A BATTLE OF HALFWITS
by Michael Wayne
Above the doorless fridges and tables full of those free cinema 3D glasses, a shoddy, homemade sign read “CLASSIC ANTIQUES”. I had to pull over. Here, I thought to my eternal detriment, was the opportunity to hoodwink someone not quite firing on all cylinders.
To me, junk shops (or ‘thrift shops’, as the kids call them these days) are lands of wondrous treasure buried in dust and neglect. Any one item from a Salvos or a Vinnies offers an amazing backstory through its wear and tear if you know how to speak that language. No matter if it’s an op shop, a pawnbroker, a flea market or a garage sale, a quote from Garfield is never far from my mind: “It’s amazing what people would rather have than money.”
Those on a budget can fully furnish a studio apartment for less than $200 if you can bear the kitsch factor; if you wholly embrace it, less than $100. Fans of accordion music and continental choirs are served well by the selection of CDs on offer, as is anyone seeking a copy of Hanson’s ‘Snowed In’ (seriously, I dare you to find a Vinnies without one). In the second hand realm, the VHS era never ended, and copies of movies as recent as 2004 can be yours for around a buck. Don’t have a VHS player? Look in the back, and prepare to part with another dollar.
The informed scab can clean up in such places; eBay can turn a $2 investment into $85 in just a few tense seconds of feverish bidding. Last month, I came across two vintage ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ toy guns for 10c each, and the ignominy of having the woman behind the counter sing the Ghostbusters song while she rang them up was countered by the tidy profit I made on them later.
But it’s a gamble in more ways than one. You might travel far just to check out a place you’ve never been to before only to find they’re the sort that specialises in tiny porcelain bird statues, or religious CDs, or worst of all, second hand utensils. It’s a crushing disappointment unlike any other this life has to offer. However, when you step inside and see a Sega Saturn sitting on the shelf behind the little old volunteer and her polite smile, you can’t help but smile back wider. I wonder if she can see the dollar signs in your eyes?
I got out of the car and made my way back to Classic Antiques, being careful to measure my step – no need to make him think I’m too keen. He was sitting outside the shop: a big, middle aged man whose once-athletic physique had gone to waist. His Skrillex haircut seemed like the onset of a midlife crisis, while the Kappa tracksuit served as the uniform of the locale. He was reading the paper, which was upside down.
The outside of the shop itself looked like the council had ignored hard rubbish day for 20 years, 20 years ago. “Good day, mate,” he mumbled as I perused the columns of CD sound systems along the footpath. Brand names long forgotten screamed out at me, begging me to indulge in the decadence of stacking six CDs and then blasting them out with SuperBass (™). I resisted the siren’s call and made my way inside.
“Look anywhere you want,” he called out. It was harder to hear him once inside – the sole working fridge sat behind him, noisily chilling cold drinks for $1 a can. I had to duck to avoid the sacks of stuff hanging from the ceiling. What had once been a modestly sized shop was full, full of junk. And make no mistake, this was junk: old whiteboards, kites, a legion of bicycles, milk crates, the endless CD players…and more cords than I thought could be possible. When the world ends, it’ll become a wasteland of tangled electrical cords.
As I ventured deeper into the CE jungle, I came across another explorer. I moved out of the way as she passed with only a numb awareness that I was even there. Her slack jaw and glazed expression confirmed my suspicions: the good stuff was in the back.
Most any video game system makes a sortie of this kind worthwhile, provided you can get it cheap enough. $50 for an original Playstation is a terrible deal, but $40 for a PSone (there’s a difference) plus games and the official LCD screen add-on is three sevens. Anything Sega is a win, while Wiis are best left alone (both inside of junk shops and out), and Xboxes are worthless even to the shop owners. Games are the sweetest plum, but again, you have to know what you’re looking for. I knew straight off the bat that this place wouldn’t carry the games, but there were just enough consumer electronics stockpiled to make me think there was hope.
The back room was like a bike lane simulator: dozens of ten-speed professional bicycles were suspended from the ceiling, creating an eerie feeling as you passed under them. But that’s all it was – a bike room. The woman’s stunned look must have betrayed her past life as a set of training wheels. Obviously, I’d missed the prize. Time for plan b.
The guy was still sitting in his chair, battling with the newspaper when I emerged. “You find, you like?” he asked. I told him I was overwhelmed by the amount of junk. “I get, all the time I get.” No shit.
Did he have any video games, I asked. In reply came an expression full of judgment, one that seemed to say ‘I pity your stupidity’. He gestured to the army of VHS players sitting behind the front door. “Here video?” he said, punctuating his point. I shook my head. Video games, like Nintendo, Sega?
His eyes brightened. “Sega! Yes, Sega upstairs.” Now we were getting somewhere. He pointed to a poorly-lit stairway. “You go.” I went, half expecting the door to slam behind me and for the rest of my life as a prisoner to begin. You’d hear about my miraculous escape – or grim exhumation – ten years from now. But no, he followed me up, excitedly babbling about Segas.
Upstairs, the junk thinned out a little, but it was still a candidate for Hoarders. I noticed there were a lot more potplants up here, but I was unsure what that implied. “Sega here,” he said, hoping to divert my attention from the rest of the loft. But what he held was a black piece of plastic. There was no telling what it had been, but it certainly wasn’t a Sega. Sorry, I told him as I shook my head. “Sega here before, must have sold,” he said, puzzled. I offered him a sympathetic look – to him, a sale was about to slip through his ringed fingers. While he regained his composure, I took the opportunity to look around some more. Bottles of dishwashing detergent, plates, an oddly placed table…surely he didn’t…live up here? Could that be it? Was he so desperate to make a sale that he’d taken me up to see his secret stash, the stuff the regular customers never got to see?
If that was true, I felt a bit bad that I wasn’t impressed at all by the stuff on offer.
“Ahh, wait,” he exclaimed, hitting a light switch I’d never have noticed on my own. A room to the side became illuminated, highlighting another wave of pure junk. “Might be Sega in there, but come back later,” he said. When would that be, I wondered. How long until this shop’s equivalent of erosion made its effects felt up here, in this long forgotten attic of six speaker horror? Did Panasonic and Phillips ever imagine their products would spend their final days in a place like this?
I made my way back down the steps, wondering how to salvage the trip. There was one thing I’d noticed back on the ground floor… But my gracious host had other ideas. “Look,” he called out after me. When we got back to street level, he showed me what he felt was so important – a laptop. An old laptop. A laptop so old, it could have been my laptop’s grandfather. It was old enough to need life support, but no such power cords were offered. “This Sega, this good,” he said, putting on the hard sell. “Five dollars, good.”
The saddest part was, had it worked, I might have considered it for that price. It’s that kind of thinking that will be my undoing in the end. I had a counter offer. I picked up the item I had noticed initially, a black Nintendo Gamecube without a controller (eBay value $5-20) and asked him what he wanted for it.
He paused. “What is it?” came his eventual reply.
“A Sega,” I lied. I’m going to hell, I’ve already made peace with this.
“Sega…how much you got?” Not so clueless after all, then. His cagey attitude reassured me that the Gamecube probably worked. I checked my pocket, and realised I’d fallen into the beginner’s trap of the junk shop circuit. No notes.
I pulled out the chump change I had on me and offered it to him. $3.50. An insult, and one he rightly picked up on and promptly one-upped. “Oh no, no, come back,” he said. “You need that money to catch the bus home.”
And with that perfect, devastating insult, he went back to his chair and picked up the paper once more. We were done. The buyer-seller relationship we’d both struggled to make work had fallen apart, and I knew I’d be heading right back to the nearby Salvos for a shoulder to cry on. As I made my way past the bus stop and back to my car, I noticed his paper one last time.
Now, it was the right way up.