Joys Of Modern Life: 15. Junk Shopping

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The Independent Culture
MAINSTREAM SHOPPING is becoming ever more boring. Across the world, products are converging towards an international standard of mediocre conformity.

It saddens me, for this retail hegemony is helping to take the thrill of discovery from the act of shopping. We may soon not be able to buy anything that has any sense of difference. All goods will become the same - bland, international, corporate.

Thank God then, for junk, bric-a-brac, clutter and "collectables". Here is a market place which, through its second-hand essence, causes reflection upon its previous use in a peculiarly affecting way. Bric-a-brac tells you something about how the world and its products have changed, and how tastes mutate. How can a fibre optic lamp be cool one decade, dud the next, then become revivified as desirable and retro? This is one of life's more fascinating mysteries.

Junk shopping is addictive. I started as a jumble sale goer in my teens, and progressed to harder stuff: charity shops, car boot sales, house clearance shops - even skips, the meths of the junk junkie. Now I screech to a halt at the more downbeat rural antique shops, garage sales and Salvation Army stores, nose twitching at the thought of unsold sets of Poole and Denby ware or distressed old suitcases with travel stickers. My flatmates have, over the years, had to be tolerant, as I have bought back all sorts of "creative clutter" to block the fire exits. Much has been thrown out again, but unlike consumer goods, like stereos and tellies, much of the fun is in the finding.

Junk-shopping stretches the imagination. It relies on finding potential from the discarded, and appreciating it anew.

Yes, much is boring kitsch. Top of the Pops albums were always bad, and fake teak hi-fis may forever rot. My lifetime bric-a-brac quest is a search for items of real quality. Some may induce nostalgia, like the old board game I bought recently. Others may challenge your ways of looking and listening: a Hawaiian easy-listening record; an amateur oil painting of a dog. Junk is a forensic examination of popular culture and creativity.

It also makes for exciting shopping, for junk has a febrile share price - though there are savants who subscribe to the lags' bible, Miller's Antiques and Collector's Guide. Will this old lamp-stand be pounds 1 or pounds 100? It is increasingly the latter. But at least it takes you by surprise.

A favourite story is the man who bought a plate by top ceramicist Hans Coper at a car bootie for 50p and found it was worth pounds 20,000. Only the other day, the Mayor of Greenwich found that a painting he had purchased at a car boot sale for pounds 25 was worth pounds 1,000. But the real experience is finding uniqueness and character.

Junk shopping is the search for new life and beauty in old, used things.