It’s easy to romanticize the junk-store owner, the guy who lives in a big old house in some remote picturesque town with no real expenses, puttering away his time rescuing the old things the Target-shopping heathens in the suburbs have no use for (until they’ve had their patina polished and have become collectible antiques, when their acquisition from junk stores has become a recreational activity for suburnanites on vacation from their tract home but too intimidated or child-burdened to visit a city). But there are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of the junk store, and to loathe the propriators of these permanent yard sales. The first is the needless fetishizing of anything that’s old. An old book isn’t necessarily valuable, and if it has value, it is not simply because it is old. Lots of old things — Reader’s Digest Condensed books, Christmas records by the 101 Strings, old strings of holiday lights, broken furniture, rusty tools — have no value. But at the junk stores I went into this weekend in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania, items like these fetched exorbitant prices. Old Barbra Steisand records — sure you could pay 50 cents for it at any Salvation Army anywhere, but why not give a junk man the $10 he’s asking? Broken toy rocking chair with peeling paint? It looks decrepit, so it’s old, so it must be worth the $125 the junk man has it marked for, right?
What junk store owners do is hoard all sorts of old and potentially useful things other people have discarded and hold them hostage until they are ransomed off for the maximum possible price, always a ludicrous one, paid by one of the aformentioned suburbanites lazily looking for a charming rustic vacation memento (and not deterred by vulturing someone else’s history, some otehr family’s rightful memento) or by someone who is a desperate collector, and has lost all sense of self-control when confronted with board games from the 1950s or porcelain doll’s heads. The junk man will wait for one of these suckers, and they don’t care a whit at all the wasted use value they’ve buried in their garage-like vault. The junk store is where useful things have gone to die, basically; so going there if you aren’t depserate or spendthrift is a nightmare. All these things that something could be made of if the junk man hadn’t gotten to them first and turned them into pure exchange value. The junk man sucks all the real value, all the history and contigency out an old thing, all the things that made it unique and speical to someone’s family history, and turns it into just another commodity available in the present moment on demand for a price. The story of the object, the narrative of its passing through the world and all that crystallized history, is exterminated, deleted by the junk man who only want to exploit the appearance of that history to get a few bucks out of someone. In one egregious junk shop in Delaware Water Gap there were old Valentine’s cards, filled out, mementos from one lover to another, of special significance to offspring somewhere, invaluable evidence of how someone was born perhaps, or some interesting roads not taken, apturing a moment of youth for elders now either dead or so old it is impossible to imagine them youthful — the card could reanimate that specific history for those specific people involved, had it passed down through channels of inheritance appropriate for sentimental objects, really the only objects not worhty of destruction. But the parasitical junk man has them now, and they’re just kitsch. Once something like that is sold simply for the sake of it, that sale obviates all the history it once signified — there’s no precious personal memory tied up in the thing once it is for sale (just like the pop songs I discussed a few days ago); now the card can only signify “Look what neat old thing I got for $5. Look what I found while I was idling away on my vacation into antiquity.” Junk men sell us all out that way, letting us do a one-time coversion of our history and our memory into cash. But there’s no converting it back.
Junk men do not preserve the past with their picuresque lifestyle, they suck it dry, exploit it and efface it. They imprison objects from the past until all the memorioes they contained have been sweated into dollars — money has no past, no future, it is simply immediately now. To the junk man all history needs to be converted to present-day money; he won’t stop until all the material culture of our heritage is only so much indiscriminate stuff for sale; he won’t stop until it’s all flattened into a negotiation and a price. Depresing. Better to destroy the old things yo can’t keep anymore forever than to let a junk man pervert them.