Second Hand Treasure

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(HOST) Even though she already has a house full of stuff, commentator Stephanie Montgomery went looking for bargains recently and stumbled over a sweet one.

(MONTGOMERY) The other day I whiled away an hour in my favorite consignment shop.  It’s an easy-going place where I can count on running into old friends and briefly making new ones.  People start up conversations over handbags and hats and silken bathrobes.  

No two items in the store are alike and neither are the shoppers.  Women especially will occasionally regale others with life-histories telescoped through fashion, shoes for example, and every woman listening will nod her head in recognition.
My parents valued objects as much for their stories as their use.  Early hardscrabble years coming out of the Great Depression made every acquisition an adventure in upward mobility, cementing the security they so coveted.  Anything new gave added luster to small trophies that preceded them.  

So in the consignment shop I listen carefully to freely offered sagas about wedding gowns and woolen snowsuits.  Such unselfconscious and collective remembering works a kind of historical magic. Whether I buy something or not, I generally leave with a broad grin and a pocketful of second-hand memories.
At the rear this shop has several aisles featuring a trash or treasure assortment of oddments that offer a jumbled lesson in American manufacturing.  Woolen blankets threaten to tumble over all manner of glassware.  Hammers sit cheek by jowl with leather-soled baby shoes.  That day I stubbed my toe on a small, heavy, mysterious machine in this hodgepodge of outmoded stuff.   

After stubbing my toe I idly picked up a small scoop with a red wooden handle.  The metal had been boldly stamped:  Made in the United States of America.  Level Full   cup.  But that was it.  The manufacturer had expressed pride in his craftsmanship but neglected to add his own name.  Now that captured my imagination.  

Then I remembered the flood of imports in the 60s. When Mom and I went shopping we turned everything over and inside out.  Brand names were irrelevant.  But we marveled at toys and sweaters, and baskets: Made in Denmark, Ireland, Thailand.  Stores teemed with items stamped with the names of far off places we never expected to visit.  

We tried to imagine the people who made and used these splendid silks, these tiny, worry dolls (why so small?) these intricate puzzles.  But their real stories eluded us.  The world was a bigger and more mysterious place fifty years ago when nations embraced their identities more closely.  

Then I looked down at the worn paint on the scoops handle felt a glad rush of national pride, a pride in which I recognized my parents’ will to self-determination and prosperity as distinctly American.

Suddenly I had to have that scoop.  I admired its practical and homely nature; its story was my legacy.  For two bucks and two bits it was mine.

Stephanie Montgomery is the Director of Memoir Cafe, an online writing service for women.

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