The way we dress ourselves and our houses says as much about contemporary society as it does about us. In Second-Hand Cultures , Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe explore the world of the "vintage", the "previously owned" and the "gently used" in an innovative and richly detailed exploration of contemporary material culture.
Located within the anthropological study of consumption, the life histories of secondhand objects reveal how unconventional retail worlds operate through gifting, collecting, personalisation and exchange.
We all have stories of treasures discovered surrounded by dross in flea markets and car-boot sales. While writing this review, I came across a rare piece of first world war jewellery made out of recycled Zeppelin aluminium by an Arab craftsman near Basra in southern Iraq. The seller had no idea what it was and, for £4, I acquired a bargain with a contemporary historical edge.
This is the heart of the issue. For most of us, most of the time, secondhand shops, jumble sales and car-boot sales are full of junk.
Fortunately, the authors view these locations as creative spaces where ideas of possession, fashion and identity are brought into being through recycling activities. This is a study about the birth of value - and how value emerges from interactions between buyers, sellers and their chosen locations.
Car-boot sales exemplify this forensic approach. Unlike mainstream retail outlets, prices are indicative not fixed, and haggling is not only expected but intrinsic to the process of buying and selling. Here sellers may also buy, and exchange can replace cash as new trajectories of desire are generated. Car-boot sales engage individuals in face-to-face encounters.
There is a sense of achievement, of selecting items to join the home and perhaps add lustre to the public persona of the purchaser.
Insights come thick and fast in this intriguing book, which combines density of research with provocative questions. There is clearly a relationship between personal motivation and choice of outlet. Whether jumble sale, charity shop, retro shop, flea market or house clearance, each interacts with an individual's self-image and economic status, and commercial worth, and historical value, of the item(s).
The authors challenge us to ask how objects move from one category of value to another. Is it simply a matter of changing fashions and passage of time, or a more subtle acknowledgement of endless renegotiations between notions of trash and heirloom, kitsch and antique, viewed through the lens of a materiality-saturated modernity?
Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London.
Author - Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 256
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 85973 672 6 and 677 7