The future just might be in junk

We spend a lot of time in our area towns trying to “put on airs” as my grandmother used to term it. Pretending we’re like all the rich semi-retirees of million-dollar Okoboji lakefront mansions or gated West Des Moines ‘burbs, all Ph.D.’d, pearled and smoking-jacketed, filet-mignoned, townhoused and cultured up to our earlobes.

We’re mostly not, and maybe it’s time to face reality. By and large, we’re blue-collar towns, hard-working, scraping-by places made up of people from all over the world looking for a chance, working extra hours to try to get ahead a little or perhaps put our kids through college.

Even most of the folks here who are well off don’t especially act like it. Soft old T-shirts and jeans are the uniform of choice when we have the choice, regardless of socioeconomic rank.

Most of us aren’t spending weekends sipping champagne in the whirlpool spa tub at a resort. Most of us aren’t wearing suits unless we know somebody who’s being buried. Most of us aren’t spending a lot of time balancing our portfolios or attending to the latest Mediterranean design craze of the moment.

We were recycling and repurposing here before those words became stylish. For some of us, because we had to, and for the rest of us, because it’s fun.

The most upscale home design store in my town is recycled out of an old shop/storage shed. I’ve seen its proprietor, perhaps the most famous decor designer in western Iowa, make a fabulous television console out of a broken, raggedy piece of kitchen countertop rock and a couple of outdoor flower pots turned upside down.

My friends on Facebook don’t post pictures of fancy stuff ordered from the coast – who would care about that? They post pictures of ratty old furniture they found for nothing and their kids have helped strip, sand and refurnish into something better than new.

Go to the car shows they have here every year. People mostly ignore the expensive new sports car section. What people are crowding around are the old Camaros and Mustangs and ’70s pickups that somebody’s rescued from the boneyard or as a pile of rust and dust in and old shed, and lovingly restored.

A lot of good entrepreneurs around here get it. Even the apple orchard sells primitives, crafts and found goods.

Those TV shows about the cribs of the rich and the famous? Pft. Nobody cares. But you know what doesn’t get canceled? – “American Pickers,” “Pawn Stars,” “Antiques Road Show,” “Storage Wars” and the like. Because people really like crap, garbage, rust – that one man’s trash that turns out to be another’s treasure.

Before snow’s even out of the forecast, I bet The Messenger is starting to get garage sale ads.

Yard sales and auctions around here are an economic engine that would make Wall Street blush. You sell your junk, take the nmoney and go to other peoples’ sales and buy their junk, which you will probably sell again at your garage sale the next summer, and thus the circle of life turns.

It’s not so much the money that drives this system, as it is the whole idea of rescuing something, of getting the great deal, the joy of bartering, the appeal of comforting memories of a simpler time, and the pursuit of the fix-it-up project that may or may not ever get done.

We’re junky. I say let’s not just face it, let’s embrace it.

The town that becomes the junk capital of the free world will prosper. I honestly think that junk, if done right, could attract more tourism than swanky resorts or a theme park.

Here’s how it can be done:

1. Build up the town’s junk quotient. Have a day once a month when everybody is invited to put whatever they don’t want out on the curb for others to come by and pick up. Just because you don’t want it, doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t. Clear out the basement for free, and get the satisfaction that someone is getting some good out of it. Will it look a little Jed Clampett-ish? Yep. Who cares? Wouldn’t it be fun to have a treasure hunt every month?

2. Get the college in on it, too. Each year when students move out, lots of furniture, carpets and such go into those huge dumpsters they haul in. Put the stuff out on the campus grass instead, and let people in need make something of it if they can.

3. Turn unused space into a massive flea market that will bring people to town. A vacant building, perhaps. There are times of year that the Fort Museum or Iowa Central Community College gym may not be in use. Or even the sidewalks downtown. And good local causes could make some bucks peddling old books, furniture, collectibles. Make a big deal out of it.

4. Let nothing go to waste. I learned recently of a recycling center like many of our area cities have, where people can not only bring in their recyclable items for free, they can pick out up to 10 items from shelves of reuseable items the public is allowed to shop, picked out of the scrap sorting line.

People throw away a lot of things others might want – full cans of paint and bottles of cleaning products, old tools, toys, kitchen gear, tires. Why let anything go into a landfill if someone can use it?

5. Promote and encourage all of our stores that deal in cool junk. We have several funky antique shops, stores that re-sell donated things for bargain prices to help charity, consignments stores, local artist and crafter studios, unique shops that do or could sell crafts, local art, primitives, vintage fashions, etc. as a sideline.

Help them! Make an antique crawl. Advertise them together as a community. Come to Fort Dodge and take part in a whole day of treasure hunting. Seminars on sports cards, coins, furniture refinishing with out own experts.

6. Set aside a lot where people could sell or trade vintage cars, motorcycles, bikes, parts and motor memorabilia one weekend a month. Instant attraction, zero cost.

We could spend a fortune trying to promote places like Fort Dodge as being chic and urban and sophisticated and ritzy, and probably they still wouldn’t be.

Let’s be what we are – creative and resourceful and thrifty; artistic, sharing and respectful of history.

Waste not, want not.

Our future might just be, in part, in our old trash. Let’s get junky.

Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.