Whenever I go back to my parents’ house to visit, I usually end up watching a year’s worth of TV. It’s part of the experience. There’s not much else to do where I’m from. And while I was home over the summer for two weeks, I couldn’t stop watching Junk TV. I’m not saying that TV is junk, although it pretty much is, let’s face it, I’m talking about TV about junk. Junk porn. It began in the late 70s with Antique’s Roadshow on PBS. But no one other than the liberal, elderly demographic of PBS paid much attention until now. Now there’s Pawn Stars, Cajun Pawn Stars, Hardcore Pawn, Storage Wars, Storage Wars: Texas, American Pickers, and the creepy-crawly, panic attack-inducing Hoarders-all on channels that used to be about history or arts and entertainment. They remind us of the things that we own, the things we throw away, the things that our grandparents own or owned, things that used to be made in the good ol’ US of A, things that we knew where they came from. It’s nostalgia in a tin toy robot or a Winchester rifle, a ceramic pot with owls on it. It’s nostalgia wrapped in things we own, or wish we did. It’s big business now, buying and selling junk, and I think it says something about our consumer culture as it was and as it is becoming. We are addicted to nostalgia porn.
Not to sound like a hipster douchebag or anything, but I was on this bandwagon years before the likes of cable television got their grubby little mitts on it, before every channel got a piece, before it entered every baby boomer’s living room every evening after dinner. When I was basically living in my parents’ garage back in 2007, I spent a lot of time at thrift stores and antique shops. I’d drive my 1978 Mustang II all over the Great Plains to look at all of the things that used to be in every mom and pop shop on Main Street USA. I’d go alone because I was in a very alone state of perpetual despair at that time and because driving has always been a relaxing activity, a personal one, a time for reflection, and by going alone, I could go wherever I wanted without bored passengers wanting to stop at Dairy Queen or go do something else, something that normal twenty-somethings do. So I went almost every day, with no particular goal in mind. Just something to do, some place to go, a reason to drive on the open road in the vast, barren prairie desert that is Eastern South Dakota. One day I’d drive to Canton, SD, or to Vermillion, Beresford, Hartford, or Tea. There was Brookings, SD, where I spent the first two years of my tumultuous undergraduate career. There was Madison, Salem, Yankton, SD, and LaVerne, MN, a little town on the border. All of these towns had nothing of interest to me other than the little shops that sat virtually empty every day, from early in the morning until mid-afternoon, run by retirees, by old folks, by people who knew more about the items than most museum curators. I wanted to discover these places on my own, see for myself what they had to tell me about the past and the future. I became an amateur archeologist.
I found comfort in all of the forgotten things, the unloved things collecting dust and value on cluttered shelves in empty shops. I loved touching the patina, smelling the age, examining the wear of the abandoned gems, feeling the grooves of the real wood, not particle board, of real metal, not throwaway plastic, and these things felt so close to me. I wished and longed to be born in a different time, a time when people made things with their own hands, with blood and sweat and attention to detail. When people took pride in their work. When there was a gadget for everything and you could see how it worked, look at the gears and pulleys and levers, unlike the digital/virtual/technical age we live in now where everything is hidden, compartmentalized in chips, wires, and circuit boards that I don’t understand. I romanticized everything I saw at those antique shops and fell in love with the things that were unloved, rejected, abandoned by people who upgraded, downgraded, or died.
I started to collect stuff I thought was cool and that I could afford, the things that I couldn’t afford not to take home, and the trunk of my car became a shelter for the unloved and forgotten things. I collected typewriters, fedora hats, costume jewelry, cigarette tins, antique buttons, weird German figurines, and 1960s sputnik furniture. These were beautiful things to me. Keepsakes not found in the purgatory that is Walmart or Target, or the sleeping giant Amazon.com. Those places give me panic attacks.
Now these old things with a patina I cherished are hot commodities. The rest of America is catching on and cashing in to those treasures they used to throw away and give to Goodwill. I still go into these shops when I feel like browsing the aisles and looking at history in compartmentalized ruins. I still enjoy looking at and touching these things. But now I can’t afford them. They’re too expensive because now everyone thinks they’ve got a goldmine in their attic or a stockpile of cash in their basement. Now everyone wants to cash in on their unloved items. They saw it on TV. Anyone can do it. And now I can only afford browse and gawk at the newly stickered, astonishing price tags and this breaks my heart. Who do these people think they are? What value can you put on an item without robbing it of its essence? How can you charge $70 for a busted up ice grinder? How can you value a kicked-to-shit fruit crate at $50? Really. Who do these people think they are? And why don’t I have a bigger apartment?