At last, the novel for everyone who has ever loved something secondhand—the High Fidelity of garage sales, the On the Road of thrift shopping, The Moviegoer of the flea market. Richard owns a secondhand store ("Satori Junk") just outside Detroit. He's the kind of guy for whom not much happens, until it happens all at once: his mother dies. He rummages his parents' basement for good junk and finds (alongside "every purse my mother has ever owned since the Fifties") a box of photos that changes his view of everything. He falls apart over his mother's notes on his favorite meal in an old cookbook. He meets Theresa, a fellow hipster, a thrift-attired junk goddess who shares his feeling for castaways, and he falls for her—hard. Along the way he acquires some junk wisdom about love and loss.
Richard's inimitable, hilarious, philosophical, self-deprecating, yearning voice, and his sharp and loving eye for common foibles and unexpected virtues make for a comic novel crammed full of surprise and pleasure. Second Hand is peppered with insight as unpretentious and satisfying as the unexpected garage sale find. Junk, Richard tells us, "has taught me that to find new use for an object discarded is an act of glistening purity. I have learned that a camera case makes a damn fine purse or that 40 copies of 'Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass's Whipped Cream and Other Delights' may be used to cover a wall of a bedroom…Junk has taught me that all will come to junk eventually, and much sooner than you think."
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|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When I die, I will leave nothing but junk. If I went to my house, to my estate sale, after I died, I would buy everything. Of course, since I bought it all in the first place, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. Yet even if I wasn't me, I would buy it all. There are others that would do the same. People come to my house and are amazed by my junk, covet my junk. But those people are junkers. When people who aren't junkers come to my house, they laugh at my things. Or they say my house is creepy because everything in it was owned by people who are now dead. I tell them, "They're not all dead. Some are in nursing homes."
They just don't get it. If they walk into a house and don't see a plaid couch beneath a color-coordinated "Starving Artists" painting (the big, big sale in the parking lot of the Southfield Ramada Innfor all your art needs!), they become confused, disoriented, even hostile. I make a note of it: they will not be invited to my estate sale. The ad for it would probably go something like this, if I died today:
Friday & Saturday, 10-5
Thirty years' accumulation. Lots of items! 1940s Chinese-red armchair, 1960s genuine cowboy davenport with ten-gallon hat sewn into cushions, 1950s department-store mannequin (male), 1930s dining-room set, 1970s lamp and artificial potted plant, 1940s red/white kitchen table, 1950s cherry-wood Olympic Deluxe console hi-fi. Hundreds of LPs and eight-track tapes, large selection of lurid paperbacks, extensive black velvetart collection: crying clowns, matadors, naked ladies, thin Elvis and fat Elvis! Other collections include: kitchen clocks, ugly lamps, ashtrays, pitchers, cocktail shakers, bongos, souvenir buildings, souvenir spoons, salt & pepper shakers, and more! Full garage. Full basement. Spend the day! No early birds.
Occasionally, I am forced to deal with plaid-couch types in my house. E.g., those now-frequent occasions when my sister Linda comes by, for some reason connected with my mother's health.
Linda believes everything has to be new. She drives a new car, lives in a new house in a new subdivision with her new husband. After a few minutes in my living room, Linda is in a dither. (Or would it be a snit? I'm never sure about those two.) Linda simply doesn't know what to do around objects from garage sales and Salvation Armies and thrift shops and secondhand stores. She looks at my stuff and I can tell she can't wait to get home and sit on her beige plaid couch next to her beige plaid armchair across from the beige plaid love seat (parlor-tanned hand on the beige plaid antimacassar), under the hotel painting done in tones of tan, bone, beige, sienna, and sepia. If Linda sits at my place at all, she perches on the edge of my cowboy couch, like a small white bird trapped in a smudgy, unclean cage. This is sad to me.
Personally, I find new things boring. They have no history, no resonance. I feel at home with junk. Secondhand. The word says it allother hands have touched that object. Think of all the things we touch every day, the million tiny linchpins that hold our lives togetherthe coffee mugs, the tie clasps, the alarm clocks, the sunglasses, the key fobs, the beanbag ashtrays. What if they absorbed some scintilla of you, as if the oil from your fingers carried the essence of your soul? Then think of all the stuff you've ever owned, that's ever passed through your hands, where it all might be right now. Think of the million other lives you've touched through those things that you've owned, that carry the essence of you. Amazing, huh?
Oh shit. You're right. Most of it is probably in a landfill in New Jersey. But I do think that when you own something that once belonged to someone else, it's like some secret contact with them, with their past. A way to touch people without having things get all messy and emotional.
That's what secondhand is. But then there are always people who worry about whether those hands were properly washed.
My store is located in a small, dingy town on the fringe of Detroit, Michigan (a large dingy town), on what was once a lovely little Main Street. I assume things went to seed in the late Sixties, when a lot of things in and around Detroit went to seedwhat with the '67 riot, white flight, urban sprawl, and then the malls. In my town, the only businesses to really survive the deadly onslaught of the malls are the repair shopsshoe, shaver, vacuum, etc. Each run by one unkillable old guy just toiling away, fixing things. Judging from what's in the thrift stores, I wouldn't have thought anyone got anything repaired these days, but apparently people do. There's also a used-book store on my street, a Thai joint, a record store started by some young punks (bless their LP-loving hearts), and a few sistah businesses (hair salons, nail joints, wig shops). And lots of empty storefronts.
I opened my place about five years ago, with a little money my father left me when he died, three thousand dollars to be used "for artistic endeavors." Which seemed a bit strange, frankly. The money didn't mean much to me, compared to having my father around, but I wasn't going to argue. At that time, I was going to art school downtown, living in a roachtrap apartment on the Cass Corridor, working two jobs, one waiting tables, the other sorting at the distribution center for the Salvation Army. I was still finding my junk roots then (art with "found objects"), and working there allowed me to see stuff as soon as it came in. It was a piss-poor job, but I picked up a lot of great things, filling my already too-small apartment with much more junk than I needed for my little "projects." I didn't realize it then, but I was stocking up for the store.
I still don't know exactly where Dad got the three grand, but he had it somewhere. After I got the money, I blew some of it on junk, but I saved most of it. (Okay, so I save money. It's very Mid-western of me, I know.) Shortly afterward, I got fed up with pretentious art school rebop. I realized I liked the objects I was finding better than the art I was making. I started thinking about a store.
My Idea of Junk
I stock a hodgepodge of items ranging from the Thirties (not much) all the way to the Eighties (even less). I can't say I specialize in any particular era (though I do profess a weakness for the junk of the Fifties). The criteria for merchandise is simple: If I like it, I sell it. A few items I have out right now: chrome kitchen canister set, old bar glasses (Harry & Alma's Show Bar for dancing and good food!), a wall of bowling trophies and majorette trophies, disco shirts, cobalt seltzer bottle, Boy Scout knife and canteen, Reddy Kilowatt playing cards, strings of glass grapes, Niagara Falls napkin holder, framed paint-by-number paintings of horse heads.
As you can see, I've got some quality junk. And at very reasonable prices. (But not ridiculously so. I learned that lesson when I opened up the place. I had all sorts of great stuff, dirt-cheap. A few people came in and bought it up. The next week I saw it at some vintage stores uptown at three times the price. Bastards.) My clientele is mixedtattooed black-leather types, hipsters, alterna-teens, design victims, weekend beatniks, psychobillies, people that just dig old stuff. If you had to use one word to describe them, it would have to be "cool." Which also seems to be the highest accolade one of them can bestow upon a person or object.
"That is just so cool."
And so on. I hear this word in my store quite a bit, except in regards to my person. I get other folks, too: bargain-hunting locals, black and white, blue-collar and white-collar, who just come in looking around, not necessarily for cool junk, but because my place is in their neighborhood and it's actually still in business.
Have I mentioned the name of my store? It's called Satori Junk. I painted the sign for it myself, then encrusted it with all sorts of stuffpieces of broken plates, buttons, old doll parts, marbles. When the sun is just right, it looks really great. The rest of the time, it just looks like a sign with a lot of crap hot-glued to it. As for Satori, I realize the Zen thing is a smidge on the egghead side, but I do believe that we can gain a kind of illumination from junk. We just have to be open to it. Unfortunately, most people live their lives without the wisdom junk can give them.
Bowling Shirts and Poodle Planters
Today, I open up and a few people straggle in. About one-thirty, one hipster buys an old bowling shirt that I picked up at a Value Village. I must say, it is an extremely cool shirt, white with turquoise sleeves, an original King Richard, Sanforized for your protection. The best part is the back of the shirt. Embroidered in red script it says:
According to the name over the breast pocket, the previous owner of the shirt was Pete. Strange thing, but hipsters will really pay for a shirt with a name embroidered on it. The older and goofier the name, the betterHerb, Sid, Marvin. Better yet, a kooky nickname"Bud," "Dot," "Buzz." Man, nothing sells like quotation marks.
The only other thing that happens is a gone chick in Forties glamour shades looks in my front window. Definitely a potential customer and, well, kind of attractive in a wan, beat girl way. I wave for her to come in. This sort of extroversion is against my character, but as a merchant, when someone looks in your store window, you're under an obligation to get them to come in. Still, this hardly ever works for me. I think I wave wrong or something. People usually just kind of wave back, then clear out. But this time the woman actually heads for the door. As she walks in, she props her glasses up on her head and looks at me.
"Hi. Cool store," she says.
I want to look over at her and smile, say hi, but I'm suddenly very embarrassed about the waving. Yet, for some reason, I wave again. She gives me an odd look, then starts to browse. From my place behind the cash register, I sort of check her out. She's dressed in a short Seventies leather over a Fifties frock with pearls and a black sling mom purse. I must say, this girl has something, and it could be style. She has that wraith kind of look, pale skin with bobbed dyed black hair. There are dark circles around her eyes, but somehow she manages to pull it off, like she meant to do it, as if they were daubed with kohl. I notice that her pearls are not pearls at all, but small skulls. This makes me a bit jumpy.
She skirts around the side of the store, behind my rack of dime novels. She picks up a copy of Henry Gregor Felsen's Hot Rod. She might be avoiding eye contact with me. I don't blame her. She's probably afraid I'm going to wave at her again. I try to shake off this cloak of weirdness. I am about to say something, then I change my mind. A sound is emitted unfortunately, a sort of monosyllabic grunt.
She looks up from the book, looks back down quickly, in a way that tells me that she doesn't really want to talk to me. When customers respond this way, I leave them alone. But for some reason, I start babbling.
"Can I help you with anything?" I say. "I could help you with something if you needed it." I laugh loudly. (The laugh echoes through the store, then just falls on the floor, dead.) She keeps looking at Hot Rod, then picks up a copy of Street Rod. (Perhaps she is interested in the whole Gregor Felsen oeuvre, I think.)
Then she looks up and smiles at me. This is a very good smile. I like this smile. "Do you have any, like, dog stuff?" she says, nipping at a cuticle.
Finally, something to concentrate on. "Hmm. Anything in particular?"
"No. I don't know. Just some sort of knickknack thing. It's for a friend."
"I may have a little poodle planter somewhere," I say, walking over to one of my tables of bric-a-brac. She starts to follow.
"Shit," she says, looking at her watch. "You know, I've got to go. I shouldn't have come in here. I don't really have time"
At that point, the door rings open and in walks big hipster stud: black on black on black leather, goatee, tatts, pierced ears, nose, etc.
"You ready?" he says to her. He doesn't even look my way, at the doofus standing next to her.
"Yeah," she says. When the Prince of Darkness turns around, she follows him, but looks over at me, three crooked fingers in the air, hint of broken smile, shade of concern in her eyes. "Sorry. We gotta go."
Slam of door. No reason to apologize. It was all in my mind anyway.
Same Old, Some Old
The rest of the day is pretty normal. Quiet, yet full of small events that I can control: mail, a few more customers, polishing an old chrome penguin ice bucket, sweeping the sidewalk. I like it that way. I can't get enough of the rut, the blur, the grind, the same old. Every evening, when I sit down to eat at my boomerang Formica kitchen table, I say a little prayer to the god of repetition. He is a god of my own creation, a lowercase "g" god, but I am fond of him all the same. I don't really say my prayer out loud, just sort of in my headI thank him for the sameness of this day, for the bounty of today's junk. I thank him for one more day like so many other days....
How to put this. I need routine, I need stability, I need repetition, in order to be the best junker I can be. There is a precise place a junker needs to reside psychologically to keep his chops, to manipulate the fates, to maintain the search.
My merchandise comes from estate sales, thrift shops, garage sales, Salvation Armies, church rummage sales, block sales, tag sales, moving sales, you name it. I score the most salable items for the store at estate sales, even though that's where competition with other store owners is the toughest. It's much harder to find good stuff at all the garage sales and thrift stores and such, but I have to go to them. I have to go. Junking is much more than just obtaining merchandise, or even finding the things I want, though it started out that way. It's a way of life, a manner of thinking. Junking is my own grubby metaphor for everything; life portrayed as the long trudge through smelly, clotted aisles on the way to what might seem like the big score, but is simply more junk.
When you're a junker, you surrender yourself to the search. The problem is, you never know exactly what you're looking for, until you see it. Even then, you're not always sure. Sometimes you see something, but ignore it, or decide against it, or maybe you're just not in the mood to buy. Then later, when you think about it at home, or worse, when you notice it in someone else's hand, you realize that was the thing you had wanted all along. I suppose I am looking for something of value, some unattainable piece, but who knows what that is? Not necessarily something that will let me retire and live out the rest of my days in luxury, like that guy who found the Dalí at the Salvation Army. I mean, what would I do with myself then? You have to keep looking.
The looking is something you are born with and die with. I see it in the eyes of the chunky old women who haunt the Goodwill and the Council for the Blind. There they are, well into their seventies, with their limited incomes, still shopping like maniacs, although one of the ineluctable prerequisites of ownership is time enough to possess. They get around that by gift-giving. I see them every day, Pall Malls dangling from rumpled mouths, holding themselves up with shopping carts filled with soiled toys and other articles that almost always look like offerings for loved ones.
When I see them, I go out of my way to be nice to them, show them more than the usual courtesies, even more than I would extend to a fellow junker. They break my heart, these women. They are the swollen-ankle foot soldiers, living the junk life. No matter what I do or what I find, I am merely visiting. Understand that there is an unnavigable gulf of difference between those who choose to shop at thrift shops and garage sales and those who have no choice, who would much prefer to be out chasing the dragon of newness along with the rest of the world.
My Secret Shame
After dinner, I give Mom a quick call at the hospital. ("Are you coming tomorrow?" "Yes, Mom." "Don't bring me anything. I've already got too much garbage here as it is." "I won't, Mom.") After I hang up, I check the papers for estate sales. There's not much going on in the classifieds of the Free Press, but when I get to the Observer, I grab my red pen. Right there under "Estate Sales," between all the three- and four-column-inch sale ads run by auction houses and professional liquidators advertising items like "French hand-painted marble-top commode," is one tiny ad. I wipe the old horn-rims before I read:
Sat only, 9-4.
40+ yrs accumulation.
Furniture; household; basement; garage.
Many unusual items! Don't miss.
Sale by Betty L. & Co.
These are the kind of ads I live for.
Hamtramck: ancient factory town, adjunct of Detroit, home of the now-defunct Dodge Main, one of the city's toughest plants; birthplace of Kowalski Sausage (note twenty-foot-tall neon kielbasa); labyrinth of cramped streets of prewar bungalows and two-flats (covered in trompe l'oeil brick asphalt sheet) with welcome-mat lawns and porches so whopping big you could park a '57 Chrysler 300C on them; populated by factory rats who did their forty years at the plant, then keeled over in their first year of retirement, leaving black-clad peasant-stock wives to live another thirty years, hobbling to church every day, clutching their rosaries, cursing the invading blacks and Chaldeans and Bangladeshi, then returning home to clean their forty year-old ovens. Junking demographics don't get much better than in Hamtramck. Not only is it filled with older folks who take care of their things (things that were built to last in the first place), but also there are more Eastern Europeans than practically anywhere outside Warsawmeaty people with a low center of gravity, so they don't move around much. That's what you need for good junking. People who stay in one place forever.
At an estate sale, a person's life is laid in front of you. A man's Bakelite Donald Duck pencil sharpener from his Twenties childhood can be found in the same room as his walker and oxygen tank. (I snagged that pencil sharpener, by the way.) It's strange to see someone's life collapsed in this manner. Strange, but exhilarating. Like it or not, the blood rush of the estate sale is that you have won; you have outlived one of your villagers, you were born later, luckiernow you are entitled to what was theirs. When I buy this fondue dish, I have eaten the heart of my enemy. Maybe this is what makes people so nuts. (They scowl and push, toss elbows, body checks. A shame, really: People can't be pleasant while plundering.) It isn't just greed or competition or the thrill of the hunt that drives themsomething else is going on: elemental, scary, addictive. When they call your number and let you in that house and you start running around with all the rest of the junk-crazed lunatics, something happens. A door has been opened and you are suddenly privy to the secrets. Not just the deceased's secrets, but to the secrets: fears, joys, angers, despairs, boredoms. Life and death were acted out, but you missed the show and now you're backstage, going through the props, trying to figure out if the production was Hamlet or Under the Yum-Yum Tree.
My Public Shame
The problem with estate sales is that I can't seem to get to them on time. You need to get at the houses very early in the morning when they hand out the numbers. That's how you get the good stuff. The problem is, that's when all the dealers and other people who own stores show up. They come at six and seven in the morning, sometimes earlier. They hand out their own numbers on the street. I get there at eight and there are already twenty people ahead of me. By the time I get in, a lot of the good stuff is long gone.
However, this is not what happens to me on Friday. I am the first person at this sale. This has never happened before. It's at an old house down a tree-lined street with no vehicles parked in front except for my truck ('69 avocado-green GMC Suburban) and Betty L.'s Toyota (license plate: SALE GAL). I can't believe it. There is no line of kibitzing store owners, no hipster chick handing out street numbers at the door, no whiny estate operator fending off the crowd. There's not even an "Estate Sale Today" sign. I'm a little afraid to even go up to the door, but I do.
I peek inside and even though the place is dimly lit, I can see someone in the living room applying price tags at a table of tchotchkes, very precious, a lot of porcelain figurines and salt cellars and crystal, definitely not my cup of tea, but still not a bad sign. I look around. The walls of the vestibule are brown with years of nicotine, but beneath the haze I see stenciled designs on the walls, arabesques of red and blue lining the walls. I see them in the dining room as well. Decades ago, someone actually came in and hand-stenciled this person's walls. Probably some craftsman they knew from the old country. Amazing. I never cease to be astonished at how much care some people put in their houses.
I tap at the door hesitantly. The person at the table, a middle-aged black woman with towering hair and a pair of silver sneakers, whom I recognize as one of Betty L.'s freelance assistants, looks up, then comes to the door.
"You handing out numbers, Dorothea?" I say to her through the screen.
"Not today, skinny," she says. "Just line up. We open at nine."
This is Dorothea's thing. She calls everyone by their most noticeable physical attribute. Every time I see her, I'm glad I don't have a big nose. "Any chance of getting in early?" I say.
"Come on, don't I get a reward for being here before everyone else?"
Dorothea tips one of her jeweled claws at me. "I'll tell you what. When we open up, I'll let you in first."
"You're killing me here, Dot," I say, trying to keep from laughing.
Dorothea smiles and heads back into the house. I park it on the porch and pull out my book. I look around and think about how much I love this job. This is all I need, I say to myself. Eight-thirty on a beautiful summer morning, first in line at a great old house in Hamtown that could be glutted with treasures. How many people's lives have this sort of excitement? I can feel the possibilities in the fillings of my teeth. There's something here for me, I know it.