I’m learning that there’s a fine line between something that’s called antique and something else that is definitely junk.
We needed some new furniture when we moved to this house and so I set to work checking out the second-hand shops and looking on-line, at Gumtree, eBay and, my new favourite, Marketplace. Part of that was that I was hoping to find something different. The new furniture sold in shops is often so predictable and boring, lacking character and with questionable quality. It was also, of course, about cost. Why spend a fortune on a new dining table when someone down the road is happy to sell you their beauty for a fraction of the price? It also feels ethical, saving from landfill something that can have a new lease of life.
I have bought a few new things, like mattresses and a washing machine, to supplement the few pieces we brought up from Sydney, but the rest, I’m determined to source on the used market. My searches have often revealed the soft, sentimental underbelly of humanity. I have met people who are much more concerned that their treasures find good homes than how much money they can make. That was certainly the case with the lovely piano I picked up. It was no longer needed by a lady who had gone into a nursing home: she had trained as a pianist and so it was important to her that the instrument she had cherished for decades went to someone who would really love it. The figured walnut of its case suits my place but, more importantly, it has a lovely tone, as old pianos often do. Somehow knowing something of its backstory makes me appreciate it even more.
The same is true with the large and beautiful Indian rug that I bought for virtually nothing. The owners were emotional to see it go but simply had no space for it anymore. They were delighted when I sent them a photo of it taking pride of place in my sitting room, knowing it was loved. It’s such a personal thing, buying directly from the owner, especially when these things might have been an important part of the home for years.
Not everything is quite so idyllic. You have to believe that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure when you see what some people are selling. I’m learning that if something is described as ‘absolutely gorgeous’ or ‘simply beautiful’ then it is usually the total opposite. Sometimes the obvious faults of an item – the torn fabric, the dented panel, the gouged wood – is described by the seller as an asset, and always very easy to fix. Which begs the question: well, why didn’t you? I laughed out loud when I read two recent advertisements, one for a car that was in perfect order – apart from the lack of an engine, that is – while the other was for a chest of drawers that had a missing drawer. The substantial gap it left would make a very handy shelf, the ad informed me. I think that’s called chancing your luck.
I used to talk about space clearing in my feng shui classes, about how strong energy can cling to the walls of a building, a room and to objects themselves. If you believe this then it explains why you often find the same things happening over and over again in the same place. That’s fine if it’s all positive (as people hope, as they rush to buy a lottery ticket from the same place a winner bought theirs) but not so great if it’s negative. I’ve noticed how certain shops go bust again and again in the same place while those around thrive, and that relationship breakdowns often happen in the same house, time after time. Objects are the same. When you buy something second hand then what additional energy are you buying into? Might you be buying the previous owner’s bad luck?
I’m conscious of this whenever I buy second hand things, although frankly the industrial energy of new items could be equally problematic. I tend to ‘cleanse’ used things – not just spending time washing or wiping them but letting them sit in the sun for a while, if possible, and then giving them a good rub with furniture wax. Some people use smudge sticks to waft smoke over an object; others might use a Tibetan singing bowl, whose clear vibration shifts stuck energy. None of this is going to stop me from buying old things, though, but I try to be mindful of where they’ve come from before I buy.
Australians love used things. When I moved here I came across the phenomenon of the council clear up. Twice a year you could put out on the street anything you didn’t want and the council would collect it. For a week or more before collection, the streets looked like a war zone, piled with old beds and broken televisions and boxes of god-knows-what. Vans would cruise around looking for electric plugs and bits of metal that could be resold. Others would pick up odd bits of furniture that were often rather nice. I saw some great stuff – garden furniture that only needed a wipe, Bauhaus chairs in want of a polish, and any number of paintings in frames that could be easily reused. I remember putting out our crappy Formica-topped kitchen table and chairs and in the time it took Anthony to say, ‘Oh, I wanted to keep those’ they had been snaffled by a passer-by. Now you have to phone the council directly to arrange pick-up and things can only be left outside for a few hours. Ugly though it was, the old system was better as it literally brought recycling into the open.
Gradually I’m adding things to the house – yesterday it was a chest of drawers (all drawers accounted for) that feels like it was meant for the space it sits in. I’ll continue to trawl the second hand hangouts, including those hipster places where ordinary stuff your grandparents owned now costs a bomb. I’ll try to forget the incredible things I used to see in antique markets and vide greniers in France – Australia simply doesn’t have the abundance of fine old stuff that Europe has but there are some good things in among the glut of knotty pine and wonky chairs.
As I pick through the ‘absolutely gorgeous’ and ‘simply beautiful’ things I’m certain I’ll find something I like, maybe even a treasure or two. In other words, I shall continue to fight for the used, the second hand, the vintage and the retro before I even consider crossing the biggest line of all, buying brand new.
Are you a lover of second hand furniture?