The things we carry

Stuffed animals, out-grown shoes, hand-me-down mugs; aged television sets, dog-eared romance novels, and garish gold picture frames...

Secondhand stores can be a treasure trove or a purgatory between home and landfill, and quite often, it is both simultaneously. My mother is renowned for her ability to walk into a Goodwill and find the two designer items amongst the overwhelming array of clothing, which has been sorted by color into a rainbow of pinks, greens, blacks, creams. She finds great things far more often than I do. The secondhand hunt can sometimes seem like more work than its worth: picking through sweaters hoping to find a nice material in a size that may or may not fit, all the while hoping you'll be able to get the previous owners' smell out of it in the wash.

And that doesn't even include the millions of items, like the teddy bears and picture frames, that get passed over entirely (and usually for good reason; do we really need a section for hand-me-down underwear? Is anyone buying those?).

But the things we buy, keep, donate, throw away, and create tell one of the most interesting stories that exists. What do we think we need, and what makes us happy? What transcends our childhood, and what gets tossed out? What did they use one hundred years ago instead of a replacement product today, and what created the need for a different device? And when something is so foreign that we can't tell its use by looking at it, we get to use our best judgment to give it a context, a story, and a purpose; and we get to marvel in the fact that it has survived centuries past the expiration of its usefulness, which is a stunning fact in itself, the way we dispose of things in modern society.

I was supposed to be taking a class on material culture this fall as part of my graduate studies; I am still very excited to dig into this rich realm of human history, I'll just be doing it in the spring semester instead. Material things offer an entirely different form of historical evidence from documents like letters, diaries, and speeches, and give us perhaps a more nuanced glance into an era and a society than oral histories, which filter through the strange realms of memory, time, and maturation. Each person has a limited amount of money, and what they spend it on shapes the lives each person leads. Do they buy a car or a bicycle, a house in the city or the country, a collection of books or a collection of baseball cards? All are noble pursuits, neither better than the other at the surface, but something tips the scales towards one or the other for each individual. How amazing that we leave behind this trail of purchases and, over our lifetimes, determine what stays with us for decades and what was really never worth the money (and what falls somewhere in between).

As all this was in my head, I heard a story on The World recently that brought material culture history and the secondhand industry a bit closer together; after all, considering their essentially working with the same items, they are strangely separate entities. Most people will never know (or care to know) the stories behind the things they buy in secondhand stores, even if they always know there has been at least one previous owner and life before them.

Oxfam, a charity organization in the United Kingdom, raises money through stores across the country much like Goodwill or Salvation Army in the U.S. One of their stores recently took a brilliant step towards shrinking the disconnect between secondhand goods and the stories they silently carry through the world. Emma Cooney, who runs an Oxfam in Manchester, teamed up with Chris Speed, a digital artist, to begin recording brief stories told by the owners as they come in to donate their now-unwanted things. In thirty seconds, a woman can share the story of her old handbag, which she purchased on a cold Sunday morning in the middle of winter, in a "small, dark shop" owned by a women who gave the woman a hot cup of cocoa. As she donates the bag, she says she's always reminded of hot chocolate when she used the purse.

People who come into the shop to browse the items can listen to the stories on their cell phones by scanning a bar code, or they can broadcast it over the store's intercom so everyone else can listen as well.

In the interview, Chris Speed said, "It was a very public story as though suddenly someone touched an object and a whole store was woken up by this tale about where these objects had come from. What was amazing was that people wanted the damn objects. You could see them holding almost something as though it was in someone’s living room, and it changed the entire atmosphere of the shop. Everyone was fascinated, and they really didn’t want to let go of the stories, which meant they bought them. So as fast as we could get stories in, they were going out of the store like hotcakes."

Which meant that the items became more valuable to people upon hearing the little stories behind them, the tales--big or little--about their previous lives and owners. A simple, remarkable idea. In the immediate, it is a great way to market used goods and turn a bit of profit for their charity. And in the long-term, those items continue to collect new stories, this time never losing some of their earlier ones. It's a little like that dollar bill tracking thing, where people can find their bill online and see where it's "checked in" around the world. But on a smaller, more intimate scale, and with items that people cherish and build more meaningful relationships with--for however brief a time--before they move on.

(Several of the recorded stories are in sound-clip form at the story's main page.)