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…

     

 

    

 

Spring Cleaning – The Marie Kondo Way

Years ago, everyone did spring cleaning.   They washed windows, shook carpets outside and cleaned every room from top to bottom until the house sparkled.   I remember Martha Stewart writing about the annual rituals her mother would undertake and like everything Martha Stewart, it was complicated, time-consuming and probably unnecessary.   It’s not like a bit of dust will kill you, unless you have really bad allergies and have to keep the dust mites at a minimum.    The theory now is that living in a spotless germ-free house is not  good for building children’s immune systems.   It seems a little dirt is good for you, a germ-laden pet, preferably a dog, even better.    So, while I put all the winter plaid stuff away and bring out lighter brighter decor, when spring arrives I don’t want to be stuck indoors when there is such delightful weather to be enjoyed outside…..spring is not here yet, but coming soon.   

Tulips - AMc

I tend to tackle any major cleaning projects in January when it’s cold and snowy, but I do like my house to be tidy and the clutter under control.   The new Netflix show by Marie Kondo, the diminutive author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up fame, has been getting a lot of attention lately. 

If you’re a fan of the show, you might enjoy my post from last January – Decluttering 101 – Out With The Old, where I profile her book and my efforts to apply it. 

One caveat, at the time I wrote the blog, I did not understand the role of Japanese spirituality in her method.   While this belief that inanimate objects have feelings and need to be thanked, may seem bizarre to us western folk, reading a recent op-ed piece on the subject helped put parts of the book into context.   Which just goes to show, how judgments can be skewed by ignorance, as the book was initially intended for Japanese readers who would of course be familiar with those ideas.  As for all those people who made fun of her methods (and I read some truly cruel reviews on Goodreads last year), well she’s now sold 11 million copies, has a new hit show, and is probably laughing all the way to the bank.   

Link to January  2018 Blog:  Decluttering 101 – Out With the Old

My mother is painting spring…..

Spring Flowers - AMc

Spring Flowers

Decluttering 101 Out With The Old

      If decluttering your personal space is one of your New Year’s resolutions then you may be interested in, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.     

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

 

  My yoga teacher lent me a copy of this book last year over the Christmas break and I became so motivated by it that cleaning out my house became one of my goals for 2017.   Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizing consultant who is booked three months in advance according to her bio, which surprised me as I think of Japan as a nation of tidy people living in small neat houses, but maybe they are pack-rats like most North Americans.   Her unique approach has now been trade marked as the KonMari method.  The gist of her method is that you are to tidy by category and all at once, by dumping everything of each item from all over your house in the center of the room, shirts for example, and then you are to hold each item in your hand and “if it doesn’t spark joy”, out it goes.  You will then only be surrounded by the things you love.  The author was young and single and lived in a bedroom/apartment when the book was written in 2011, so although it is an interesting premise, some of the suggestions are not quite practical for a larger space shared with other people.   What if something doesn’t bring you joy, (old electronic devices, the hamster cage, hockey equipment), but might bring joy to someone else?  Then there are the things that don’t bring you joy but you need anyway.   My iron doesn’t bring me joy, (I hate ironing, but I hate wrinkles even more), but I don’t plan on throwing it out.  Toys should only be stored in one place?  That might cause a few temper tantrums.   Some of the suggestions border on the bizarre, you should talk to your house and your possessions and thank them for taking care of you? “Thank you for keeping me warm all day.  Thank you for making me beautiful.”  My sad old kitchen which is desperately in need of renovation might feel better if I spoke lovingly to it, but would I sound like George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, joyously greeting the miserable old Building and Loan.   Or empty your purse every night, place wallet, makeup and put everything in it’s assigned place, and then repack it in the morning.  I admire purse minimalists, but I am not one of them, my purse holds everything but the kitchen sink, so that would take over an hour.   She often speaks of inanimate objects as if they had souls and feelings.   What do the things in your house that don’t spark joy actually feel?  They simply want to leave.  Everything you own wants to be of use to you.  It must be a Feng-shui kind of thing.  Does my iron hate me as much as I hate it?       

            Still there was enough in the book to motivate me, so I diligently spent the month of January last year cleaning out my house, and the month of February attempting to clean out my mother’s, and some of March down in the basement, (home of the paper archives), and then it was spring, and I lost interest.    Purging all at once was just not practical for me, a few hours here and there was the best I could do with my three-level house…yes, I broke the rules.   I was less successful with my mother’s house, as she was born in the Depression and so has more of an attachment to empty coffee canisters and plastic storage containers than I do.   (Perhaps that is why Marie is so booked up, it is much easier to get rid of someone else’s stuff than your own).   “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” was a popular saying in the Depression, which may explain why that generation tends to hoard such things, while the baby boomers, because we didn’t grow up with as much as kids today, were more into acquiring material things, (fine china, mahogany dining room sets), and the millennials are minimalists indeed who would rather have experiences than things, and only buy what they need.    Speaking of psychoanalysis, while some of the book reviews I read unkindly label the author as having OCD, (if I had sold five million copies I wouldn’t care what they called me), there is a sad chapter towards the end of the book where she explains her need to be compulsively tidy since a young age as an attempt to attract her parent’s love and attention and avoid being dependent on other people.  She was a middle child (self-explanatory).            

            Some pointers from the book –  sort all in one shot, by category, not location.  There are only two actions, discarding and deciding where to store things.   Start by discarding, all at once, intensely and completely, then decide where to store things, and keep them only in that place.  (Discard first, store later).   Do not start with mementos.  Start with easier items, clothes, books, papers, misc., and then mementos.   We should be choosing what to keep, not what we want to get rid of.   She recommends folding clothes in rectangles and then storing them vertically, standing up in drawers, so you can see everything, and they are less wrinkled.  Store all items of the same type in the same place, and don’t scatter storage space, including designating storage space for each family member.  Fancy storage systems = bad, they justify keeping stuff you shouldn’t.  Some clothes like coats and dresses are happier hung up.  I’m relieved my elegant black cocktail dress, (Winners sale), is happy even though it’s never been worn.     Keep only those books which make you happy to see on the shelves.   Out go those university text books I kept in case I felt the need to study chemistry again, (which I did twenty years later for a degree upgrade).   Now they are but sentimental reminders of a time when I was smarter and had a better memory.   Sorting papers – rule of thumb – discard everything!  She relents and says you can keep some things like insurance policies, love letters etc. but only if they are stored in one spot only.   On sentimental items – “No matter how wonderful things used to be we cannot live in the past – the joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.”   Yes, that is true, but what about keeping things for future generations?   As a lover of history and genealogy, I wish my ancestors had kept more things, not less, 

(see Nov. blog on Uncle Charlie WW1 Vet), and museums would be empty if we throw everything away just because it’s old.   I am glad I kept those letters from my younger pre-email years, they are treasured memories for myself and for future generations.   

             What makes some things more difficult to get rid of is they either remind us of things past, (childhood toys, I kept my Barbie dolls and clothes), 

or we might have a future need for them some time and they won’t be there.  I still haven’t read those books I picked up at the book sale last winter, but we might be snowed in for a week and then I’ll have something to read.  Most bookworms have great difficulty getting rid of books.  It seems a shame to discard a book, unless it’s a really bad book, and even then someone put a lot of effort into writing it.  (I once read that books are one of the most often requested items in refugee camps).   While I won’t be appearing on any hoarder reality tv shows, I do have a problem with some categories (see blog on vintage clothes on the main menu), and I admit I am a paper pack-rat too.   With the clothes I am mourning the life I had, or aspired to (in the case of that chic little black cocktail dress with the bow in the back). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My intention with The Vintage Corner was to sell some of the clothes and donate the money to charity, which can always make you feel better about throwing things out.   I lost track of how many trips I made to the local thrift shop, but one day when I took an old ghetto-blaster in, (music for the garage, but it was never used and covered with dust), there was an immigrant family looking for a radio, so it was perfect timing.   How happy they were, and how pleased I was to be able to help someone else.    

               Recently I came across a review for a new book from Sweden, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” (Scribner Jan 2018) by Margareta Magnusson, which may be more suited to older generations. 

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More PleasantThe Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant by Margareta Magnusson

 

This Swedish author recommends you streamline your belongings while you are still healthy enough to do the job, thus saving relatives the difficult task of sorting out after you are gone.  It sounds morbid but it is actually uplifting, finding the right homes for all your beloved possessions so they can bring joy to someone else, plus it can relieve the burden of looking after so many things when you might not have the health or energy to do so.   Still it does make me sad to walk into a thrift store and see all those lovely sets of good china which graced many a holiday table and which no one wants anymore.   I collect blue and white china (which does bring me joy),

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My grandmother’s turkey platter

 and thrift shops are excellent places for that, although I am now more selective in what I buy.         

          The final chapter in the Marie Kondo book deals with the life-changing part of the title – apparently “the lives of those who tidied thoroughly and completely in a single shot are without exception dramatically altered.”   Some of her clients discarded their excess weight, their jobs and even their husbands, and went on to live much happier lives.  The rationale for this is that detoxifying your house has a detoxifying effect on your body and mind as well.  It increases your happiness and good fortune to live in a natural state surrounded only by the things you love.  She says, “when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past too, and you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.”  The things we really like do not change much over time.  Putting your house in order is a great way to discover what they are.   I’m not sure if this is just so much psycho mumbo-jumbo, but you cannot deny it is a serene feeling to having a clean and tidy house.   She does not seem to acknowledge however that some people prefer and even feel more comfortable with a certain degree of clutter around them.  It makes a home look lived in as opposed to one staged for a real estate open house…you know the type, when you walk into a house and nothing is out of place and there’s not an open book in sight.   I can’t say my life was altered in any transformative way, (but then I broke the all in one shot rule), but I would have to say the book was successful in making me stop and think, do I really need to keep this, and while some clutter has crept back, the usual suspects in the usual places, (papers in the den and kitchen drawers you may plead guilty), over-all it was a worthwhile read.   The whole concept of sparking joy, while airy-fairy, did make me much more conscious of what I bought.  Not only did a new acquisition have to bring me joy, but did I even need it?  After spending three months decluttering I didn’t want to have to do it again.   But there was a good feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when it was done and someday when I must downsize there will be less to pack and unpack.   As anyone who has ever moved can attest, moving can be a great motivator for decluttering. 

          The other day I saw a very large moving truck on my street, it almost stretched the whole block, which made me think about how much stuff people have today compared to the past.  My maternal grandmother came through Ellis Island in 1922 from Holland, on her honeymoon, with one large wicker trunk containing all her worldly possessions.   My dad’s ancestors arrived in Canada from Ireland in 1846 at the height of the potato famine with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  They abandoned what few supplies they brought with them, when they jumped ship in the St. Lawrence during a cholera epidemic.  They had to borrow one pound from the Canadian government (National Archive Records), for water transport from Toronto to where they settled, but by 1900 they had nice crystal,

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farm heirloom

 and monogrammed silverware, (I wish I still had some of those forks).   Things can bring you pleasure and joy and we can spend a lifetime buying but in the end, we have nothing – you can’t take it with you, as the saying goes.  There is a time to collect stuff and a time to get rid of it.  

       Incidentally, about a month after I returned the book to my yoga instructor, I saw a copy at a thrift shop for two dollars, so I bought it to keep as a reference book, which is a no-no according to the rules, but which I knew would come in handy some day.   The author also has a sequel, Spark Joy – An Illustrated Master Class in Organizing and Tidying Up, but when I picked it up and glanced through it, there was a whole section on camisole folding, and since I don’t own any camisoles, I closed it back up and left it there on the shelf to bring joy to someone else. 

Quote of the Day:   “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”   (William Morris)