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Junk: Digging Through America's Love Affair with Stuff

Junk: Digging Through America's Love Affair with Stuff

by Alison Stewart


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When journalist and author Alison Stewart was confronted with emptying her late parents’ overloaded basement, a job that dragged on for months, it got her thinking: How did it come to this? Why do smart, successful people hold on to old Christmas bows, chipped knick-knacks, and books they will likely never reread? Junk details Stewart’s three-year investigation into America’s stuff. Stewart rides along with junk removal teams like Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets. She goes backstage at Antiques Roadshow, and learns what makes for compelling junk-based television with the executive producer of Pawn Stars. And she even investigates the growing problem of space junk—23,000 pieces of manmade debris orbiting the planet at 17,500 mph, threatening both satellites and human space exploration. But it’s not all dire. Readers will also learn that there are creative solutions to America’s crushing consumer culture. The author visits with Deron Beal, founder of FreeCyle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends a day at a Repair Café, where volunteer tinkerers bring new life to broken appliances, toys, and just about anything. Junk is a delightful journey through 250-mile-long yard sales, resale shops, and packrat dens, both human and rodent, that for most readers will look surprisingly familiar.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613730553
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alison Stewart is an award-winning journalist whose 20-year career includes anchoring and reporting for NBC News, ABC News, and CBS News. Stewart is the author of First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School, and is currently the host of the Travel Channel program, Follow My Past. She lives in New York City.

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Digging Through America's Love Affair with Stuff

By Alison Stewart

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Alison Stewart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-058-4



* * *

JUNK. CHAFF. DROSS. Trash. Stuff. Garbage. Rubbish. Debris. Paraphernalia. Throwaways. Collectibles. Gimcrack. Gear. Trappings. Knickknacks. Thingamabobs and thingamajigs. Junk seems to share the quality of indefinability with another famously (or infamously) difficult object to identify. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, not about junk but about obscene hard-core pornography, "I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced by that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

Well, a great place to see it — and get the 411 on it — is the 411.

US Route 411 runs just over three hundred miles, heading from central Alabama, passing diagonally through Georgia's west border, and winding up in Tennessee. While it doesn't intersect with any major metropolitan areas, it does skirt close to Birmingham on its south end and Knoxville on the north. The towns connected by Route 411 are small and home to folks who have a healthy love of family and football.

Most days driving along the 411 you will see an occasional cow and smell some awesome BBQ, especially in Rainbow City, Alabama, where you can get a whole BBQ butt for thirty dollars at a roadside joint. Travel writer Ronda Robinson describes the drive as "a vacation in itself, a respite from computers, e-mail, deadlines, and a sense of busyness and urgency in general. Unlike the interstate, where speed seems to be the ultimate objective, 411 provides a meditative retreat." This is probably true, except for four days every fall when US Route 411 becomes a giant 250-mile-long junk-a-palooza known as the Highway 411 Yard Sale.

Day One: Alabama

"Hold on to my chicken," commanded Sherry as she futzed with the items for sale on a folding card table set up in her carport. She reconsidered for a moment. "My daughter says I don't need another chicken."

"Your daughter don't know what you need," was how Betty Jo felt about it.

Sherry, the original owner of the chicken-shaped table lamp, was having second thoughts. Should she sell it, or shouldn't she? Letting go is a common problem for people who have attachments to things they know they no longer need but secretly still like or even love. Ultimately she put it back on the card table with the rest of the things she hoped would be gone by the end of the weekend. She saw the 411 as a good opportunity for a little fall clean out. "I got a whole mantel full of stuff, and then I just decided it is time to get rid of it."

Sherry and Betty Jo, along with Alice, Patty, Shirley, and their mom, Imogene, spent the bright fall morning cajoling and encouraging shoppers to take home any number of gently used items. They posted a sign out on Highway 411 that pointed toward Sherry's house on Happy Hollow Road. It was part of a modern middle-class subdivision plopped in the midst of what was once a wooded area. The trees seem to exact their revenge by dropping, almost launching, giant chestnuts onto unsuspecting yard sale goers. The street name was fitting for these Golden Girls of Jefferson County, Alabama. The ladies of Happy Hollow were laughing, teasing, and trading inside jokes in a way that suggested that maybe there was something stronger in their cups than coffee. While the yard sale was a way to clean out their homes, Sherry pointed out it was also an opportunity for a good time. "You meet a lot of different people from different walks of life." A petite lady in her forties, Sherry's primly matched floral shorts-and-shirt outfit did not jibe with her bawdy laugh and tales of girls' weekends in the city. "I told my pastor, if everyone come to church I invited, you'll have to build a new church. That's the Friendship Baptist Church." She made sure I wrote it down.

These ladies spent a lot of time on the presentation of their goods. They had arranged the tables into rows so that shoppers would have enough space to walk up and down. The offerings included a walker, a tiger costume, an avocado-green Crock-Pot, and many VHS tapes, including The Secrets of Hunting Whitetail Deer. There was a hot dog statue, which was a little ceramic dachshund inside a bun, with a bright yellow mustard squiggle down its back. Betty Jo, big, loud and hilarious, was doing the hard sell on a fish fryer, a black metal cylinder that was about the size of a toddler. It was marked at twenty-five dollars. In her heart she really wanted someone to take the box of hymnals from the Pentecostal Church of God where her late husband was a minister.

Every inch of every table was covered with household goods, candles, and knickknacks. They had been neatly arranged and tagged with prices. However, a little neighborly yard work was the source of a bit of tension. "I had cleaned and then the man next door mowed the yard and the dust just settled. But I mean, you can tell it's clean, not stuff that's been packed up." These ladies had made a true distinction between what they had to offer and a bunch of junk. "That's right. I won't put out anything you can't use," Sherry explained.

Betty Jo agreed. "Stuff you buy, you like it. Junk needs to go into the garbage." She put it simply: "Junk has gots to go!"

* * *

The next stop on this mega-long yard sale was down the road a bit. After a turn into a wide dirt driveway there were four rows of low-slung, single-level, metal storage units. They were gray, or possibly white with a layer of grime and dust kicked up from the cars. The owners seemed as eerily similar as the units themselves. They were mostly couples in their mid fifties to early sixties, men in baseball caps and women in white sneakers. They were all pulling boxes and boxes of oldness out of the units. A grandmotherly woman was scurrying about nervously arranging and rearranging her things. She was trying to make an attractive marketplace for potential buyers. She could rearrange the old records and used snow boots for hours and it wouldn't really make a difference. It was a clear fall day, with leaves whipping around the edges of the property, but the stale smell of the lockers seemed to overpower the crispness in the air. Nothing seemed very crisp or fresh. It all seemed kind of squishy and moldy.

"Can't move dishes ... no one wants dishes," said an older gentleman who had, well, a lot of dishes for sale. He was very chatty and never stopped moving things out of his unit and onto the gravel. He was trying to create a little goat path inside the unit for potential buyers to wander into the ten-by-fifteen-by-eight metal box. He shared that he and his wife were caretakers for their grown son, who was an amputee. He wasn't looking for sympathy. This was just his truth. Selling stuff out of the locker helped them get by.

A neighboring unit owner was considering what to charge for a bag of corks. A dollar was the final decision. This may have been her lucky day. There was a middle-aged gal, about a week overdue for getting her dark roots touched up, who was pawing her way through every storage unit — even the ones that seemed claustrophobic from a distance of ten feet away.

"I'm a collector," she said.

Of what?


Well then. There's a bag of corks waiting for you.

"They are just looking for junk." Hugh Stump has seen it year after year since the event started back in 2003. He is the executive director of the Greater Gadsden (Alabama) Tourism Board, and he welcomes all those folks who want to sell their random stuff because it brings bodies to town, and those bodies stay in Gadsden's hotels and eat in its restaurants. "The purpose of the yard sales are to get people off the interstate and back into the country roads. A bunch of chambers of commerce got together and said, 'Let's put on a yard sale and advertise among our communities and get people to come buy some stuff in the communities.'"

Because of its location, close to the gorgeous Noccalula Falls Park and a doable drive from two fair-sized airports, Gadsden is part of several annual come-one-come-all sales. Stump is partial to the much bigger summer event, the 127 Corridor Sale, marketed as "The World's Largest Yard Sale." It runs 690 miles from Addison, Michigan, to Gadsden, Alabama, or vice versa. It has been covered on HGTV and has its own website with a countdown clock. Antique dealers come from all over the country to that one. Stump loves it and describes it as a huge weekend for his county.

In comparison, the 411 is just a tiny little old thing, although it does have its own T-shirt — homemade of course. "This sale is more of a county sale," according to Stump. "It is the uniqueness of the road. Highway 411 is a state highway. Etowah County come across to St. Clair County and into Rainbow City, across the Coosa River and creek." The road narrows at one point and, as Stump explained, the pickings would be slim. "Heading toward Leesburg and Centre, the road widens out. You will see a lot more yard sales."

The way it works is you just get on 411 and drive. That's it. You slow down a bit when you see a tent, RV, or sign, eyeball the sale you are passing, and then make the split-second decision whether or not to pull off on the shoulder. Stump says it can get crowded, but mostly on the last day. "It is just regular people who are looking to buy stuff. You can get a lot of antique dealers, but the majority are just people, regular people."

The advice to just keep driving until the road widens was welcome because there's very little official information about the sale. There's not an official sponsor. There's no official set of rules. There's no official anything. The closest thing to an organizer is Parker Tinsley, one of the original supporters of the event, who has been quoted in the local paper every year for the annual story. There aren't any maps. No permits; no security. People just plunk down and set up shop right there on the roadside. There can be twenty-five set-ups back to back to back. People who live along the route sell space on their front lawns to folks who come in from out of town. Some slots go for five dollars a day. One family with a prime location divided its large front lawn into fifteen even slots, rented each for twenty dollars, and provided a port-o-john on the property.

Stump finds the whole thing kind of amusing. "I look at it as a bunch of people coming in buying a bunch of junk they don't need. They put it in their garage and they come back next year and sell it."

* * *

A well-preserved African American couple in their mid-sixties who I'll call the Mister and the Missus were very focused buyers. Watching their approach to the 411 sale was like watching a cheetah stalk its prey. They were deliberate, stealthy, and determined. The negotiation was swift and the cash transaction was a quiet strike at the end. For the entire day we'd pull up to sales at the same time and give a nod of the head but there wasn't much else in terms of communication. In a part of the world where I'd been called various forms of some sweet by total strangers (Hi, honey!, What can I get you, sugar?, Would you like another water, sweet pea?) their silence was noticeable.

It was the same pattern all day long. We would arrive at a sale at the same time; they would zero in on something of value, and then move on. At one point, we all came upon a large red hand-painted sign that screamed HIGHWAY 411 SALE propped up in front of a nondescript block of a building with literally a kitchen sink for sale by the front door. We found ourselves inside this packed space and it was hard to avoid each other, although the Missus did her best.

The lady running the sale warned us all about the poison ivy growing through the broken windows on the left. The building was once the Union Grove Baptist Church and her parents had bought it to use as a storage facility. "Throw it away? Noooo," said the church lady of her late parents' philosophy, and it was clearly the reason she had a church full of old oddities. Things were piled nearly to the ceiling. It was hard to tell what was what. The place required some junk spelunking. If you wanted to find a treasure, you best be prepared to dig.

The church lady was a very attractive woman in her forties who clearly spent some cash on her new age crystal jewelry. She showed off a bit of her husband's art that was placed in the one semi-organized corner of the building. They hoped to turn the church into a faith-based creative art studio, community center, and gallery, and they wanted to call it the Art of Worship. They believed in a type of artistic worship that was, in their words, "giving praise to God through spirit-led creative expression." She had a higher purpose associated with getting rid of everything in the building, including the 1960s era Aloha napkins in my friend's hand. My lifelong pal Scooter, who was doubling as my navigator on this trip, offered her a dollar for them. The church lady did not haggle one bit. "If it brings someone pleasure then I am happy," she said. It became clear that there were gems sprinkled between the old dictionaries and straw boater hats.

Suddenly the very quiet Mister and Missus piped up. They had been clearing things off two pieces of furniture that were barely noticeable to the untrained eye.

"How much for the table?" asked the Mister.

"Oh, it's not for sale," replied the church lady.

"And for the desk?" asked the Mister again.

"It's not for sale," the church lady said again quietly. The Mister would not be deterred. He tried chatting up her son a bit and explained that he and his wife were not from too far away. They lived in Talladega. It was then that he asked her son to help move a bench. The Mister saw something else and wanted a closer look. He was trying not to arouse others but clearly he thought he spied the mother lode. Underneath a couple old beat-up transistor radios and behind a distressed bench was a beautiful old dark wood-paneled radio, the kind you see in pictures from the 1930s in which Norman Rockwellian families are gathered around staring at the box with the voices coming out of it.

"Does it work?" The Mister looked directly at the church lady. She looked off and then looked back with a pained smile. "Yes ... but I did promise it to the man up the street who is helping me clean out this place." She went on to explain how he was a local Civil War reenactor, but that revelation didn't seem to have the weight that she intended, given she was talking to two black people of a certain age. However, the Mister did not skip a beat. "But I'm here now." He was in full charm mode. The church lady hemmed. She hawed. She invoked the strength of her word. After a couple more tries, the Mister gave the woman his number and said if the man didn't come back this week to claim the radio, to give him a call. The Missus just gave the church lady the death stare. They had the good cop/bad cop routine down.

We ran into the couple again at the next stop, which was a bust except for the pure spectacle of a cool old-fashioned washing machine and a rusted Camaro hood for fifty bucks. I smiled at them again. This time, no response. None.

By the fifth stop Scooter couldn't take it anymore. He marched over and said, "Hey, you have a good eye, what are you all looking for?" The Mister started to answer but was cut off by the Missus. "We know what we are looking for." And she got in their car. End of conversation.

Then, finally, at one of the last stops, the Mister finally broke the silence. He whispered to us, "I got such a deal," as he carted off some chairs. It was also clear by the end of the day that we were not antiques dealers or any sort of buying competition. Yes, we — and by we I mean my friend Scooter — had picked up some really nice Fiestaware, some comic book glasses, and the ceramic dachshund hot dog from our first stop at Happy Hollow Road. We were hardly a threat. Finally it came out that they were retirees, she a former school principal (of course — who else has that kind of death stare), who wanted to open a little vintage store in Talladega. That's all we got. And we never saw them again.


Excerpted from Junk by Alison Stewart. Copyright © 2016 Alison Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The 411 on Junk,
2 Pack Rats (Human and Otherwise),
3 Junk as Art: Q&A with Vince Hannemann, Creator of the Cathedral of Junk,
4 From Austin to Akron: Junk Busters USA and Trash Daddy,
5 Defining Your Terms,
6 Space Junk: Q&A with Donald Kessler, Former NASA Scientist,
7 Junk Vets: Chicago, Illinois,
8 Business and Show Business,
9 TV Junk: Q&A with Brent Montgomery, Executive Producer of Pawn Stars,
10 Annie Haul: Portland, Oregon,
11 All You Need Is Less,
12 Free Junk: Q&A with Deron Beal, Founder of FreeCycle,
13 Junk Recyclers: Regeneration Station, Asheville, North Carolina,
14 The Repair Café,
15 For the Love of Junk: Q&A with Mary Randolph Carter, Author of American Junk, Garden Junk, Kitchen Junk, and Big City Junk, Among Others,
Selected Bibliography,

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