Other people's stuff

With the new PBS series "Second Hand Stories" and the rise of Found magazine, garage-sale and Dumpster-diver culture finds its art form.


Su Ciampa
October 16, 2003 12:00AM (UTC)

I come from a long line of garage-salers. And what I can tell you is this: It's not about the bargain; it's about the rescue.

It is why legions of suburbanites rise early on weekend mornings from May to October to salvage the castoffs of their neighbors. It is why thrift stores will never go out of style. And it is what compelled two men to drive from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Houston in a decommissioned ambulance, buying and selling all things used along the way.

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Those two men were Christopher Wilcha and John Freyer, who documented their journey, sometimes using vintage cameras, and spawned the PBS series "Second Hand Stories." (The pilot episode premiered Tuesday night and will be rebroadcast at various times on most PBS stations around the country; check your local listings.) They met when Wilcha was making a documentary about garage-sale culture in northern New Jersey and Freyer had just sold all his possessions on eBay for a project called "All My Life for Sale," which produced a Web site and then a book. United by similar interests, the two felt their logical next step was a road trip.

"I knew that the secondhand world was bigger than just garage sales in northern New Jersey," says Wilcha. In order to find out just how big, they needed some wheels. "We really got obsessed with mail trucks for a while," says Wilcha. But in the end their vehicle of choice, a 1977 Chevy ambulance, seemed more appropriate to their mission of rescuing objects. "Plus, it was a foxy car," Wilcha adds.

It was also one that repeatedly got them pulled over as possible terrorism suspects; they made the trip in July 2002, when a Terrorism Task Force Alert had been issued regarding two men attempting to buy a used ambulance with nefarious intent. It had its fair share of mechanical failures, as was to be expected with an aged vehicle purchased on eBay sans test drive. "Basically it was the least efficient but perhaps most fun way to traverse the country," Wilcha concedes.

In this eight-miles-to-the-gallon chariot, Wilcha and Freyer conducted their survey of America through its detritus, via yard sales, thrift stores, auctions, used-record shops and university surplus centers, occasionally pausing to investigate a particular object's past, such as a 50-cent Makaha skateboard that Freyer was drawn to both because he is a lifelong skateboarder and because it was a piece of social history. We learn in a section using archival footage that in the late '60s Makaha patented the kicktail, integral to the design of all skateboards since, which allows the rider greater ability to maneuver and do tricks, and in turn contributed to the popularity of skateboarding and its growth into a billion-dollar industry.

"'Secondhand' is just an excuse to tell all these other stories," says Wilcha. The things bought on the trip are merely the raw material of the show, providing points of entry and an organizing principle that is general enough for an exploration of almost anything through the intersection of personal and historical.

"Secondhand" means more than fondue pots and tennis rackets, the ubiquitous junk of suburban America. "This object," Wilcha observes, "is clearly the relic or the manifestation of somebody's choices and ideas." Yet another abandoned piece of exercise equipment is the story of personal failure as much as it is the story of a country whose population is increasingly obese.

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Wilcha's observation goes beyond the immediate realm of the secondhand economy, of rummage sales and the Salvation Army, and encompasses the world at large. He cites a recent New York Times profile of a Texas real estate magnate who collects statues of toppled despots, retrieved in the aftermath of revolution and war, as a secondhand story. The magnate has a Lenin and a Mao, but has yet to procure a Saddam. His collection tells the story of fallen governments and of his own almost imperial retrieval of these relics, itself an act of conquest. And within those threads, surely, are other narratives.

For Wilcha, a secondhand story is ultimately not a story of things but of humanity. Of who we are, who we were, and who we might become. It is not, however, a story of voyeurism. Wilcha and Freyer are not interested in a freak show, though surely some of the people they cross paths with could be made into such. The obsessive collector is an easy mark for fulfilling the weirdo quotient. Instead, "Second Hand Stories" gives us Leon Kagarise, a benevolent gray-haired man whose amateur recordings of country artists in the '50s and '60s include George Jones and, most notably, the young Johnny Cash. Sitting next to his reel-to-reel tape recorder, which is about half the size of his body, Kagarise tells of a visit from a Library of Congress representative who told him, "We don't have any of this."

Says Wilcha, "The notion that what you collect or accumulate could at some other time be miraculously discovered to have value is, I think, a secret fantasy of a lot of collectors." Several record labels have expressed interest in Kagarise's collection, so it may actually see the light of day instead of remaining the private compilation of one man's passion.

The boundlessness of secondhand stories holds great appeal for the series' creators. "I think that every documentary style could be exercised, from first-person essays to vérité character studies," says Wilcha, "so I'm looking forward to really breaking open the possibilities of both the topic and the form."

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That is, if the series continues, which is contingent on a green light from PBS. This first episode is just an introduction -- what Wilcha calls "a Norton Anthology" -- offering up the promise of what "Second Hand Stories" could be. It's a bit scattered, never spending too long in one place, but Wilcha and Freyer hope to focus in more and "unpack" individual subjects in subsequent episodes. Like the objects it features, the pilot is itself a point of entry into what could be an endless thread of stories.

"Second Hand Stories" is the most recent of several ventures that attempt to explore the search for ourselves through the things of others. There is the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata in Austin, Texas, a self-described "meditation on the theme of loss and gain" in the form of a dime museum of human minutiae, whose curators hope their visitors will go on to see "the city dump, a vast archive" as they do. There is Other People's Stories, a Web site that says it is "dedicated to the time-honored tradition of stealing other people's material" but that in fact reinforces the realization that other people's stories are often our own.

But the project that truly shares the fundamental aspects of "Second Hand Stories" is Found magazine. Found creates a sort of living anthropology through discarded notes, photos, letters, fliers, journals, drawings, audiotapes and the occasional résumé. Its creator, Davy Rothbart, who is really more of a curator than an editor -- compiling these untouchables of the secondhand hierarchy into a high-end cut-and-paste zine -- believes that finding is a noble act. A noble act in the narrative rather than environmental sense (although, like "Second Hand Stories," it is what you might call passively environmental) because it gives new life to what has been discarded.

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Freyer, of "Second Hand Stories," says, "I'm more interested by the things that are passed over, to see the things that used to be valued." That is precisely the operating principle of Found.

"I think it's a fundamental curiosity we have about other people's lives," says Rothbart. "We're surrounded by strangers all the time, on the bus, walking across the street." And what they dispose of creates a sort of familiarity. "What we end up finding out a lot of the time," he concludes, "is that people who are clearly leading different kinds of lives are still experiencing the same basic emotions."

The sheer volume of orphaned paper, not unlike the offerings of a flea market, can be overwhelming. In both cases selection is based on what Wilcha calls the "personal, curatorial impulse" that separates the treasures from the trash. To Rothbart, what makes something a prize find is the unexpected human touch.

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Like a letter from a wife to her husband, enumerating her reasons for wanting a divorce, penned on an aborted grocery list with only one item -- coffee filters -- written at the top. "Coffee filters" is what makes it a find. A seemingly benign phrase on its own, but as a header to this particular note it raises endless possibilities. Was there something catalytic about coffee filters at that time in the author's marriage? Or was there something else, something entirely unrelated to coffee filters that struck her just after she'd started the list, prompting the indictment? Was it a rough draft of the argument eventually presented to her husband or merely a private act of catharsis, composed only to be thrown away?

Ah, coffee filters! Ah, humanity!

Here is a point of entry into the life of a stranger, simultaneously a distillation of a basic human experience and a never-ending choose-your-own-adventure story. "I end up feeling really attached to the people whose notes I've found," admits Rothbart. "Sometimes I wonder why these people mean so much to me, but really in some ways they're my own creations." Again, what could be seen as voyeurism becomes instead self-reflection.

Wilcha and Freyer found this in their travels as they amassed used answering machines, with tapes of incoming and outgoing messages still intact. "There is an element of voyeurism in all that," Wilcha admits. "There are traces of people's lives that are left behind, and you project an incredible story onto all that stuff." But the story inevitably reflects more on the finder than the find.

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Beyond that, there is the desire to be a source of mystery oneself. Don't we all, at times, feel lost and want to be found? Perhaps by participating in this cycle of lost and found, of buying and selling things that others have owned, we perpetuate the possibility of anonymously becoming someone else's story.

The journey has become as integral to Found as it is to "Second Hand Stories." Rothbart regularly takes his collection on an ad hoc tour of cities across the country, both to share what he's found with live audiences that reach beyond the magazine's readership and to gather new material. "Everywhere I go now, people bring me found stuff," he says. "It's really exciting that so many people share my fascination with other people's lives and that sort of curiosity."

Rothbart, Wilcha and Freyer all talk about discovering communities they didn't know existed before their undertakings with pre-owned objects. Both "Second Hand Stories" and Found take a solitary act and make it a communal experience. At the end of their road trip in Texas, Wilcha and Freyer threw open the ambulance doors and held a fire sale of everything they had gathered along the way. This was their intention all along.

"We made a commitment to get rid of everything that we acquired," says Freyer. It was another opportunity to make connections. "The secondhand economy is based on this direct exchange," says Freyer, who, with Wilcha, interviewed each of their buyers in the cab of the ambulance about their purchases. "When you go into a mall, the people that are selling things have no relationship whatsoever to what they're selling."

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But with secondhand stuff, connection is inevitable for both the buyer and the seller. "We were both drawn to this thing, so it's a point of connection. But there was something that we shared that was above and beyond the object," says Freyer, who maintains that the people were always more interesting than the objects.

Rothbart's fascination with things left behind goes back to childhood, but it wasn't until 2001, when he was living in Chicago, that he decided to produce Found. The impetus was a kiss-off note left on the windshield of his car, berating someone named Mario for being parked in front of "HER place" when he claimed to be at work. The author signs off with a series of dismissive expletives, but then succumbs to contrary feelings in the postscript: "Page me later."

The note always gets a big laugh on Rothbart's Found tours. This doesn't necessarily reflect schadenfreude toward Mario and his aggrieved lover, but perhaps more the intractable Everyman quality of heartbreak. "To me, what's funniest is when we recognize ourselves in the notes," Rothbart says.

Which is to say that we are what we find.

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Su Ciampa

Su Ciampa is a writer in New York.

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