I like to think of myself as fairly easy-going, but I don’t cope well with garage sales.
Over the years, I’ve prowled my share and even found a treasure or two, like these mint condition Woolenius tiles manufactured in Berkeley in the early 1900s. But artifacts of the Arts and Crafts movement are hard to come by, and the thought of hours spent pawing through plastic soap dishes and mismatched cutlery no longer appeals. People with growing children in need of clothing or toys, inveterate readers, Ebay resellers or folks with truly limited income no doubt have a different perspective. But I’m not a shopper, and I’m trying to simplify my life. In my world, garage sales rarely meet real needs. They provide little more than a few hours of distraction and an indiscriminate pile of “stuff” to be hauled home and squirreled away before being “repurposed” by sending it off to Goodwill.
Unfortunately, my mother adored this ritual of getting and spending we call garage sales and she could lay waste to any number of Saturdays nosing around the tables. She enjoyed the social aspect – the banter, the haggling, the sense of unspoken competition for “real bargains” – as well as the feeling of possibility, the hope instilled in every Antiques Roadshow enthusiast that the next $50,000 etching might be buried under that hand mirror with the broken frame. Given the chance, she would have foraged through the neighborhoods every weekend. But since I did the driving, she knew better than to press her luck and eventually we came to an agreement. She didn’t whine to go out on a weekly basis, and I didn’t gripe when we did.
The last time I took her to the huge island-wide garage sale in Clear Lake Shores, a small village not far from our homes, she spent nearly four hours digging through piles of detritus like a dog on a good scent. I sat around petting assorted four-legged dogs and cats, watched nesting night herons, listened to people griping about night herons, and thought it all over.
The truth is we’re suckers for apparent bargains. We don’t need that cactus cookie jar with the 10-gallon hat for a lid. We don’t need the beer bottle dryer, the ceramic owl pot-holder-holder, or the box full of old-fashioned metal ice trays, but there they sit, and we bite. We convince ourselves we’ll find a use for it, or that it will make a lovely gift. When the cost is so low (Three snakeskin belts! Only a dollar!) we can’t help ourselves. They’re selling, and we’re going to buy.
A couple of years ago it occurred to me that the American marketplace of ideas has devolved into precisely this – an intellectual garage sale, a psychological close-out, a swap meet where the illogical meet the uninformed. Nothing has changed my opinion. No matter which neighborhood you roam, authors, commentators, neighbors, journalists, family members, politicians and self-appointed experts are ready to do business.
Spreading out their wares on kitchen tables and internet sawhorses, they grin like fools and say, “Make me an offer.” They’ve got it all: worn-out attitudes, mismatched perspectives, kitschy opinions and old-fashioned prejudice ready to be recycled and promoted as the latest thing. We may not need their intellectual trinkets, but when they’re spread out in front of us with the seller starting cheap and ready to dicker, it can be tempting to pick up a second-hand opinion or two.
Over the years, as I began absorbing the wisdom of William Morris’ words – “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” – I became less enamored of the impulse buy. Beauty is one thing – I do love my tiles! – but usefulness is quite another. Standing next to that cute ceramic goose or the pie plate with the bluebonnet decal, I sometimes asked my mother and often asked myself, “Do you need this?” “Do I need this?” “Do we need this?” “Do we know someone -anyone – who needs this?”
Today, my usual answer is, “No. I don’t need that.” Unless I’ve recently thought, “Gracious! If only I had a beer-bottle dryer!” there’s no reason to pick one up simply because it’s cheap. The same is true at the various venues currently passing for the marketplace of ideas. “Sorry,” I say. “I’m not buying. I’ll be happy to hear your judgments, your opinions, your attitudes and perspectives, but I’m not going to purchase them whole and on impulse. I’ll make do with what I have, thank you very much.”
It’s not that I don’t need to make changes to my mental décor now and then. I understand that attitudes can benefit by evaluation and revision. Old biases sometimes need to be replaced, and I’m not averse to adopting new ideas or a different perspective. But before I buy, I need to know what I want, and be certain of what I need. Especially in the marketplace of ideas, I want to have the freedom to examine my purchase. I want to know I’m getting quality, not second-hand junk. I may pay more initially, but it won’t cost nearly so much in the end.