has done so for at about 5 years. Each issue has the same recurring features and a letter from the editor, in the style of a magazine (or, more accurately, of a magazine-like zine from a certain era, the 80s and 90s I suppose). MacDonald writes most of the pieces herself, though she also has a regular crew of witty, cheerful contributors: Sarah Spence, who frequently writes the romance novel review (“Isn’t It Romantic”) and Nick Burgess, who does the monthly thrift-themed comics on the back cover and sometimes writes about video games. All of these folks have an excellent sense of irony and a sincere love of kitsch, nostalgia, and inexplicable tschotschkes. MacDonald’s favorite decade is the 70s and the avocado-green throw pillows and mushroom motifs produced in that era; she’s a funny writer and it is a pleasure to join her on her trips to local thrift shops and feel her excitement at finding something good. I think she must be around my age because she often writes about the 90s music CDs she finds (Live, Marcy Playground, Soul Asylum) in the way that you might if you’d been a teenager back then. It’s all such fun to read about. I worked my way through the large stack of zines slowly, enjoying every article and reading a number of them out loud to Joe.
I have thought about, and written about, the pleasure of pawing through other people’s old stuff so many times by now that I ought to understand, on a deep level, what precisely it means to me, but I’m not there yet. It’s just that somehow, when I’m digging, everything is a gem. Everything is something I’m glad to have seen. Even when I don’t buy anything (well, I almost always buy something); even on days when all I’ve got is the grubby Salvation Army, where nobody ever sweeps the floor and grim announcements come over the p.a. about the anger management group about to commence next door. When I’m staring down the length of a boring afternoon, the thrift store—some thrift store, somewhere—promises to fire up my imagination. It’s like visiting a museum, only you’re allowed to buy the stuff and bring it home if you want. And thrift store people are my people, whether I’m in the mood to claim them or not.
One day this winter, while I was still happily working my way through my stack of Thrifty Times, I suggested that we go check out the little shop in Germantown, an old neighborhood in Philadelphia. The shop is charming and small and has bona fide vintage stuff, not just recent castoffs. We decided to walk the few miles there since the weather was mild and it’s interesting looking over there; you can take your time looking at the old brick buildings and tiny churchyards and viney stone walls.
It ended up being a quintessential thrift store visit. By this I mean that I (a) found something I’d been actively searching for, (b) found something hilarious, and (c) had an interesting interaction with another person. The thing I found that I had been looking for was a small wooden spice rack, which I have since altered by prying off the tin eagle (??) that originally adorned it and painting it with pale green craft paint. Then I hung it on my kitchen wall and put my collection of essential oils in it. While Joe and I were paying for this and a few other things, a lady who’d been having a kind of in-depth conversation with the woman at the register gave Joe a long once-over.
“Young man, will you look at this computer for me please?” she asked him. I was amused and touched that she assumed he’d be able to figure out whether or not a laptop she’d found could be made to work again because he was both a lot younger than her and also a guy—and of course by looking at it for a few minutes he was able to figure this out. The lady was disappointed by his assessment: that she probably wouldn’t be able to get into the password-protected machine and use it the way she wanted.
As she led poor Joe back into the store toward the electronics section, I occupied myself by looking at the books. There I spotted a shining jewel that I now wish I had bought, if only so that I could tell you more about it. It was a late-80s how-to guide called Garage Sale Mania! that opened with the chapter “Garage Sales: What Are They?” and ended with the wonderfully titled “Count Your Cabbage and Smile.” Count your cabbage and smile! This is the sort of phrase that will stay with me for years and bring me pure joy every time I think of it. It’s the linguistic equivalent of a secondhand knick-knack that I can put on my bookshelf to look at whenever I want, and feel the warmth of connection across decades and styles of expression.
I see that the author of Garage Sale Mania! has continued writing and publishing books since the 80s—an impressive number of them, most novels in a few different genres. There are just so many books out there, oddball things I never would have known about if it wasn’t for the thrift shop, which in my opinion can be just as good a place to look for a book, if not better, than a used bookstore. I’m not alone in holding this opinion, for whatever that’s worth. Weird books are the best books, and zines are the weirdest books of all.