03 August, 2012

The Way Thrift Stores are Jammed

A quote from Brian Ulrich, of VCU, discussing his book Is This a Great Place or What in an interview on With Good Reason, July 28, 2012, http://withgoodreasonradio.org/2012/07/is-this-place-great-or-what/
     On the cover of the book there's a photograph of a young woman who was working in a thrift store in Seattle, Washington and she's really kind of totally surrounded by a giant pile of used donation clothes. To me what was amazing about this girl was that she was maddona-like.  She had this ownership of herself in that space even though she was totally compressed by this wall of colour and garments and stuff.
     This is this environment that we all exist in.  The thrift chapter of the book moved into the idea of "as much as we buy things, those things have to go somewhere."  There has to be a repository for those things.  The middle class casts off all of their used things, they end up in this space, the guilt is absolved but the mountain of stuff is tremendous and profound, and a real problem that people have to deal with all the time...
     [On the influence of Hurricane Katrina] Like a lot of people I was completely transfixed by the aftermath which was poor people and low-income people trapped in New Orleans.  It made me think of the fabulous photographs that were done in the 1930s of the Depression-era America.  It seemed a lot more interesting to potentially just photograph that level of "here's what the environment is" in the thrift store.
     Interviewer Sarah McConnell: And what did you find the environment to be?
     Ulrich: Consumer goods were being manufactured so fast that they had to be spit out of the machine, and this was where they landed.  They literally would be piled to the ceiling, spilling out of the back of stores.  These places were swimming in consumer goods.  Most of the time we like to think, oh, that's a great thing: they're going to be able to sell all this stuff and use that money for a charitable organization or otherwise.  But it was a real problem.  They couldn't get enough people to process this stuff.  And to lay that all on a lower economic class was big and heavy and again problematic.
     It seemed to me that thrift is an allegory for a culture that sets in place a remedy for a system so that the people in the thrift stores and the thrift stores themselves are the ones to solve these last-level problems of "well, we make too much stuff.  You deal with it."  Upper and middle-class levels get to reap all the rewards and benefits of new products; lower income gets to basically glean from what's left behind.
     McConnell: And the way that thrift stores are jammed, they can't even glean because they can't even process what they see.
     Ulrich: No, they can't.  It's incredibly...yeah.
I heartily enjoy buying from thrift shops and other resellers and I appreciate having places to consign or pass along my useable discards.  But, yeah.

I was out for a walk the other weekend and came across a yard sale that was mostly clothes.  I could tell from eavesdropping that it was in effect an estate sale, the mother had died.  There were conservative men's suits on hangers laid over boxes; I could imagine a widow keeping them, deferring the task of processing the things.  Pieces of women's clothing were hung on makeshift rods and heaped on tables and blankets.  The adult daughter apologized to me for the disarray.  So much stuff.  Underpinnings and everything.  Much of it was nice, Sunday-go-to-meeting level.  I'm sure each purchase seemed like a good idea at the time.

The second half of the broadcast is an interview with Scott Nelson about his book A Nation of Deadbeats.  I couldn't pick out any one quote, it was just riveting with facts I had never heard of.  It's snippets of stories about economic history centring on the consequences of debt and gluts of goods on the market, such as used British military coats after the Napoleonic war.

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