Monday, February 8, 2010

The Swap Meet, Revisited

Something over two years ago, I wrote an essay on Kobey’s Swap Meet and I just now re-read it to see not only what I said but also to see what has changed there. Some things have not changed but much has.

The current economic downturn, as it is euphemistically called these days, has shifted the swap meet into a higher gear. It started out years ago as a sort of collective yard sale or garage sale and then moved on to include discounted but “new” merchandise, presented by vendors who got their stuff from God knows where. For a number of years, they began to predominate the swap meet and the locals who only wanted to get rid of their household goods became the minority among the hopeful vendors there.

Today, I noticed that the old garage sale atmosphere has returned, this time with cooperative neighbors renting multiple and adjoining spaces in an effort to make some money on Saturday morning. Among the usual jumble of stuff that nobody probably wants, shines an array of very nice stuff from people’s houses. More furniture has shown up along with better kitchen things as well as higher quality dishes and china. One woman was selling not only her china but the rather good cabinet in which she had it housed. She had a number of interested shoppers and I hope she managed to unload it before the day was over.

Row after row of such displays, now interspersed with fewer of the “new” merchandise vendors, greeted me and I thought what a great opportunity the swap meet would be for anyone wanting to furnish an apartment inexpensively.

But then, after about the fourth or fifth row of these booths, I began to suspect that things were more dire than I had thought. Something like sadness began to set in and I was tempted to talk with a few yard sale vendors to find out, beyond the obvious, why they were here. One man was selling a very complete workshop’s worth of tools, clearly cleaned out of his garage at home, tools that had been well cared for. Since he hadn’t many customers, I asked him if he were moving away and that’s why he was selling out. He candidly told me that he was selling his tools to pay bills, that his mortgage payments now took most of his monthly salary and that he and his wife were downsizing in an effort to get some cash ahead. Then he pointed to a sales place two or three spaces away and said, “That’s my wife selling off her sewing room stuff.”

The book seller that I remembered had quite a selection of new books at all prices now had a sign at his place that said, “All Books $1.00 Each.” He was breaking up sets of the Harvard Classics, encyclopedias, and sets of the Great Books if anyone wanted a single volume. For a dollar each.

Another couple, presiding over their collection of household goods, talked to me about their need to get a few bucks each week but also their belief that this whole recession was temporary and that the President was working hard to fix things. They didn’t expect to be here many more Saturdays now that their bank seemed ready to talk with them about their loan.

There are also sellers of services at the swap meet. There’s a guy who will do your income taxes if you have the basic info with you. Another wants to sell you home insurance. Still another offers massages and aroma therapy. These have been particularly hard hit by the recession (that’s what it is, isn’t it?) and the shopping public strolled by their empty stalls with only a glance toward them. One man trying to sell some sort of permanent siding for houses told me that he had not had a single prospective client come to him that morning. A few years ago, said he, he couldn’t keep up with the business.

Nevertheless there was a general feeling of bravery and determination that pervaded the people selling off their personal goods. Not one of them seemed downhearted and no one I talked with complained or moaned. Instead, they forged ahead with their prospective selling with the air that things would come out right if they persevered and didn’t give up hope. They smiled and were friendly to all of the lookey-loos who came by, and they clearly had established a kind of camaraderie among themselves. Their palpable attitude gave me hope as well, and it got me off the emotional hook.

I had gone to the swap meet to get a good walk this morning, just for a change of venue. I ended up buying a few things (three one-dollar books, for one thing) and I did get the exercise I wanted. But I came away thinking how easy it is for some of us to see the recession merely as grist for news shows on TV. How easily we can ignore the plight of many among us as we enjoy our own comfort and secure incomes. I don’t know what’s to be done, exactly. We can’t go down there and buy up an entire set of tools from everyone selling them, or a complete china cabinet full of dishes, just to try to help out.

I don’t want to paint a picture of the swap meet merely as the new meeting place of the down and out among us. Not everyone, I’m sure, was there out of real need but some, as I said above, certainly were. The swap meet, then, has become a concentrated sample of our society during these days and times, and while it was a bit sad to see what some people have had to resort to in order to live, it was also edifying to see that they are resourceful enough to be doing something in their own behalf, meeting however they can the challenges of financial difficulties. It was, all in all, an instructive and edifying walk.

--Robert Heylmun

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