I am writing this post from my parents’ home in Chicago. I took a few days off of work to come in for a family wedding that was supposed to be this Saturday, but has been dramatically (and mysteriously) canceled. Thus, I find myself with more time on my hands than I thought I’d have.
Washington DC is a city of full of people who miss things about the places they come from, and I am sure that many of its residents have a short list of things they must see or do whenever they find themselves in their native cities. For my part, I must consume pizza every time I return to Chicago. I also rarely find myself in the vicinity of home without hitting a thrift store (or three.)
For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with thrift stores, antique shops, garage sales, estate sales and the like. I see them as the consumerist point of intersection of history and narrative. A thrift store, to be sure, is full of bargains – but it is full of stories, too. They are chock full of people’s lives – what they wore, read, sat on and stored – even if they are the things they left behind. Most people probably make a haul to the local thrift store only once every many years. At the risk of sounding morbid, I have always had the hunch that my best vintage dress scores have been those following someone’s grandmother’s death. I imagine the deceased’s family members sifting through old trunks, wondering what in the heck one person did with so much chiffon. In Chicago, thrift stores hold years worth of old things. Between trips to Goodwill, people amass and live with a surprising amount of stuff.
It is different in DC. I recently visited the Salvation Army on H Street. It is the only Salvation Army in the entire District of Columbia, and so I assumed it would be brimming with the enticing donated duds of an entire city’s worth of inhabitants. I was wrong. The Salvation Army Thrift Store on H Street is actually quite small – and, to my great dismay, practically devoid of clothing. Sure, there are a few racks in the back, but the selection is miniscule compared to the sprawling frontier of ditched apparel at any of the other 20 or so Salvation Army locations I have visited in my lifetime. Even worse, almost every clothing item was new – this was hardly the vintage Mecca I’d crossed my fingers for. There was a room full of furniture and a shelf of sundries, but no polyester in sight.
It occurred to me that the thrift stores of DC are so different than those elsewhere because DC’s residents are so much less likely to allow their lives to build up here. Many people live in DC, but fewer make it their home. They travel in and out. They don’t have the time to accrue generations of dresses, and they won’t suddenly find themselves with a moldy box of silk scarves they don’t know what to do with. The thrift stores are full of new things, because the city is full of new residents.
So many people come to DC for jobs or internships or master’s degrees, and move on. Someday, I will too. And I’ll add to the pile of lightly used things at the H Street Salvation Army, things I bought here and maybe only used for a few months, representative of only a sliver of my life. The contents of DC’s thrift stores tell a different story than those in other cities. They are full of things cast off by people passing through. Countless people, it seems, constantly leave the city behind, abandoning it along with a chair from IKEA, or a blouse from Forever 21.
I wonder if these things ever really felt like theirs, or if Washington ever really felt like home.