Pink and yellow flowers covered the ovular bead that hung on a dainty gold chain swinging in the window of BRECA, a vintage shop in Pristina, Kosovo. The necklace attracted me from the street on a day I’d set out exploring the city which would become my temporary home during a summer project. I rushed into the store to purchase the piece, and once inside, found myself circling the aisles uncovering more jewelry, headwear and fabrics like none I’d encountered before. I purchased the necklace and perused every other item in the store, feeling that I had stumbled on a treasure trove of untold stories in the secondhand items.
When I feel uncertain about a new place I’ve moved to, I first head to vintage shops: They feel like places protected from the threats of consumerism and corporate harm. The items on the shelves bring with them lives, histories and stories about which we can only speculate. To what event was the silken scarf last worn? Did someone hike a mountain or ford a river in those shoes? Was that ring gifted as a sign of affection to an antique love? Shopping at vintage stores makes me feel closer to the places I’ve moved because the items I purchase are spared the sterility of newness. It’s easier to start my own story in such a place because every find reminds me that the story does not begin with me.
The stories uncovered in vintage stores are not the same histories popularized in textbooks, with dated details of long-gone battles or forged legal codes. Instead, antique collections reveal the personal, accidental and private: Postcards between long-distance lovers, clothes faded from years of wear and diaries with sprawling drawings in the margins all fuse to tell the human stories of a particular place. Shopping at vintage stores shows me a place’s history better than anywhere else.
Vintage store finds harbor more than their own stories, too. I grew up performing in the theatre, where clothing from vintage shops was a necessity for stocking the dressing room shelves. Historical time periods came to life authentically in the costumes we cobbled together with found textures and already-worn garments of vintage stores. The costumes used in one play were saved in warehouses for the next and always worn by someone else, who would enact an entirely different storyline — before myself or another became the bearer of it. The same piece of clothing served countless fictional lives during its tenure in the theatre and likely many more in reality, too.
Clothes and thrifted objects seem embedded with stories, both real and fake, and when we donate old clothes, their meaning multiplies with new ownership. Thrifted objects are a way we share stories — they are a physical object in which our lives intersect.
Growing up, I loved the story of the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” which imagined a pair of faded jeans that magically fit each of the four main characters who tried them on, carrying with them the lives of each other. Each friend wears the jeans and then writes about the experience to the others to tell them what type of lives the pants themselves have lived. There are stories embedded in the jeans, and as the girls go on experimenting in their lives, the pants collect and carry that storied trajectory. Collective ownership is more meaningful than single-wear, single-use purchases. The meaning objects hold multiplies when it is shared across lives and experiences.
I recently found a heavily annotated copy of W. H. Auden's collection of poetry at my favorite vintage bookstore in Ann Arbor, Dawn Treader. I picked up the copy to find notes scrawled in smudged blue ink from cover to cover. The prose in the corners, handwritten by its previous owner, was just as resonant as the poems they encompassed. By the end of the book, I not only knew the chronological publishing of Auden’s work, but the nuances of a personal story of grief and heartache that a previous reader recounted on their journey through the poetry. In reading from an already-treasured copy of the book, it became clear to me how often we write our stories in the margins, and between the lines, of others.
Beyond our personal histories, thrifted objects can tell us the pasts of places and systems bigger than ourselves, too. It is not hard to imagine the many antique tourist items scattered across vintage shops that serve now as relics of places which are no longer: a replica of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in its fullest form preceding the fire that destroyed its likeness last year, or postcards presenting images of natural lands across South America now lost to endless deforestation across the continent.
In this way, vintage shops may also be places of despair, reminding us of lives that were, places that used to be and times in both personal and political histories which are long gone. When living in Kosovo, I wondered if I would ever stumble upon a sweatshirt emblazoned with “YUGOSLAVIA,” naming an empire that dissolved decades ago in war, maybe featuring embroidered skylines now lost. Kitchy reminders of a country that went on to carry a dark history, serve, too, as important pillars of remembrance. Before secondhand items can serve as generators of new stories, they first are collections of the old.
Vintage shops, then, can help us understand our place in this complex and historical world, in places under constant change. The personal and political present themselves to us in relics. As any historian knows, what will be always starts with what is and what has been.