"American Junk"

Flea-market connoisseur, Mary Randolph Carter sorts the treasure from the trash.

By Albert Mobilio
March 2, 1997 2:33AM (UTC)
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homo consumerus may know no greater joy than buying -- except, perhaps, throwing away. How sweet to toss out the wooden chair you intended to refinish but instead stacked magazines on, the wicker magazine basket that held old shoes, the shoe tree you regularly strung with damp gym clothes and the 16-volume 1959 encyclopedia currently divided to serve as a pair of matching night stands. Without having spent a cent, your home acquires the sparkle of a fresh purchase. (All right, so you can't look up Khrushchev before dozing off anymore.) You not only have more elbow room but, having hauled your castoffs to the local junk shop, you've forged a crucial link in the consumer food chain -- your junk will soon become someone else's treasure.

A flea-market connoisseur, Mary Randolph Carter sorts the treasure from the trash in "American Junk," a handsomely illustrated guide to shiny ceramic dogs, plastic watermelon wedges and paint-by-numbers artwork in sea-shell encrusted frames. (Indeed, the lush color photos of humble tchotchkes suggest that the want of a good camera is the only thing keeping my house out of Architectural Digest.) Carter organizes her junk by genre, with separate chapters on fish replicas, chairs, Western style junk, kitchen stuff, bottles and lampshades. To survey the previously unfathomed variety of, say, fish kitsch is alone worth the price of admission.


And cost is paramount in this junkie's paradise. Almost every one of the book's hundreds of items is meticulously priced -- a rubber Minnie Mouse squeeze doll (she's in her underwear and gloves) was $2, the lampshade made out of "rocks and resin" was $25 and a still life with a "Matisse-at-Nice sensibility" a mere $20. That price tag determines whether Minnie is great junk or an overpriced jewel. At a flea market, she may be just another piece of dusty crap, but cleaned up in the window of a trendy shop in downtown Manhattan the semi-nude rodent is a campy, pop-culture bibelot.

But what truly makes such clutter valuable is that it's been used. Junk has been handled, lived with, cherished or despised by someone else. Unlike new stuff, it arrives in your home with a legacy, a trail of human scent. The Boy Scout's painted snake mounted on plywood, the gaudy vase given as a wedding present and only hauled out when Auntie came to dinner or that squeezable mouse late of some boomer's crib -- they surely furnish the memory of their one-time owners as vividly as they now decorate your home. At least, of course, until you throw them out, too.

Albert Mobilio

Albert Mobilio writes for Harper's and the Village Voice. His last piece for Salon was "To Spank or Not to Spank."

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