Reminiscences of a Junk Addict

When I was young, the word "junk" meant a kind of Chinese boat, or used articles. Today, to be a junky has a sad connotation; but in my case the addiction is to second hand miscellany, and has been one of the joys of my life.

Junk can severally mean curios, bric-a-brac, jewellery, objects not necessarily d'art - it can mean interesting, weird, rare, common, ancient, contemporary, decorative, hideous, quaint, ordinary - junk is all things to all addicts.

The compulsion towards junk for the true addict is his personal translation of the word into "treasure", so that his search for it becomes a forever treasure hunt. Few addicts are hoarders - rather, the treasure having been gathered, examined, exclaimed over and offered for the sometimes reluctant approval of associates, the objects are wrung dry for the discoverer, and most are quite ready to pass the articles on to the next forager. This does not apply to collectors - a true collector specialises in one sort of object. But to the junk addict, all is grist to his mill.

This is probably why so many of us open small shops, or conduct market stalls, through which we can continue the flow of our endless stream of findings. It is the reason why none of us is really dismayed if transactions do not yield vast profits, since our main object is to turn the goods over, in order to finance the perpetual pursuit of more.

The real motivation for this search must be left to the psychiatrists - profit through clever buying is naturally gratifying and never despised but it is not the motivating force.

It is illuminating to encounter in every flea market, Paddy's Market, and other suburban junk shops on both sides of the counter, a nucleus - a band of the same old faces. In my wanderings from one of these hunting grounds to another, I have found some of my most regular customers offering for sale - at a fractional margin of profit - treasure they had unearthed with cries of joy in my shop only last Wednesday week. If one cares to haggle, it is even possible to buy the article back for less than the vendor paid for it.

It is one of the reasons too, why prices in junk shops are unpredictable and hard to assess. Contemporary white elephants are the easiest - one has a basis for comparison - but all sorts of articles are collectible, not only in the antique field. Like so many other things, value is in the eye of the beholder and as in all other matters of trade, the price goes up if the goods are much sought after.

There are some junk buyers, and I suspect I may once have been one of them, who are scandalised at prices whatever they are.

"Good Heavens!" they say, "She only paid "X" for that, I was at that auction, and now she wants "Z" for it!"

They have forgotten to compute the overhead of the shop in which are gathered the gleanings of many treasure hunts for her to choose from, the hours the shop is open, the time spent washing the goods (if one deals in china and small bric-a-brac this is a considerable time-taker), the hours spent at auction when an assistant must be employed, and the expense of transport of goods - from wherever to one's business premises.

I have often speculated on what prompts a particular purchase. We once acquired a strange object rather like a rounded scissors which no-one, not even some of my more knowledgeable customers nor all my books of reference could identify. Even one expert to whom we sometimes had recourse was doubtful - but a second identified it as a sugar-crusher - an instrument used when sugar came in sheets. Until identified, this object had sat in my glass case at a nominal price. Once duly labelled, and consequently priced higher, it sold within the hour to a customer who had viewed it unmoved for some weeks.

On another occasion I had a number of rice bowls at a small price - one though similar, was slightly smaller than the others with a subtly different look and texture. All the matching ones were bought by a customer who sorted out and rejected the odd one, which then sat on a shelf for weeks, until I reduced even the small price I had placed on it. One afternoon a charming Chinese client saw the bowl.

"My dear," she said, "this bowl is quite old - your price is wrong - it is worth many times more."

I took her advice, polished up the bowl, placed a quite comparatively large price on it, and sold it within two days.

Although numbers of one's customers are other junk addicts, many are collectors - dedicated to accumulating as many examples of whatever it is as their purses allow. Of the innumerable objects I have sold to specific collectors, shoes head the list - models of brass, silver, pottery, wood, leather - my chief customer was one known to all junk shop proprietors in Victoria at least, as "the Shoe Man."

He called about once every two months at all shops, and one saved any shoes acquired for his first refusal. I had several less regular collectors who stood in line for next option on whatever he rejected. Wooden sabots in all sizes were the most common and least desired.

I had also two regular collectors of miniature jugs and others more desultory and a continual demand for Toby Jugs of any vintage. Anything at all in miniature, shells, spoons, Victoriana, Australiana, cruets, egg-cups, old kitchen utensils, even saucers - an inexpensive way to collect examples of old china, saucers having a much longer life than cups.

A young couple with several young children collected tea-pots, preferably small ones but anything novel in design would capture their fancy.

Among other collectibles are paper weights, scent bottles, vintage toys, buttons, medals, buckles, bells, fans, small animals, post-cards, pictures on glass, emu's eggs, books by particular authors, musical boxes and old clocks. One does not need to be an expert on anything to become either a buyer or purveyor of junk. The only knowledge I brought to my first shop was that I could never be bored by it, and I have gained little expertise, except perhaps to know something of what customers are likely to buy.

Auction sales are the junky's joy. Once this meant auctions of effects in old houses, on the premises, but these become more and more a thing of the past. Many Real Estate agents now have private treaties with junk dealers to take the whole minor contents of such houses for an agreed sum. Although a time and expense saver for the agent, and a harvest for the chosen dealer, these package-deals have taken some of the pleasure out of the hunt and closed one door to the casual addict. But the general auction room is still Aladdin's Cave for many of our brotherhood.

Boxes and tea chests and cartons of sundries - these are the treasure chests - the lucky dips - the unknown quantities which we cannot resist - often to our cost, as the growing mounds of battered pots, mysterious electrical parts, jars of rusty screws and old buttons, piles of saucers, and dubious Things in most addict's back sheds will attest. But incentive is there in the memory of those few surprise packets which really did contain a prize.

I remember buying a tea chest of flotsam for seventy cents. While unpacking we found a tiny terra-cotta jug. As we hurled out broken saucers, blackened frying pans and revolting plates appearing to contain remains of dogs dinners (rubber gloves and disinfectant are musts in the junk world) we admired it and wondered if it had been part of a set. We found out. Incredibly, loose among all that broken china grinding and rattling together, we unearthed the whole perfect little set undamaged - a five inch oval terra-cotta tray with teapot, jug, basin, two cups, two saucers, even two minute lids to fit teapot and basin.

That treasure I kept for long, but finally sold for a pleasing sum.

Another tea chest, bought for an item of household value to be seen at the top, yielded two large mason jars containing the inevitable assorted nails screws and hinges, but also two paper knives, one silver and tortoise shell, the other delicately shaped in wood as a high-heeled slipper, as well as a silver cross and two slightly damaged vintage brooches.

On the other side of the coin, I once came late to an auction in time to see, from a distance, a jeweller's box being shown and, apparently, containing an attractive cameo. I bid some dollars only to find a plastic object worth cents, from a chain store. On another occasion we bought a whole shelf full of lovely old blue and white vegetable dishes, dinner and meat plates - only to find they were all hopelessly cracked and chipped. We turned these to some use later when we put them round a high frieze shelf in my first old shop. From a distance they looked impressive and we did not offer them for sale. An interesting sidelight on this was that every sixth person wanted to buy them as they were.

I opened this shop on a shoe-string, and for stock the accumulation of thirty years junking, mainly to fill the gap when my five children married within four years. It was an old shop in a sleepy semi-country area, with floor-to-dado shelves, huge old wooden counters, and two big windows to be filled. I was hard put to it to spread my goods into some semblance of plenty. Two of my sons and a son-in-law had ideas about window display so I was never short of window dressing, which was greatly to my advantage. In our small commercial strip - about a dozen shops - my windows became a focal point for speculation on whatever next we might offer - sometimes with surprising results. On one occasion - and this was around 1965 - public opinion forced removal of a two-foot nude statuette.

A most successful display was built around a hip bath that one of my valued customers had found under her house during remodelling. We scarcely thought it a saleable item but all the goods grouped with it were in the mood of the bath and saleable. To our astonishment, the bath was sold on the second day, and I was besieged with firm orders for any others I might find.

Another mood display was built around one son's early Edison Gramophone and cylinders which he loaned for the occasion. These I could have sold many times, but more to the point, it brought dozens of people into the shop and sold every sheet of a crate of old time music - which had been the object of the exercise.

At Melbourne Cup time of our second year some customers even backed the horse numbers shown on a line of cut-out horse and jockey mobiles strung by my son-in-law across the window.

One of the many advantages of having a shop to a junk addict is that it introduces the proprietor to many of his own kind. These will bring their own treasures to be admired, share one's interest in small curios, and will discuss and consider and consult their reference books, and call in to talk or reconsider a purchase - one has all the satisfaction of continual contact with compatible friends.

A corner for books I found important. My first single shelf grew to a wall, and half of another. I never chanced on a first edition, or indeed on any valuable volumes, but spent many profitable hours browsing over old and interesting books with my customer friends. There was no library at that time in our area and I soon carried contemporary paper-backs for the local people for purchase or exchange. Two very elderly ladies would have nothing but Westerns, and regularly took two each every week, and a work-worn, wonderful old woman, struggling continually with ill-health, came every day for a "RO-mance" to see her through the night. She would countenance no book that hinted at realism - her days were too full of that.

Shortly after I opened this shop, I had a visitor - another old woman, one who strode daily through our streets with a gnarled stick like a quarter-staff. Tall, incredibly thin and wrinkled, quite toothless with strong nose and chin almost meeting in the traditional manner, unsmiling, she handed me a parcel. "A Prethent" she stated, and marched away. I was electrified to find a rather terrifying-looking black china cat with an open red mouth. I was immediately convinced she was a witch, placed the cat in the window "N.F.S." and waited to learn whether she wished me well or ill. The little business prospered modestly, so I concluded her influence was benign.

I am not now in junk trading but the lull, I hope and believe, is temporary, because being a junk addict is for always.

Norah Boehme