"I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before,
and we all know how much expression they have!"
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"
On a recent visit to Harpers Ferry, we passed by the flea market held each weekend at the junction of Rt. 340 and Bloomery Road. Naturally, we were lured in by the prospect of finding some overlooked treasure, some West Virginian relic that we cannily would snag at a fraction of its true value.
Spread out over what used to be a drive-in movie lot, the flea market sprawled higgledy-piggledy over several acres. The range of merchandise was almost daunting: piles of stuffed animals, broken alarm clocks, farm implements, crossbows and bowie knives, Confederate and American flags, eight-track tapes, wrought iron trellises, old pieces of stained glass, bead curtains, paper parasols, electronic toys, artificial flowers, pellet guns, velvet paintings (alas, no Elvis), Betty Crocker cookbooks, cut glass tumblers, baby clothes…on and on it stretched, the seemingly endless detritus of small-town America.
We found ourselves more drawn to the nostalgic than the genuinely useful. Alas, I had to acknowledge that I had no real place for a pair of brass bookends in the shape of mallard ducks or a large troll doll very much like one that I had when I was twelve. I picked up item after item, in wonderment. Surely my grandmother had had one of these. And my mother still has one of those. Oh, for heaven’s sake… here was something I hadn’t seen in years!
However, somewhat depressingly, our purchases were mostly utilitarian: some AA batteries, a set of small screwdrivers, a 12-pack of travel-sized Kleenex. Our son cajoled us into buying an unopened Battlebot toy construction kit, and my husband pondered long and hard before plunking down $4 for a new snorkel tube.
I surreptitiously eyed my fellow bargain hunters, speculating upon their decorating schemes based on the items they clutched. Away they trundled, toting brass lamps, quilted pillows, bamboo plant stands, and, yes, a few of those velvet paintings.
For some reason, it all brought back memories of the house of a high-school friend whose parents had decorated their tiny suburban house in a grand, almost Baroque manner. Entering the front door, the eye was assaulted by a glittering silver and turquoise color scheme. A black baby grand piano vied with a crystal chandelier for pride of place, while mirrored wall tiles floor to ceiling reflected tasseled cushions, brocaded chairs, oriental vases, and exotic knickknacks. It was unquestionably one of the more unique – and unapologetically flamboyant – houses I’d ever been in.
Years later, I revisited my friend’s house. Much to my chagrin, the entire silver and turquoise extravaganza had been ruthlessly eradicated and in its place was an entertainment area decorated in a soulless casual style. Gone were the mirrors and chandelier; in their place was no end of cunning track lighting, gleaming Scandinavian wood surfaces, suspended wine glass racks, and ingenious hidden cupboards that swung out from unexpected places. And what, I wondered, had become of the crystal lamps, the Chinese ceramic dogs, and the bejeweled cushions? Were they sent packing to the Land of Yard Sales, the great Flea Market in the sky?
A stroll through the Harpers Ferry Flea Market testified to the fact that one can simply never predict which objects will become prematurely outmoded, an absolute embarrassment to have in the house. Will my tower-shaped CD-storage unit become a humorous relic to my grandchildren? Already my LP’s are a source of wonderment for my thirteen-year-old son, who has difficulty believing that I grew up without a VCR or personal computer. What an odd thing style is. Even the defiantly retro or style resistant are drawn into its vortex, each item purchased seemingly date-stamped for planned obsolescence.
And then, one day, the outmoded suddenly becomes a valued find, a treasure. It becomes new again. Bellbottoms reappear on slump-shouldered teenagers, hair hangs lank and long once again, and even avocado green makes a reappearance.
A pity, though, that no gloriously impractical object of desire beckoned that day at the flea market. I did look, long and hard, as I’ve been planning on redoing the living room. Let’s see… I’d like lots of silk brocade. Turkish vases. Tinkling glass pendants. Mirrored wall tiles; that’s the ticket. Turquoise and silver . . .