When I was eight years old, a little girl lived two doors down. When her family was preparing to move out of the neighborhood, they let her conduct her own little garage sale of her stuff. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember that I paid her a quarter for a sturdy little footstool. Today it sits by the side of my bed and holds my coffee every morning when I read the paper (see picture). It is absolutely, positively the best bargain I ever got.
Though I mostly rant about the vagaries of middle age, there are some advantages. One of them is being able to look around and see that, every so often in your life, you made a really singin’, swingin’, stingin’ deal on something. Most of the time we agonizingly focus on our financial mistakes – the cars that turned out to be lemons, the computers that turned out to be doorstops, the gadgets that turned out to be goofy.
I know that materialism is a bad emotion, that I’m not supposed to pen paeans to possessions, (although the column I wrote about my lost, lamented skillet resonated with a lot of people). But I maintain that there are things we own that have transcended the kingdom of thingdom. They’re almost like friends that are traveling with us on our journey – and unlike pets, they don’t make the house smell funny.
Part of the pleasure these possessions bring is the knowledge that we bought them not knowing they were going to last so long, yet here they are. In my living room is an oak rocking chair I got for $109 at Frederick & Nelson in Seattle back in 1978. It’s not fancy, but it is sturdy. And it’s lasted longer than Frederick & Nelson, which, like a lot of department stores, has been swallowed by the monster that is now Macy’s.
On the floor of my bedroom, guarding the door, is a heavy circle of stone, sculpted ever so minimally in the shape of a sleeping cat. While I remember that it came from a store in Seattle’s U District, back in those days when I was furnishing my first apartment, I have no recollection of the store’s name.
And then there’s the Sunset Easy Basics for Good Cooking cookbook, copyright 1982. The cover’s gone, and the pages of my favorite recipes are splattered with the detritus of splashed ingredients, but there it sits in the kitchen, well-used and well-appreciated. I think it was a gift, which means it really was a bargain.
Is there a name for these wonderfully reliable, everyday things? They’re not antiques. Antiques are things passed down from previous generations. They’re not keepsakes. Keepsakes are things you display, like the ticket to Game Three of the 1989 World Series, the one that got so rudely interrupted. Or the diecast Corgi replica of a Chrysler Imperial convertible I bought for $2.75 (according to the tag on the box) and is now worth more than $100 on eBay (that was a bargain).
And even if I could come up with a name for these utilitarian bargains, will there be anything to attach it to in the future? In a world of cheaply manufactured goods seemingly shipped straight from China to Wal-Mart, is anything like my bedside stool going to be around in 50 years? We implode buildings and stadiums that were new in my adulthood. We cycle through technologies like they were newspapers, delivered new one day and recycled the next. Anybody need a VHS tape, or an 8-track tape? Got a tape player for it?
No, there are remarkably few things we buy today that really have the staying power to enrich our lives in the decades to come simply by their simplicity and utility. That’s why I’ll appreciate my stool and my rocking chair and that silly doorstop cat as if they really were antiques.