Westerners are packrats. Blame it on the availability of flea markets or just the size of our backyards. My house is no exception, except that most of my stuff comes from the midden heap, which doesn’t mean I’ve been pilfering artifacts from sacred sites.
The Anasazi used to dump their trash much like many of our ranchers, farmers and land owners — into the nearest arroyo — which archaeologists have taken to calling "midden heaps." In a thousand years, whoever digs up my ruin will find more than they bargained for.
The midden heap I refer to has been sponsored by a local thrift store. I’m proud to live in this region, because the West is a haven for us fix-it up types, folks who never throw anything away because one day it might come in handy. Maybe I ought to have been an archaeologist. I own enough stuff to open my own museum, but I lack the training to properly classify and display it.
My mother was appalled when she first learned that I shop at thrift stores. To her and to many of her generation, thrift stores were full of dead people’s clothes, where the destitute shuffled in for a handout. She insisted on buying her stuff new. I try to think of a thrift store as an excavation. The goods arrive, usually in a mound at the back door, and savvy sorters begin by digging through the bags and boxes to separate what’s saleable from what belongs in the dumpster.
During this process the workers can be heard to exclaim, "Look at this!" Or, "What the heck is that supposed to be?" When archaeologists can’t identify an artifact, they pass it off as having "sacred or religious" significance Luckily, the volunteers don’t write dissertations about their quandaries. They simply shrug their shoulders, laugh, and set it out on a shelf to see if a customer can identify it.
I never realized before how much of the world gets discarded. Everything new can suddenly turn less than new, less than perfect. Once upon a time, thrift shops were havens of the poor, those down on their luck or just plain downtown, looking for a drink. The Salvation Army, Goodwill, New Horizons. Names flying like flags where we pledge our sympathy.
I’ve seen people in the aisles, holding a shirt up against a shadow, fitting a foot into a shoe they’d like to fill. Others are families, mothers with children in tow, furiously shopping so they might fill an empty bag, college kids laughing outrageously at what looks outrageous. Then buying it.
Pioneers settled the West, spurred by the thrill of discovery, and it’s exciting to know that the thrill hasn’t vanished. Last week, I found a car rack for my mountain bike at a thrift store, identical to the $60 version I bought at a specialized bike shop. The used one cost me 3 bucks, so instead of owning two, I returned the expensive one for a refund. I’ve purchased furniture with no down payment, and the only interest I have to deal with comes from the people who stop by and ask, "Wherever did you find that chair?"
I’ve got more used books than I’ll ever be able to read in one lifetime, but when I heard that bookshelves in a double-wide make good insulation, I get a warm feeling every time I buy another.
Some people might call what I do cheap, but I’m comfortable with the word. Compare the thrifty feeling with the typical advertising banter of blowout sales at most retail stores and you’ll understand why "used" gets me enthused. I mean, really, a 15 percent savings on Levi jeans! Big deal. The relaxed fit I’m after is the knowledge that my total bill adds up to an average mall shopper’s sales tax.
You see, there’s nothing wrong with secondhand. So much of what we use hardly ever gets used up. When we learn to feel at home with what has been in other people’s homes, we begin to see the West as a great recycling bin — not just a receptacle for glass, aluminum, paper or plastic.
As thrifters, we are born into the ranks of gold diggers or even tinhorn sheriffs, the ones who asks the rustler with the noose around his neck, what he intends to do with his boots once he’s ridden into the unknown.
David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a teacher in Cortez, Colorado.
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