“You’re Not Throwing That Out, Are You?”

My Grandmother, even when healthy and relatively young, was preoccupied with death. As a child I spent many hours wandering through her home, carefully picking up household objects and turning them over in my hands. On the bottom of each vase, soap dish, or candy bowl, she had written – in black sharpie marker – the name of whomever she’d chosen to receive that object when she died. My aunt would get the spare-bedroom lamps. I would receive several, but not all, of her Royal Dalton figurines. My brother, inexplicably, would receive the big-button telephone for the visually impaired. It spooked and intrigued me to think about my Grandma being dead, but also to think about her widowed objects carrying on without her in very different lives.

Perhaps this was the beginning of my long fascination with the movement of objects. Couple my grandmother’s strange habit with the influence of my mother, who loves a bargain as much as she loves collecting antiques, and my predilection for thrift shops, flea markets, and garage sales was born. Yellowknife, it turns out, is a paradise for second-hand fanatics. There are a lot of transients, people who come for short-term work placements and military postings. It’s also a city situated at the very crossroads of financial wealth and material need. While a steady stream of new items, packaged in brown amazon.ca boxes, arrives in Yellowknife daily, this doesn’t compare to the vast amounts of second-hand items that move through the city in great tides, swelling and cresting with every moving season. What better way is there, for newcomers like me, to learn about local culture than to watch this parade of cast-off possessions? Museums, said author Orhan Pamuk, “should no longer concern themselves with history on a grand scale, (with) the sagas of kings and heroes … they should focus instead on the belongings of ordinary people…”

Yellowknifers’ belongings are quickly uprooted, bagged up, and shipped off. They switch hands via YK Trader or other online classifieds, are donated, are left at the dump or on the side of the road where hopefully some passersby will give them new life.  I’ve heard that swap parties, where clothes are traded among friends, are also a local phenomenon. Though objects move in similar ways down south, it is the scale and intensity of Yellowknife’s object-migration that is so fascinating. It is, with slight exaggeration, a kind of material diaspora.

At the annual Multiplex Garage Sale this past May, I woke up early, anticipation rising, and joined hundreds of others in line. We were there to find treasure. Treasure, for me, means good old books with that good old book smell, mugs and tea-pots with character, well-seasoned cast iron pans. The Multiplex sale, though it had its share of ‘soulless’ objects like banana hangers, bagel slicers and company-logo water bottles, did not disappoint. I found a nearly new eight-person tent for $25. “You’re not going camping anymore?” I asked the seller. “We’re moving.” He replied. “And we actually never used this tent. We bought it at a garage sale too!” St. Patrick’s Parish thrift store, Vinnies, located on Old Airport Road, re-opened last April after a fire destroyed their former location. On one visit I scored a pair of beautifully beaded mukluks, barely worn, for the shockingly low price of twenty dollars. Every time I pull on these pieces of art I feel a little guilty, as though I had stolen them. The shop is run by Betty and Mary, two long time Yellowknifers, who routinely watch for donations of quality winter gear. Bags of coats and boots get sent to the communities and distributed to those in need. “It’s amazing what people give,” says Mary. “Often we’ll get Canada Goose and other top-of-the-line parkas.”

The Salvation Army thrift store, located downtown, has a similar outreach program. Last year, says director Dustin Sauder, the shop gave away over $40,000 worth of second-hand items to those who declared need. It’s a busy place, with helter-skelter shelves that often display weird historical mash-ups. Olive green Sunbeam mixers, for example, sit next to toys from the ‘80s. Remember Gremlins? Dan’s Place in Centre Square Mall is also exemplary in this regard. It’s wonderfully quirky, spanning three storefronts, and is the most likely of Yellowknife’s thrift stores to carry novel antiques and curios. If in need of a 1960’s Pepsi machine, for example, or a theatre popcorn maker, or a 1940’s gas stove – visit Dan’s.

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What sets northern garage sales and thrift stores apart from southern ones? There are no boxes of traps at sales in Winnipeg. No ice augers. No sealskin. No expensive snow machine helmets, fewer brand name parkas, no high-end items of clothing that look as though they’ve never been worn, no Smart-Wool socks in near perfect shape. At twenty-five bucks a pair, southerners who can afford them wear them to the grave.

If there’s a solid second or even third life left in an item of furniture though, Quality Furniture’s Swap Shop, on Franklin Avenue, will share the profits with those who hope to gain a little financial return on their beloved couch or chair. Stock is always rotating, and great deals are easy to find.

Vintage and Vogue, also a consignment shop, is a boutique that capitalizes on Yellowknifers’ shopping-trip habits. It sells clothes that are technically second-hand, but that frequently still have the tags on. “Because there are so few shopping options here,” says owner Melissa Savoie, “it’s pretty common for Yellowknifers to get a little over-excited in Edmonton and buy way too many clothes.” Her shop is lovely – think boots made of supple grey suede, J. Crew cable knits, well-tailored blazers. Savoie only accepts clothes and shoes in pristine condition, arranging them artfully to inspire the eye.  

In it’s own way, the dump also inspires the eye, and frequently, the nose. There are mounds of cast-off possessions to sort through, and depending on the day, various smells of rot to enjoy. As a time-honoured Yellowknife institution, “YKEA” can quickly find its way into your heart while at the same time confounding the mind. The opportunities for scavenging are amazing – and on a particularly memorable day this past June, I found myself among 25 others, from all walks of life, scavenging and sharing finds. The sun was wonderfully warm, the sky was blue, and laughter filled the air. It felt like real community. But the sheer amount of waste, the evidence of our pathological need to buy, of our avidity for acquiring more and more possessions, can sometimes feel amazing in ominous ways too. “We will be judged for this,” said a friend of mine, a devout Christian, as she gazed out over the dump one day. As if in agreement, the ravens stood silently by, preening their dark wings.

Talk about the dump with any long-time Yellowknifers and you’re bound to get an entertaining story. “Oh, we used to go shopping for birthday presents at the dump!” laughed one of my neighbors, fondly remembering a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg. Another family I know is grateful for how the dump has helped them financially. “It is common for people to drop off boxes of perfectly good stuff, just because they’re moving and they can’t be bothered to deal with it,” they explained after reciting a litany of items they’ve found over the years: winter boots, camping gear, smokers, bbqs, fishing rods, couches, dining chairs, dishes, skates, skis, cook sets, shelving, snow machine parts. “And,” the family’s well-dressed 17-year-old son chimed in, “almost my entire wardrobe.”

Our attachment to second-hand things can be sentimental, or ecological, or both. I own a sweater that belonged to three other friends and one friend’s mother before it came to me. Needless to say, I don’t often wear it out of the house. In roaming through thrift stores, mulling over dust-furred vintage items, I often think that maybe I’m trying to summon up a past that is fading away. Record players, bread boxes, and yes, old Sunbeam mixers keep the colours vibrant for just a little longer. The dump, though, is about chance, luck, and the thrill of the hunt. My deck chairs are from the dump. I sit on them and feel like I’ve gotten away with something. I didn’t have to spend money at Wal-Mart or Canadian Tire. Take that, consumerism! In Yellowknife’s diaspora of objects, possessions are routinely purged only to be collected and possessed again. Strangely, objects live in and around Yellowknife longer than most people do. It is lamentable, how much we squander. And for the thrifty, the scavengers, the treasure-seekers, it’s pretty darn thrilling too.

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