Jan 092012
Guerneville Junk Store

Guerneville junk store. Image courtesy of Ellen Hobbs

On a recent road trip to Northern California, I made a point of revisiting the Guerneville junk store. Tucked in the western edge of the Safeway parking lot in downtown Guerneville, the junk store, like many other junk stores, casts a strange magic on me whenever I visit it, which is on every trip down there. A junk store is like a lure: it pulls you inside but it hurts as well.

As always, I forgot to check the name on the storefront. Thinking back, there may not even be an actual storefront, just an opening in a fence and an entryway jammed with, you guessed it, junk. I’ve asked a few locals from my in-law contingent; “Guerneville junk store” is all I’ve heard. The owner standing by as you enter will distract you as well. A wiry, tanned man in large glasses, he grumbles a greeting* and lets you mind your business.

Once you get past him, the name doesn’t matter anyway. Cramped aisle after cramped aisle, the Guerneville junk store sits beneath an open-sided structure topped with a corrugated metal roof. This is a junk store with weather inside: in the summer, the space is stuffed and musty; in the winter, lifeless and dark.

Rather than shopping, I go to junk stores for the cultural insight, to sate my curiosity. Their very concept fascinates me: the resale of a huge assortment of products at the very end of, if not even beyond, their life cycle. Junk stores put a price on things their last owners discarded as worthless.

In junk stores, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. What someone discarded, someone else may be able to use. I tend to consider the value and use of things for what they are; what you need for junk store success is instrumental imagination. You have to see things as ingredients of something else, an art piece, perhaps, or a DIY project.

You also need time. In the Guerneville junk store, pictures, books, video tapes, bottles, toys, household supplies, and many other product categories coexist in an orderless jumble. There is no organization beyond a few groupings, like tables with bottles, shelves with books, or boxes with stuff that stores best in boxes. Forget about looking for something specific. Browse for discovery.

Though all the stuff is there for the taking (and paying for, but don’t expect price tags), you get a sense that if you pick something up, the entire place will come crashing down. Even with thousands of objects asking to be rescued, you just don’t want to take your chances picking the wrong one.**

Junk stores reflect an element of American society’s commercial nature. To extract value from where it no longer exists is very entrepreneurial and pushes capitalism to its edge (all that can be sold shall be sold). Junk stores are tricky particularly from the standpoint of sustainability: they put the reuse principle to the test, and they intensify the sense the world needs less stuff to begin with. Indeed, being in a junk store can be both a sad and hopeful experience.

If you want to know America, junk stores also offer an experience that you cannot miss.

What’s your take on junk stores? Do you avoid or frequent them? Why?


* I’m guessing his mood may, in part, have to do with the store’s location. In addition to being scenic, west Sonoma County is a strange place. Safeway is the only major grocery store within a 20 minute drive. You can meet both locals and visitors just by hanging out in the parking lot. My personal favorite extreme: a couple of years ago, a man in a wheelchair hung out in the far corner, babbling while wearing only a white blanket fashioned into a giant diaper. For a few days, the corner became impassable on account of the odor.

** My sister-in-law, who grew up in the Guerneville area and who, too, visited the junk store over her holiday vacation, said that everything in the store looked exactly the way it had during her previous visit. She said, “I saw the same stuff as before.”

Image credit: evh711

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