The Literary Salon: Secondhand – To Have and Have Not

Cleaning out – that’s what many of us have been doing, making productive use of our time during our COVID staycations.   No matter that there’s nowhere to take the stuff now that the dump, Goodwill and thrift stores are all closed and the whole idea of holding a garage sale is frankly horrifying.  Somehow the idea of pawing through someone else’s junk/germs is not very appealing, when even the library is quarantining returned books for 72 hours before disinfecting them for re-circulation.  I did my annual house purge back in  snowy January and the stuff is still sitting in the basement and the gardening items are still in the garage, set aside for the spring horticultural sale, long cancelled. 

    So, I wasn’t much interested, when in my first curbside pickup of library books, there was one I had ordered eons ago – Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale – by Adam Minter.     But after I had read it, I thought – where were you last winter when I needed you!      

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage SaleSecondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Publishers Blurb:

Decluttering. A parent’s death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country-or even halfway across the world-to people and places who find value in what we leave behind.

In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter takes us on an unexpected adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more. Along the way, Minter meets the fascinating people who handle-and profit from-our rising tide of discarded stuff, and asks a pressing question: In a world that craves shiny and new, is there room for it all?

Secondhand offers hopeful answers and hard truths. A history of the stuff we’ve used and a contemplation of why we keep buying more, it also reveals the marketing practices, design failures, and racial prejudices that push used items into landfills instead of new homes. Secondhand shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way, and what really needs to change to build a sustainable future free of excess stuff.

 Why I Liked it:   

This is not one of those how to declutter/reorganize/change your life  manuals, but rather it’s an eye-opening look at what really happens to the unwanted stuff you donate.   It certainly motivated me to rethink my “possession of things” in ways that those other books did not.   Maybe it’s the current COVID crises and morbid thoughts of sudden death, but really in the end, it’s all just stuff and you can’t take it with you.   So keep what you use and enjoy and get rid of the rest, and try not to buy as much in the future!

    The author, Adam Minter, has done a great deal of research into the global secondhand industry, and being himself the descendant of junkyard owners,  is well qualified to tell the tale.  He also wrote Junkyard Planet-Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, a 2013 bestseller. 

    Much of the book involves his travel in places like Mexico, Southeast Asia and Africa – countries where the secondhand economy thrives, and where the stuff which doesn’t sell here is often destined.   That old saying, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, is true.   While there’s a widely circulated theory that by sending our clothes and electronic waste to third world countries we are harming their homegrown economies, the author debunks that myth.   While undeniably some of it does end up in the dump, much of it is recycled and repaired to be resold to people who would otherwise have nothing.   The author follows a container of discarded computers, cell phones and tube TVs to Africa and it’s thriving electronic repair shops – shops who would much rather have older recycled goods than new cheaper ones because they last longer and are made better.   In one story, Greenpeace installed a GPS tracking device on a discarded TV in a shipment bound from England to Africa and then send a reporter to reclaim it at the other end, thus proving, according to their report, that it was destined for a digital dump.  But it wasn’t – it would have been brought to a repair shop and then resold to someone who had nothing.  

     There’s a chapter on emptying the nest (professional estate cleaning  crews), secondhand clothes, wiping rags (a whole separate industry), and why appliances don’t last, (remind me to buy a Speed Queen if my thirty year old Maytag washer/dryer ever wears out).   Simple fixes such as making manufacturers release repair manuals for older models would do a lot to keep older electronics out of the dump.          

     I once donated an old 80’s radio/cassette player to the St. Vincent de Paul and the clerk thanked me as there were some seasonal workers in the store who were looking for a radio.   They were Mexican, here to help with the pepper harvest.  We smiled at each other.  I was pleased too, as when we drop things off at the thrift shop, we hope they will be reused and appreciated by someone else – if not here than perhaps in some other country.   In this world of have and have not, it’s comforting to know that sometimes happens.   

PS.   I’ve been thinking about my garage sale stuff and wondering – if things continue in recovery mode here and we don’t get a second fall wave – if I could just put some of the stuff out at the end of the driveway on a table some Saturday afternoon with a sign, Free for a Small Donation to COVID relief fund?   That way it won’t sit in my basement until next year.   A lot of what I have is winter stuff, Christmas decorations, wreaths, sweaters, etc.   I only had a garage sale once, (advertised) and I remember people coming really early, like before I was awake!    

Vintage Casablanca poster

Vintage movie posters

French Press Coffee Maker

French Press coffee maker…used once…$35 price sticker still on…coffee not hot enough and too much hassle to clean out the grounds.

red plaid housecoat

Flannel bathrobe with fleece lining…never worn……not suitable for menopausal women….

fake flowers

from my fake flower/wreath making days…

Sparkly Christmas wreaths

Many sparkly Christmas in July things…





24 thoughts on “The Literary Salon: Secondhand – To Have and Have Not

  1. Anne says:

    I am with you on a lot of this and that book looks well worth looking out for. We have accumulated way too much ‘stuff’ – possibly because we both grew up in families that had little to spare – but once sorting is done I am stuck with what to do with it all. I would love to be able to put tidy piles on a pavement with ‘please lighten my load and take it’. De-cluttering our home is a very long-term project, yet I whittle away at it – slowly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      I think that it a factor with me too…we didn’t have a lot of stuff growing up, and you work hard to buy things so you’re reluctant to let them go. But now I feel like I could start all over again purging my house!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      That book was the first I had heard of the Speed Queen. I’m not even sure if you can get it here in Canada, maybe only in some stores. I’ve had my 33 year old Maytag dryer repaired a few times (minor stuff) and the repairman said never to get rid of it as it’s a workhorse. There’s very little to break on it. You don’t really need all those bells and whistles anyway!

      Liked by 1 person

      • ruthsoaper says:

        Speed Queen’s main market is industrial machines and I understand that, at least here in the states, that is what is generally found in laundromats. Before we bought ours my husband was reading reviews on them. It was a review from a person trained as a speed queen technician that said something like ‘even though I’ve been trained to repair them I have never had to work on one’, that sealed the deal for us.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. annieasksyou says:

    This was indeed an eye-opener—so good to know about the journeys these items make to places where they’re needed.

    When/if I ever break away from my failure to declutter, I shall certainly try to put these thoughts to good use. Fun pics too. Thanks, Joni.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Linda Schaub says:

    I wonder aloud every day how my parents and a bird also lived here … what gives with that? I spend time decluttering and out go lots of bags of “stuff” in the garbage on Monday morning, but then I look around and it is still cluttered. I like your collection of items you have unearthed and the robe especially – give it another 10 years and you’ll be wearing it! Never had coffee in a French press … lots of goodies, don’t make a hasty decision!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      Yea, some of it is really too good, but I’d feel better is someone else wanted it. The French press coffee was excellent in the restaurant, but I never seemed to get the water hot enough – it has to steep for 4 minutes and then it was cold – and then there were the grounds to clean out….way too much work, but it was less bitter. The robe was on sale, a catalogue order, but the fleece lining made it so bulky and hot, I never wore it. I wear summer PJ’s in winter!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I like my coffee really hot too, but since the laptop is STILL on the glass-topped stove, I just run the water ’til it gets really hot and make my instant coffee and use it for making the oatmeal as well. That’s amazing re: the Summer PJs in Winter. I keep the heat at 76 all Winter long. When my mom was here, it was a little lower but the air conditions were made different then (a sear level they call it) and I used to have lightweight sweatsuits I wore to bed … and socks. That was quite a while ago though. Now, I have polar fleece PJs – love them and I am still wearing them and that’s because I hate going to bed cold when the A/C is on and I keep my A/C at 76, not cold enough to hang meat. I usually put it to 75 when it gets this hot, but left it at 76. You remember at Memorial Day, I had to call them in to reconnect the live wire? Well he did a quick check of the pressure and since I knew Jim (handyman) would be coming soon to do the tar work on the one side, I waited before calling them for the A/C check to ensure it was totally dry. When I called two weeks ago, I was told the earliest appointment I could get was August 4th! Pretty amazing … I am sure when he did the quick check that he would have noticed if the freon (or whatever they use now) was low (I hope so anyway). I don’t like this intense heat – I’m already dreading the whopper storm we’ll have to break this heat – we have it until next Wednesday. Our old A/C unit, being a different sear level, made it like a meat locker in here – we did not keep it really low, but it would get so cold in here, I’d have a sweatsuit or pants, top and a sweatshirt cardigan and would go outside in the heat, just to warm up.


  4. Eilene Lyon says:

    I’m a little surprised to find that the electronic stuff is getting reused. It seems I’ve read about the recycling in Asian countries where they are in contact with toxic metals and stuff. The book certainly sounds worth a read. I get you about the robe. I used to be cold all the time. Now I never wear more than a thin nightshirt to bed, even in winter!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. J P says:

    It would be so easy to just dump things in the trash, but I hold off thinking that if I sell or donate somebody else will value the things I don’t use. But selling or donating takes more effort and slows down the process and we go into a paralysis that stops the clean-out process.

    It sounds like a really interesting book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      True…..I’ve only had one garage sale but the amount of effort to put it all out and price it and deal with people, and then pack up what doesn’t sell and take to the thrift store where most of it won’t sell either….it’s exhausting and just easier to put it in the garbage for the landfill. I tend to hang onto a lot of vintage stuff, but even the vintage store here doesn’t want any more as it’s crammed full….and it’s just too much work to sell stuff online. So it’s a dilemma.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ally Bean says:

    Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale – by Adam Minter sounds like a book I’d enjoy. We still have so much stuff around here. I try to sort through it, make a decision about it, then move it elsewhere BUT no on seems to want old stuff, even if it is in good condition. While I appreciate having things, I am to a point where I really do not want many of these things around. If that makes sense…

    Liked by 1 person

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