I Saw the Figure 5 in Steel


Our Correspondents

On the appeal of junk shops.

number five

This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today: Luc Sante, who is reviving his blog on pictures, Pinakothek. Luc was interviewed in our Spring issue. (He contributed the portfolio, too.) 

Junk shops are disappearing, victims of rent increases and online auctions, as well as human aging. Most of my remaining standbys have gone to glory in the past few years, and even if rents should somehow fall, it’s unlikely that replacements will come along anytime soon. For one thing, an important attribute of a great junk shop is longevity. It should accrue layers, like an archeological site.

A junk shop is not an antique shop, where the focus is on merchandising and the display favors popular and expensive items. A junk shop, by contrast, will often give the impression that commerce is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Some junk shops are a roiling chaos, down to being underlit and perhaps smelly, while others are highly and even compulsively organized—but generally not in a way that makes any sort of mercantile sense. The items in a junk shop may seem like components of a conceptual artwork or a vast personal shrine or an extraterrestrial museum of human culture. 

The contents are, in any case, objects rescued from disaster—from death, almost always, and sometimes from fire and flood. They have been gathered, not curated. They are heaped together like survivors on a raft. Junk shops account for the strays, the odd volumes, the loose parts, the damaged examples, the gizmos of uncertain use, the artifacts of uncertain age, the treasures of uncertain value. If antique shops preserve and sell the winners of past cultural struggles, junk shops harbor the losers. Of course, the apportionment of cultural winners and losers changes regularly—from generation to generation, from decade to decade, even from year to year, depending on the fickle appetite of the time—so that your Swedish modern whatsit may commute back and forth between antique and junk several times within a given span. The past is ever unstable.

I’m temperamentally drawn more to losers than to winners, but that’s not the only reason I value junk shops. As a kind of purgatory of human achievement, junk shops are best positioned to give glimpses into the unglamorous daily life of the past—its dime-store cutlery, its unwieldy grooming aids, its defunct board games. After you’ve seen a few hundred examples of a particular object you will achieve the unshakeable certainty that, say, the humans of a certain era were enthusiastically given to collecting, mounting, and framing agglomerations of cigar bands, and that this collection is much better than that one. Junk shops are uniquely disposed to teach the attentive visitor about the history of sadness, of futility, of vainglory, of the ad hoc and the pro tem.

I hardly ever buy anything. I say this with a twinge of guilt since it means that I have contributed to the disappearance of junk shops—but I don’t collect anything anymore, and thanks to a lifetime of flea markets and yard sales and paper dumps I already have a houseful of crap. Secretly, though, I frequent junk shops because I am wishing for some kind of transcendence. I am always hoping to come upon the item that abolishes time, that rises like a phoenix from the squalor of its historical circumstances and mysteriously joins the unfolding now.

That doesn’t happen very often, but the thin chance that it might makes for a powerful and ongoing lure. Just recently, for example, I walked into a proper junk shop in Melbourne, Australia, and among the tens of thousands of items from sideboards to lapel pins crowded into rooms upon rooms and shelves and racks and display cases, my eye homed in on one single object. I saw the figure 5 in steel. It measures roughly seven by ten inches, bears a slightly less transcendent 6 on its reverse side, has a hole at top center that suggests it was once part of a set of metal numbers that were flipped up and down on a rack. Maybe it came from a locomotive. I purchased it, and for the next few days felt vaguely stupid for having done so. It didn’t cost much, I equivocated, and five has always sort of been my lucky number (I was born on the twenty-fifth day of the fifth month), and anyway it doesn’t take up much space. But then, when I finally got home, I saw it: its proportions, its scars, its patina. It has a long memory, and it speaks.

Luc Sante’s most recent book is The Other ParisHe is one of the Daily’s correspondents.