Collinsville Trade Day is a good place to take the temperature of the struggling American economy. Every weekend in northern Alabama’s DeKalb County, thousands of people converge on rows of stalls and crowded parking lots. Within these acres you can buy everything from goats to grey-market cell phone covers in a rich mix that includes popcorn machines, chipped yellow plates, children’s clothes and leaf blowers. It’s overwhelming, especially with cold lemonade in hand and the smell of funnel cake in the air. It’s not a fixed market, but an organic commercial ecosystem that seems to shift by the hour as people come from miles around to sell things out of their vans and trucks, on card tables and blankets. Although some of the vendors are selling modern plastic goods still in their original boxes, the basic principle is as timeless as an ancient souk or bazaar.
Someone made these things, most likely far away. Then someone bought them. And now, perhaps many owners later, they’re available for sale. The collapse of the American manufacturing economy isn’t news, but it does seem that we don’t make much any more. Our parents, and especially their parents, worked in jobs where goods were made. Durable goods. As in, not Big Macs. At Trade Day in rural DeKalb County, some things are made: soaps, tea cozies, lemon bars and, in a strict sense, the goats and puppies. But as the name suggests, it’s about trade.
They used to make things in Fort Payne, just a few miles from Collinsville. More specifically, they made textiles and (weirdly) opera. While both industries are defunct, each has museums open to visitors at odd hours. Also, there are shops that sell socks by the pound. The enormous mills of Fort Payne, once famous as the “Sock Capital of the World,” died out and at least one eventually re-emerged as an “antique mall.” Jobs in the sock factories dried up with outsourcing. Now antique and junk shops traffic in the remains of the faded prosperity.
America is full of cities that have learned to define themselves not by what they make but by what they sell. A few hours south of Fort Payne, the small town of Brundidge rebranded themselves in the 1990s as “antique city,” only to see the various secondhand stores shut down a few years later. As the guys on American Pickers say, there may be “rusty gold” in people’s trash, but the gold standard has always had its limits – especially for poor and working class people.
After a few years in Montgomery, when you’ve seen all the museums and the monuments and stacked them up against your lived experience, official history starts to seem both heavy and unsatisfying. This has increasingly sent us looking around the margins for the unofficial versions. It’s always risky to reach outside of canon. In the first place, there’s the stuff generally left out of history books, like Paul Robeson and Bayard Rustin. That’s important. But that’s what rises to the top. If you really want to dig deep and understand how people live and how their families have lived, you’re going to have to step out of the museums and into the state’s best (and free) museums – its junk shops and trash piles.
We were in DeKalb County for the scenery. We’d been staying in a cabin in the hills that pass for Alabama’s mountains. On the way out of town we decided to check out local junk offerings. It was a Sunday, which limited our options. Evidently Jesus was not a fan of, or at least did not want to compete with, junk shopping. So we drove around. A shop with OL’ BUZZARD stenciled on the side in three-foot high letters caught our eye. Getting in was tricky – we’d arrived in the middle of a complex operation involving several well-muscled young men and a huge grand piano that looked dubiously balanced in the back of a rusty pickup. A tall man offered to give us a discount on anything we found inside if we could help to get the piano indoors. We agreed to the deal. While the men tried to thread the shop’s needle with an 1890s Steinway, I poked around indoors.
There are two major ways to taxonomize junk shops: the identity of the merchants and the place of the merchandise in the overall junk economy. Shops are either solo operations or group ventures. The solo shop can be full of absolute crap or tastefully decorated with expensive things. As you browse, you come to believe that you’re exploring a kind of reflection of the owner’s mind. Pick up a doily. Consider that it’s been grouped with a pig-shaped cookie jar and a ragged book about the Knights Templar. Why these particular objects in these arrangements at these particular prices? It’s like a walkthrough MRI. Of which parts are for sale, perhaps for negotiable prices.
If a solo shop is an autobiography in capitalist cross-stitch, the collective approach is social history in a small town phone book. Within the country’s former big box stores and defunct furniture factories, collectible-minded folks have found each other and mustered their various wares in partitioned and leased sections. Each stall has its own number, pricing scheme, hidden rules of negotiation, and theme. Although stalls compete with each other for your attention, they also cooperate to keep the lights on while vigorously blurring the definition of “antique.” This Life magazine with the missing back page? This 16th century English stoneware? Pitcher shaped like an astonished frog? Jimmy Carter and family paper dolls? All antiques. Because this is an antique mall, that’s why. No more questions. But there is a discount if you’re paying cash.
Trash is something destined for a landfill. An antique is something that someone will pay a lot of money for. Everything for sale in every junk shop in America occupies a place in this spectrum between liability and worth. What place, exactly? Like most interesting questions, the answer is: It depends. The owner of a pawn shop (themselves unique niches in the second-hand universe) taught us some things about worth. An expert in collectable coins, he explained that value to numismatists depends on supply, demand and condition. In that order. Some people fetishize objects in mint condition, and robust debates can ensue about perceived flaws in any object and how that impacts value. But the condition of an object doesn’t matter if there are enough out there to meet the demand.
All of which is to advance a universal truth about any commercial transaction, but especially true of America’s antique and junk economy: A thing is worth exactly what someone’s willing to pay for it. The effort to separate buyers from their money causes junk shops to sort items up and down the trash ladder. Some stores are sad and damp, the kind of places where cast off clothes change hands as “new for school,” and the moldy book shelf is mostly composed of self-help and romance novels, the reading of one genre perhaps leading to the reading of the other. On the trash ladder, you’re close to the yard sale and the dump, where the most valuable things are old Nintendo cartridges (hipster nostalgia) and chipped glass-top dinette sets (lake house).
At the high end of merchandise, you get posh and crisp (think Victorian, Colonial) or hip and therefore expensive (mid-century modern, ironic 1970s kitsch). If you’re engaged in that most American of pastimes – trying to get something for close to nothing – neither end of the ladder is likely to whet your whistle. What you want is someone in the middle. Preferably, this will be someone who doesn’t really know what they have or care to price it effectively despite the Internet’s copious advice about “real value” (whatever that is). Often these are sellers for whom eBay and Craigslist either expose fundamental Internet illiteracy or reflect a series of stories of betrayals.
The man supervising the piano lifting turned out to be the actual Ol’ Buzzard. His shop was somewhere in the middle of the junk ladder, perhaps because he’d only been open for a few months. This inspired hope in our buyer’s hearts, as it might not have been long enough for the predators at the top of the junk ladder to buy out the good stuff, either for keeping or re-selling in tonier shops. There was a lot to look at, curated but still several steps above the junk ladder from the bargain bins at Trade Days just a few miles away. The piano eased in the door with much huffing as I weaved between stacks of National Geographics, three decades of vinyl, a dozen pewter trophies and kitchen machines that defied description or need.
High up on a shelf I saw a piece of metal covered with small versions of an iconic American image particularly familiar to fans of The Simpsons – the Sunsphere from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. A closer look showed that the plate, about two feet wide and a foot and a half high, was engraved with admissions tickets to the Fair. This was likely to be a souvenir rather than a plate used to actually stamp tickets, but it was still awfully cool – and after our piano-moving discount, only $20. Sold.
I’ve been interested in the history of the World Fairs since reading Erik Larson’s marvelous Devil in the White City. While the scope and ambition of the Chicago World’s Fair is amazing in historical hindsight (the first Ferris Wheel! An ice pavilion!), it’s not that different than what we’d seen at Trade Days. Under its varnish of global citizenship and culture, the World’s Fair was essentially a set of vendors with big names like General Mills and Ford. The brass tickets I bought symbolized a profound optimism for the global economy. But even the most visionary World’s Fair booster probably could not have conceived of a world where a monkey playing cymbals made in Taiwan (in its original wrapping) would be for sale next to a live pig and a dented crescent wrench.
What was the brass plate worth? Exactly what I paid for it to sit on my mantle. The Internet turns up no images or auction records for something like this, but I’m not looking to sell. Each carefully numbered ticket reminds me that someone’s always trying to sell me something, especially if they can dress it up with monumental sculpture, the promise of an exotic provenance, or at least some cold lemonade.