I was surprised, when I lived in rural Canada, to discover that not everyone in the Western world owns as much stuff as Americans do. It’s the norm for Americans of even very modest income to keep a garage or basement crammed with unneeded goods — Ping-Pong tables, Christmas-tree stands, bins of perfectly serviceable children’s clothing, bar stools, bicycles, bridesmaid dresses — but this isn’t so in, for example, Nova Scotia.
I moved to Nova Scotia in 2009 assuming that you could get anything you desired delivered via amazon.ca, or landsend.ca, or whatever, but you couldn’t. The behemoths of global commerce either didn’t deliver to rural addresses, or only delivered a limited selection. If you lived in our picturesque but economically depressed coastal town, Shelburne, and wanted to buy a new sweater or kitchen appliance, you had basically three choices: You could mail-order it from the Sears catalogue, you could buy it at Frenchie’s, or you could make the one or two-hour journey to a big-box store, driving along the lonesome Highway 103, an empty expressway flanked by endless scrubby pines and frequented by turkey vultures.
Frenchie’s is a franchise of secondhand-clothing stores in the Maritimes that is kind of like the Salvation Army except it is run for profit, not charity. Our Frenchie’s in Shelburne was stocked with industrial bales of donation-bin clothing sourced from the environs of Boston; you could always find Red Sox jerseys, hoodies emblazoned with “Choate Lacrosse,” and pairs of Nantucket-red Bermuda shorts — the castoffs of affluent New England picked over disdainfully by fishermen and forestry-service employees wearing high rubber boots. There was also a sporting-goods store on Water Street in Shelburne, where you got your ice skates, and a dollar store that sold goods made in China that appeared to be exactly like the thing you came in to buy — a can opener, a wallet, a watch — but that fell apart in your hands 10 minutes after you bought them, as ephemeral as the joss-paper wallets and watches and designer shoes that are burned in offering to the dead in Hong Kong.
It was harder to get to southwestern Nova Scotia from New York City than it was to get to Berlin or the Caribbean. We went there, you could say, for the isolation, and isolation we found, stranded out there in the cold North Atlantic among the haddock and cod.
A lot of yard-saling and person-to-person selling went on in rural Nova Scotia, as it does here, but the variety of goods on offer was much more meager, and the prices higher. The Lobster Bay Shopper was a black-and-white classified-advertisement publication that you could pick up at the grocery store, Sobey’s. I found it so intriguing that I took notes on the morning of Jan. 26, 2010 (in case I wanted to write about it later).
The following notice in The Lobster Bay Shopper struck my eye: “Wanted: Personal deterrent. Coyotes have been eating my chicks. Self-contained deterrent 22 mm, 9 mm, or a 45. Will pay cash, no questions asked.”
Did the police look into this “deterrent”? I doubt it. Guns were traded openly by my friends and neighbors.
There was an almost unbearable pathos to many of these advertisements. “Need worms for my Chinese water dragon!” read another listing. “The pet food store was demolished! S.O.S!”
How about this for pathos? “For Sale: Fireproof box, $10. Legal will kit, $30. Handmade unicorn and carousel horses, $10 each. Handmade flowers, three for $5. Food chopper, $5. Proceeds towards a new electric mobility scooter.”
Someone was selling a pair of secondhand men’s swim trunks for $20 on that January day a decade ago. Someone was looking for customers who wanted to buy smelts.
Although I arrived in Shelburne as the very picture of a privileged and obnoxious American-ness, the essence of a “come from away,” my then-husband and I were actually and chronically broke. Not East Hampton broke, but truly broke. Before bed, we turned the thermostat down to nil and piled the bed with eight blankets. (That’s not an exaggeration. Jan. 26, 2010, was an eight-blanket night.) I still worked on retainer for Vogue magazine, editing the runway reports that came in overnight from Milan, London, and Paris at our kitchen table between midnight and dawn, while the hail rattled the windowpanes and the baby monitor crackled, but I’d given up my proper Condé Nast career and, with it, my six-figure salary. We ate a lot of salt fish, in fish cakes or baked in milk. We ate a lot of white flour, in dumplings, in Cornish pasties, in pies.
“Selling my Chinese water dragon!!!” was the cri de coeur in The Lobster Bay Shopper, two weeks later.
The South Fork version of The Lobster Bay Shopper is the Free Cycle! page I founded on Facebook, on a whim, about a year and a half ago (accidentally and totally inadvertently using the same punning name used by a totally unaffiliated nationwide Freecycle group, by the way). Free Cycle! East End went from zero members to more than 7,000 members at warp speed. We don’t buy or sell on this Facebook page, but just give it away. The point being to put to use all that burdensome non-junk that clutters our closets and attics; to keep good stuff out of the landfill; to reduce the wasteful pace of our shopping, and tamp down our addict’s reliance on Amazon. We don’t deal in pets on Free Cycle!, so no Chinese water dragons. The range of items is broad, from a box of leftover lightbulbs to milkweed seeds to white-leather sectional couches, Edwardian dressing tables, and framed posters from the Guggenheim Bilbao. We have so much excess here where we live, in our American consumer paradise, that most of it is of little value, little worth. Give it away.