Down here in sunny and hot Florida, my daughter and I went shopping yesterday and came home with an unusual haul: retro 60's dress $4.00, 2 retro scarves $3.98, a Bobbie Ann Mason memoir $1.00, 12 champagne flutes $7.00, a multi-colored top $3.00, a jar (for preserving lemons) $2.00. Oh, the most expensive item--a Hawaiian shirt for me to wear to her 21st birthday party $4.99.
Her being a hip, stylish woman in her 20's and me being an obliging, semi-curious father, we cruised the thrift stores and consignment shops up and down U.S. 41. For the unitiated, like me, a thrift store is more likely to be something of a junk store, possibily run by a church or an organization like Goodwill Industries or the Salvation Army, while a consignment shop tries to offer higher ticket items, especially in the area of women's clothing.
At a consignment store, you can get a designer dress; at a thrift store, you will find clothing, perhaps some nice, but you are more likely to find a left-handed golf club, a box of 8-track tapes, or a copy of The Corrections.
Some of the thrift stores look like the "utility room" in my basement; some of the consignment stores look like, well, like their stuff has not actually been worn. The consignment store will have been arranged by a designer, with antique accent pieces, classical or New Age music and women with British accents. Their policies are very clear and do not involve haggling. If the piece hasn't sold in x months, they drop the price continually until it does. That's how you get a bargain: wait until July for something you liked in April and get it for a steal--if it's still there.
The thrift stores, on the other hand, have their own run-down, idiosyncratic charm. Sometimes. One place we went into, had, inexplicably, several shelves of Pepperidge Farm products. Not used. At another, the two proprietors, who must have been in their late '80s could not wait to get us out the door at 2 PM so that they could leave. They were church volunteers. Another had used, or at least resold, personal products for sale--mouthwashes, razors, etc.
Yes, there is something of the Auschwitz to these places. That may be unfair, certainly overstated, but if you have seen film or photograph of the piles, indeed warehouses, of personal belongings at the camps, you can't help but be a little creeped out by the buckets of mismatched knives, stacks of china, and racks of shoes still in good shape that line the shelves of a thrift store. Not to mention, of course, the clothes.
Florida, though, has two things working in its favor. One is that, if you can get yourself into the mindset to search these stores, Florida is, for obvious reasons, a better source of merchandise than most states. And, as my daughter said, "Somehow, these places aren't as sad when they're not located where you actually live." Because you are, indeed, sifting through people's lives at these stores, lives that have been discarded, mixed together, stacked, discounted.
But does an object in any way carry the memory of the person who owned it if you didn't know that person? Probably not. It becomes, once again, just an object that either has use or it doesn't. In a world that is running out of resources, reusing something that might otherwise have ended up at the dump is probably a good thing, even if you only reuse it for a themed college dance or a birthday party.
In the random, mysterious world of the thrift and consignment stores, there is an improbable, unstatistical chance that a dormant coffee mug or hat can regain its value, or some new value, when a traveller, who stopped by chance into a non-descript store, spied it.