catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 2 :: 2006.01.27 — 2006.02.09


Thrift store philosophy

Intellectually, I have not learned much of anything working at our local thrift store. I began work there to support an institution that is trying to make Christian school more affordable for the average Joe or Josephine. My first job was doing the “door sort”?taking in donated items at the back door, putting them on carts, then later dumping them out onto tables and from there putting them into boxes and putting the boxes into designated areas for housewares, sporting goods, clothes, linens, electronics, furniture, etc. As I said, it was good honest work, but not something that taught me new ideas.

Then I got assigned to sorting books and everything changed?not intellectually, but emotionally, or maybe spiritually. Let me explain.

Again, this was not much of an intellectual challenge. I am the sort of nerd (along with my amazing wife) who alphabetizes the fiction and debates endlessly about whether nonfiction should be categorized by the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress System. I am working on my fourth degree in the varied fields you might expect from an enthusiastic nerd, so I have a passing familiarity with a wide range of books (though I confess, I had no idea I would see so many dog obedience books with tooth marks on the cover). So, no, I didn?t learn much with my mind.

To understand what happened, you have to grasp the nature of my task. I go in to the thrift store every other week or so. During the time that I am not there, Our rickety book table (a long, rectangular cafeteria table) gets piled high with books, magazines, CDs, cassette tapes, and other mysterious items that someone thought might be appropriate for us to sort. Usually, the mass gets so large that it also includes boxes of books under the table. So when I get there on a Saturday morning, I have a couple weeks’ worth of books to sort through. While the workers were piling up my book pile, customers were looking through our 20 or so bookcases, buying some books, and randomly re-shelving other books. This means I also have to reorganize all the sale shelves.

All of this is to say that there is a lot of pressure for me to sort the book table quickly. When I began, this was a problem. Why? I love books. I have a hard time throwing them away.

Over time, however, I have learned my lesson. I can get through the book table pretty quickly now. Readers Digest Condensed books? Into the trash can. Saturday morning cartoon tie-in? Trash. Twelve year old word genealogy software? Trash. Coloring book? We have hundreds of them already?trash. Box of sermon tapes? Trash. Giveaway book about nasal problems from the makers of Flow-nase? Trash. Videotaped guide to operating your new bread machine? Trash. Book on CPR from 1973? Trash. Textbook on soil analysis circa 1984? Trash. I keep the good stuff. But stuff that won?t sell or shouldn?t sell (like the CPR book) goes into the trash.

After a couple of months of doing this, I began to notice a change in the way I thought about acquiring new things. Now, you need to understand that I have been a pretty typical American when it comes to acquiring things. When I hear a band I like, I buy the CD. When someone recommends a good book, I order it from ABE or Amazon. And although I talk a good anti-materialist game, my spending habits have done little to combat the problem of stuff?until now.

Working in the thrift store has taught me that people (including me) have way more books (and other objects) than they would ever need. It has also taught me that when people die, the people who have to clean up after them often don?t hold their treasured possessions with as much esteem as they did.

And most of all (and here is the biggest shift) I have learned to no longer view my goal in life as acquiring the most and best things. I am now viewing my main goal in life to be getting rid of all which is superfluous. I have books I will never read again. I have stuff I don?t need. And the less stuff I have (the more I can get rid of) the simpler my life is going to be.

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