Black Friday Book Review: “That Might Be Useful” by Naton Leslie

When I saw Naton Leslie’s “That Might Be Useful: Exploring America’s Secondhand Culture” on the shelves of Fayetteville’s oldest used bookstore, it was kismet. About twice a year I ruthlessly go through my bookshelves, getting rid of anything that I don’t find interesting or useful anymore. Since I also believe in not letting anything go to waste, I tote my old tomes to the Dickson Street Used Bookshop and sell them for store credit, spending the rest of the afternoon browsing its convoluted, dusty shelves.

Much like a multi-family garage sale or crowded junk shop, “That Might Be Useful” lacks any real organization. The reader must dive in and wander around and dig beneath rambling descriptions of auctions and estate sales to find hidden treasures such as nuggets of overlooked history, sharp cultural critique, and how to date wooden furniture.

Each chapter, ostensibly, explores a specific segment of this totally alternative economy, beginning with auctions – from the high-end, just-a-step-below-Sotheby’s to the junk auctions where you bid on a boxful of stuff for a buck. He continues his survey through antique stores, junk shops, thrift stores, flea markets, swap meets and yard sales. He devotes a chapter to the art of haggling (or bartering or dickering, if you prefer), and one to pickers and picking – though his description of a “picker” sounds more like what I would call a “dumpster diver,” but that’s a matter of semantics.

What is so awesome about this book isn’t it’s piercing ethnography of a heretofore ignored American subculture. In fact, Leslie’s “studies” rarely take him out of the New York-Massachusetts-Ohio area. He spills much more ink describing the setting and the stuff than he does the people. But what this book puts out there is a philosophy – the philosophy that new is not always better.

He often refers to the second-hand trade – everything from expensive antique stores to dumpster diving – as a “vast shadow economy,” and he may be right. As he says, it is nearly impossible to quantify its dollar value or percent of GDP: “Sales tax records from antique stores and auctions might give some measure, but the many thousands of daily transactions made under the table, through yard sales, flea markets, and other less visible settings, are unquantifiable. Secondhand commerce is ungovernable and thankfully so.”

He describes these “collectors, merchants, and gatherers” as a “great tribe of people who acquire things as part of an American tradition of reuse older than consumerism, one rooted in practicality, frugality, and ingenuity. This facet of American cultures pay scant attention to new retail advertising and mocks mainstream, mega-capitalism…” He points out the secondhand culture as being “refreshingly free” of the “manipulation” of consumer culture. “People in this shadow economy…are off the grid, as energy conservationists say about people who rely on solar or other alternative power sources. These people don’t fit into mainstream economic culture: They largely do not need the output of the economy. From their perspective, there is plenty of merchandise already; they need only to find it, a process they find joyful, even essential.” Like Leslie and his tribe of pickers, one of my favorite childhood activities was scavenging through old dumps, barns and houses looking for just the right piece of junk; I’ve never outgrown it.

Indeed, it is the hunt that we junkers love, that “intermittent gratification” that keeps gamblers laying their money down: “This kismet of thing and place, of time and desire, simply cannot be bridled or manufactured.” Kind of like how I found the book in the first place.But aside from the hunt, “Buying secondhand is a personal affair,” Leslie writes, in contrast to the faceless, impersonal experience at a giant retail store. “Buying used goods … is a gregarious enterprise. From haggling and appraising the flaws and virtues of an item for sale, used buying and selling is more akin to the traditional bazaar…”

In contrast, he describes going into a big retailer to buy batteries – something you just can’t buy used: “I feel exposed under the light as an alien to the aisles and racks. I hustle along as though late for an appointment in the electronics department. When I leave, the automatic doors are never fast enough, and I am certain I have escaped something psychologically lethal.” This is exactly how I feel every time I go to Walmart; I never knew anyone else understood.

This contrast in worldview between secondhand and mainstream culture is illustrated beautifully in Chapter 13, “They Have It All Wrong.”  In it, Leslie blasts eBay as being wildly off-target with their advertising; one features a desperate, bedraggled looking fellow combing the beach with a metal detector and another shows people lining up at a vending machine that dispenses “everything,” including a giant sword. Fail. “The advertising agency writers expose themselves as accustomed to selling mainstream culture and as completely out of touch with this target audience. Unable to think outside the mind-set that sells other goods as ‘easy, convenient, and reliable,’ they have used wholly inappropriate analogies, comparing the simplicity and surety of finding what you want on eBay with following neon signs and plunking money in a vending machine. No scavenger needs such simplicity, nor wants it.”

“That Might Be Useful” was prophetic, if you know what to look for. It was written in 2005, before the Economic Crash, yet Leslie points out the great weakness of our economy: “Our national economic health demands that we spend money. High capitalism, the only game in the global village, needs such constant purchasing as fuel for expansion.” He outlines the rise of the consumer culture, that “new-is-better” ethic that infected post-WWII America and brought us the fruits of planned obsolescence – cheap, disposable crap. Following this mind-set to its logical conclusion, in the search for ever-more, ever-cheaper crap, hundreds of thousands of Americans were fired so their jobs could be done by cheaper workers in third-world countries. You don’t have to have a PhD in economics to figure out that without jobs, people don’t have money to spend on more crap – which is the entire basis of our economy.

But “That Might Be Useful” also gives me hope. As Leslie notes, “Before we were a new-consumer culture, we were a hand-me-down culture.” Since it was written, eBay is getting a run for its money from the vintage/handmade online hub Etsy. Antiques Roadshow is now only one of a handful of used-goods shows like American Pickers, Pawn Stars and American Restoration. It seems as though with so many people out of work and in debt, the secondhand culture is experiencing a renaissance, or at least the “new-is-better” ethic is coming into serious question. Sometimes, it seems, the old things really are what stand the test of time.

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