• Jessica Bellef

The beauty and significance of secondhand objects

"I once asked my friends if they’d ever held things that gave them a spooky sense of history. Ancient pots with three-thousand-year-old thumbprints in the clay said one. Antique keys, another. Clay pipes. Dancing shoes from WW11. Old bus tickets in secondhand books. Everyone agreed that what these small things did was strangely intimate; they gave them the sense, as they picked them up and turned them in their fingers, of another person, an unknown person a long time ago, who held that object in their hands. You don’t know anything about them, but you feel like the other person’s there, one friend told me. It’s like all the years between you and them disappear. Like you become them, somehow."

From “H is for Hawk” by Helen Mcdonald

As a devoted secondhand shopper, that paragraph from 'H is for Hawk' resonated with me and had me nodding emphatically.

Secondhand shopping takes commitment and an ability to see past a deep jumble of disparate items, especially in those treasure troves where objects are piled high to the ceiling, dusty and precarious. Preloved and looking for a second, third, fourth life, these items represent bygone years and a million moments in other people's biographies. A cacophony of voices and places and origins. Some find it overwhelming and imposing with an exhausting amount of personal meaning, while others embrace the connection to a different life, time or place.

In a recent scout of the junk stores at the southern end of King Street in Sydney's Newtown, I came across a little moment that made me pause. In a woven basket, sitting on top of a pile of sun-bleached magazines and wedged in between lamps that were all the more charming for their fringing of dust, pooled a collection of matchbooks. I took a snap (above), as I am wont to do, sparked by the symbolism of the basket's contents. A matchbook is significant for its everyday-ness particular to a certain era. Their manufacturing reached a peak in the 1940s and '50s but was slowed by the arrival of the disposable lighter and the increased awareness of smoking as a health hazard. The sight of a matchbook makes me think of smokey bars, filled with shadowy film noir characters and midnight dalliances, hazed with romance and just the right amount of danger. It's an ordinary, inexpensive object imbued with nostalgia.

The matchbooks, made simply with card and a rough striking strip, paused my junk store rambling and connected me to a historical moment. But I couldn't ignore the biographical implications of this grouping. It represents someone's time and worldly travels (from New Zealand to Helsinki to Singapore!), as well as their quirky obsession with picking up a matchbook wherever they went. The unknown person invested in the pursuit and placed importance on growing their library of souvenirs, the indicators of the life they lived. As Helen Mcdonald wrote, 'what these small things did was strangely intimate' - I don't know the phillumenist (the word to describe a matchbook collector), but I felt like I had a close encounter with them.

And that's what I love about secondhand shopping. Maybe I am just a romantic nostalgic, but I truly think that if an object can spark the imagination and make us feel connected to others, and something bigger and wider-reaching than the reality of our lives, that object is so valuable regardless of the arbitrary price it has been assigned or the fact that it's found amongst a pile of old, discarded stuff.

There's so much richness on offer if you are willing to look.