Magazine | March 7, 2011, Issue

Usable Past

I first started buying other people’s pasts when I wore second-hand clothes. Wide silk ties, tweed pants heavy as iron, cabana sets made “for the Stars of Hollywood” — I scoured retro shops, some briskly selling out the contents of old warehouses as if they were new, others offering dank items on bent wire hangers. I stopped looking once the styles being resurrected were those I remembered; I had heard the Mamas and the Papas, I didn’t want to look like them.

That left the scavenger in me with street fairs — the equivalent, my wife exclaimed delightedly, of looking through other people’s closets. You found useful things, but closets, and the tops of kitchen cabinets, and the floors under beds, whence street fairs draw their stock, also tend to collect superannuated things: yogurt makers, fondue pots, books by Herman Wouk and Erica Jong.

Thrift shops are permanent street fairs. My wife can find clothes there — she has more patience than I have, and a better eye — though she also looks for household utensils, one of the thousand and one kitchen implements that she unaccountably does not have. Thrift shops sell everything individually, yet they plunge you more deeply into lost worlds, perhaps because the many pieces of furniture and the way they are packed onto the floor suggest odd corners of old living rooms: the unwieldy breakfronts, the ugly, shin-barking coffee tables, the dust catchers that once were artistic or whimsical in the eyes of someone who did not share your taste, the stacks of Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. On the walls overhead loom the paintings: amateur portraits of women in evening dresses, winter sunsets painted by numbers, lines and blotches fetched from Abstract Expressionism via LeRoy Neiman.

The photographs in thrift shops are of two kinds. There are formal group portraits, sometimes framed: office parties, graduations; I once saw a picture of a grand jury. Unless a face pops out — a beautiful girl of World War II — the formality of these efforts repels the attention it was meant to attract. More compelling are the boxes of old snapshots, the black-and-white legacy of Kodak. Are these kids still alive? When did these adults die? Who took these pictures? Who got rid of them? Never never never never never.

As soon as something becomes a recognized mood, style, or stance, someone will make a buck off it. So there are stores that do not pretend their merchandise is useful, nor do they sell antiques, exactly (they have no interest in value or provenance or beauty). They are salvagers and retailers of the lost and gone. Here are old globes, and on them once more are the Soviet Union, two Germanies, two Vietnams, and one big Yugoslavia. On older globes you can see the Polish corridor that so vexed Hitler. Be careful what you wish for: Stalin got rid of it by getting rid of East Prussia, and of Hitler. Africa is three colors, red for Britain’s possessions, green for France’s, purple for Portugal’s. No question here where Persian or Siamese cats come from.

#page#Another common item in such places (because it is so uncommon outside them) is the pull-down school chart. The voyages of discovery, the circulation of the blood, the anatomy of the seed, cursive letters. Children in wooden desks sat and watched, while the teacher (always Miss Someone) stood before them and pointed. Now they can read it online, between sexting.

Did I mention manual typewriters? (This is dangerous ground — I used manual typewriters.) Some typewriters are so old that they include, in their salad of typographical symbols floating above their numerals, the encircled a that meant “at”: @. But now, like the Baltic nations, @ has made a comeback.

On one recent visit to such a store, I found a signed item: an old stamp album. Here were the collectibles of the early 20th century: Marianne and Germania, George V and George Washington, kangaroos and kookaburras from Australia, dragons and junks from China. On the first page were the names of two brothers and an address in Brooklyn. Stamp collecting is often a youthful passion, the fury before girls; what girls replaced these bits of paper?

The next step is to move beyond the objects and use them, or allude to them, in design. There is a man in the East Village who has been doing this for 20 years. His store is like a lonely childhood with a beloved grandmother. He puts curlicues, bits of typography, and animal prints on paperweights, plates, and wall hangings. His well-preserved ephemera can be both claustrophobic and oppressive, yet they are also fantastic and poignant. You find yourself hunching your shoulders and breathing shallowly, even as you dream.

Maybe the market for pasts supplies an American deficit. I rent, my father is in a nursing home. Strangers live in the house I lived in, and the house my grandmother lived in. And I’ve spent all my life in the same state. What about army brats and corporate transfers, workers pursuing hi-tech start-ups or fleeing rust-belt collapses? Wherever anything old survives it is dangerous. WASPs squabble over summer houses in Cheever or family curses in Hawthorne. T. S. Eliot moved to old England, then built his greatest retrospective poem around an air raid: “The only hope . . . to be redeemed from fire by fire.” H. P. Lovecraft did the grindhouse version; if you find an old copy of the Necronomicon, watch out.

The collector who moved beyond design to art was Joseph Cornell. I realized, for the first time while writing this piece, that the sadness of his little boxes of marbles and moons and imprisoned parrots is twofold, for he not only pities newness — how bright and pert all these bits of junk once were — he also pities nostalgia — his own efforts to preserve and redeem. Trinkets and art, take your pick; both end up in a box.

Cornell, as everyone knows, lived on Utopia Parkway — Nowhere Street.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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