Jul 23, 2011

After years of excess, Americans are trying to downsize

Guest Column By Barbara Harmon

The lush green of a Pennsylvania summer grabs at the breath with unparalleled beauty amid the return of perennial bloom. Crops wave in the country. All is lovely, a toe-spreading, arm-opening, head-lifting season of delight but for a singular blight that clamors forth in the midst of this bliss.

It creeps from the basement and down the attic stairs. Out of the closet it spills, spreading, spewing, till at last it belches forth upon the sunlit lawn, staining the green with the ugly secret contained within. It is the American yard sale, the seasonal revealing of our “Too Much Stuff.”

The last decade of our nation’s brazen excess sprawls out on driveways and sidewalks. Here are the Skittle-colored children’s clothes stacked like loaves of bread upon the folding tables, the plastic cartoon character toys, the video games, TVs too square and large to be tolerated.

It was once a season of frolic, a delight for buyers, but as the recession tightens its grip, there is a new spirit upon the land. It is a desperate desire to get rid of the evidence, to make the stuff go away and, with it, the reminder of what we once spent on our every whim.

“We’re downsizing,” the sellers say, eyes pleading “Please take it!”

For others, there is no luxury of pride. Cash is needed. These are the ones who never had excess, even in good times, and they are scrambling. At the flea market, one or two come on a gamble and are now desperate for gas money to get back home.

When the economy suffers, the stuff rolls out, but what if there is no one to buy?

Flea market buyers stroll by, amusing themselves with the displays and taking in the weather. A $10 item gets an offer of $5. At the antique show, wares that once sold get few glances. Dealers share war stories of defeat. A rare cabinet, shaped like a spool of thread, is priced $500. “Ten years ago, I sold one for $1,600,” the seller says.

The downturn produces a boom for the bottom layer, for the truth is we cannot overcome our need to consume. Minivans race the rounds of the yard sales, disgorging riders. They buy used what they once bought new.

What cannot be sold is expunged. It is an exorcism of excess made possible by simply pulling up to the thrift shop’s back door. The store rooms are stuffed to the ceiling like a barn readied for famine. The stock is testimony to a turning point, a departure from the days of “must have.”

Yet the thrift store’s parking lot, usually full, testifies to the continued drive to buy.

The parking lot at my antiques shop, an 1850s grocery-and-drugstore compound, lies empty. I am open just two days a week: Wednesday, a busy market day, and Saturdays, when tourists are most likely to stop.

At my counter, I overhear the whispering: “I don’t need any more stuff.”

Pretty dishes have not sold for years. Furniture goes in fits and starts but mostly sits. I can sell an $18 chair for the yard, a tin pail for flowers, silver-plated iced teaspoons. Little things don’t make such a dent in the wallet or conscience.

Our town has lost at least 600 jobs with several major plants closing in recent years. To survive, my shop depends on dollars coming across the mountain from bigger towns, such as State College, and from tourists here to experience Amish country nostalgia. Their eyes lift to the shop’s pressed tin ceiling, asking “What did this store used to be?”

A Chinese grad student, here to study economics at Penn State, waits as his wife browses. He explains that his own country is feeling the ripple. Americans are not buying what they did.

His own people are too set in their ways; they save too much, he says, citing 30 percent savings. They put money away to take care of their needs if a crisis comes. If the Chinese had some kind of welfare, like the U.S., then maybe they would spend more and save less, he says.

He is practicing his English with me, and I am stunned.

When I close the shop, I bring in the open placard and the red, white and blue antiques flag. At the corner, the telephone pole is plastered in neon orange and green announcing the latest yard sales down the street.

Barbara Harmon is a former newspaper reporter. She now owns Victory Antiques in Belleville, Mifflin County.

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