“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came, he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.”
– Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

The new year has dawned for me much like 2018. I have not relocated or suffered dramatic reversals of fortune. But I have moved up in the world. Literally. This year I finally acquired a bedframe—a cast-off from a friend who moved this summer. For those of you nomadic souls who have spent many a night on a mattress on the floor, you can imagine the dignifying pleasure of jumping into a bed high off the ground rather than plopping WAY down onto a mattress.

With every adult year, I find my stuff accruing. And I’m pleased to say that most of the objects have had longer, and likely more interesting, lives than I have. In 2018 I acquired:

  • a futon from a friend’s parents’ move
  • a funny little bookcase from a veritable MOUNTAIN OF STUFF that appeared on the curb the week before my neighbors moved out (seriously, I have never seen anything like it),
  • a coffee table with an elaborate skull carved into by some goth teenager
  • a table and set of chairs that looks like something from the set of the Brady Bunch, which I found moldering in the basement of the three-flat in which I live.

I come from a long line of garage-sale enthusiasts, whose motto in life runs along the lines of “If it’s a quarter, I’ll give you a dime, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll pick one out of the trash and give it a quick spray paint myself.” At first, I saw this scavenging tendency in my grandparents, parents, and me as a learned behavior from constantly working around a slim budget. However, I think there are more advantages than thrift to maintaining a personal economy of second-hard things.

The items we amass over the course of our lives are important. They mark (and I’d argue shape) our personalities. And since things are important, wouldn’t it be good to select interesting things that have already had a storied life of their own? And by association enrich our stories? Used things, old things, worn-but-good-enough things come with their own peculiar weight from the scars and residues of purposes past.

So here is a defense of collecting old and used things.

First, old things contain histories that can intersect with our own. While I could have bought a new tablecloth, I’m glad to have one of my mom’s because it reminds me a bit of sitting at the dinner table at home. Some sentimental, but most purely convenient, these objects are more than themselves because they speak specifically to my memory.

Then, too, old things invite us to be a part of their history. As I accumulate old things, I mark them with my personality and experience. The dresser from my aunt has a new set of dings and scratches from its odyssey up my long and narrow flight of stairs. The chairs from the Goodwill have been painted bright green and orange to match the weird table I hauled up from the basement.

Second-hand things often have exciting discovery stories: The pillow from that bizarre antique shop that we ducked into to get out the rain. The funky hat from the church rummage sale we found at the last minute before the school play.

Things can fascinate in their own weird thing-ness. I love that bookshelf I pulled from the neighbor’s trash with its inexplicable curvy edges. Like Helene in 84 Charing Cross Road, who likes used books, I appreciate the comradeship created between successive owners drawn to a peculiar piece of furniture.  

As we receive and give our things away, we perpetuate a legacy of generous exchange. Someday when I move again, I’ll decide whether to release or carry these objects with me. Has our human-thing relationship grown strong enough to stick? Or should we part ways, content to have been good friends for a season? With every table I put BACK by the side of the road, I end the chapter in the object’s history in which I was a character. However, the used nature of my possessions can also ease the pain of goodbyes. Most of what I own was gift of some kind. They came to me easily and graciously, and I can relinquish them in the same spirit. Maybe the bed frame from my friend will go to another attic-dwelling grad student who is ready to get off the floor.

So, may your 2019 be full of giving and receiving. May your memories hang proudly on the wall, may your path be filled with discoveries of old new things, may your personality explode onto a painted chair, and may the spaces you inhabit be made a home by objects that have become your things.

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