White Elephants On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding Out What Was Missing By Katie Haegele Microcosm Publishing. 128 pp. $7.95 paperback
Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
Reading this quirky, revealing, and most definitely unique chronicle of one woman's passion for a national American pastime is rather like listening to the engaging tales of a stranger over a few beers in a local pub.
It is no insult to say that Philadelphia-area native (and Inquirer reviewer) Katie Haegele is a veritable Scheherazade of the rummage-sale circuit.
Her distinctive, seemingly artless, and nakedly honest voice draws readers into her memoir — so what if they find themselves adrift in a sea of other people's discarded junk?
White Elephants, a conversational account of four seasons of yard-sale adventures and "off seasons' in the company of her mother, is consistently enjoyable, even when the writer threads her chronicles with gentle melancholy.
"These things vibrate with the lives they've been a part of, and I fill my home with them because I like the company," she writes.
Haegele's finds include record albums, jewelry, clutch purses, a blue Pan Am flight bag, a 1959 book titled Music for Young Americans — and the office chair, which apparently now sits in her basement storage unit, that she trash-picked one night after a few glasses of wine.
"At this point most of the stuff I own used to belong to someone else," she writes. "I've bought hand towels with owls on them, a wicker basket shaped like a chicken, and a yellow wire sculpture of a chicken with its middle hollowed out like a basket, which must have had some intended use but I don't know what it is."
As the mother-daughter duo drive, walk, meander, and occasionally veer off the beaten track in search of the wonderfully secondhand, the author's detailed account reveals the complexity of a friendship based on much more than shared genes.
If you've ever wondered where your neighbor got that set of tea cozies, this may be the book for you.
But the volume is also a meditation on more universal themes — grief, family relationships, love, and memory.
Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), it is her father, who died when Haegele was 21, who emerges as a more strongly defined character than her engaging sidekick of a mother.
In ways both explicit and not, the book evokes the solidity of the objects that Haegele and her mother (and sometimes her sister) discover, implicitly contrasting them with her longing for the adult relationship she and her father never got to have.
Her father, she writes, was a "sentimental" man who was an artist "not in his work but with his life." Though given the rather idiosyncratic names of Monroe Jay, he still managed to "own " it.
"But even though I find neat conclusions annoying, I guess that if I were being honest I'd admit that what I do, I do in part because it keeps me close to him. … if he were still here, even if we never did get around to talking about it, I know he'd like the odd, sad, funny person I've become."
But it is the estate, yard, book, and church sales, this "rummaging pastime" that frames the book, one that may make many readers nostalgic for neighborhoods they left long ago, or for parents gone for decades.
The fact that the book was published by Microcosm Publishing is worthy of note, indicating as it does an industry in the throes of unpredictable flux. Committed to making zines (small-scale, often specialist-themed magazines) more available to the public, Microcosm itself may represent the future of print publishing — or an industry on its near-to-last legs.
Yet one doesn't have to be a zine enthusiast to appreciate this book.
The writer's deeply personal and strikingly vernacular prose style suits her topic: There is seemingly very little space between the narrator and her work.
Sometimes her candor is a bit startling, as in this passage, where she discusses her relationship with her sister Liz: "When dad died she was living close to home at college, and even though I'm the older one I moved back home and she didn't, and she's always kind of kept her distance. I'm friends with Liz too, but Mom and I have our own thing going on."
One can read as much — or as little — into that observation as one pleases.
A caution: This book may not be for the neat and tidy. It is cluttered with observations — some of them general, some extremely specific, and others seemingly random.
It's also not for those who enjoy definitive endings (though it does conclude on a rather happy note).
Those who frequent yard sales may be in quest of many things, or perhaps of less substantial rewards. For Haegele, the joy of rummaging seems to lie as much in the seeking as in the finding — and the seeking, in her case, seems by no means done.
But even those who consider rummage sales a blight upon the landscape and bargain-hunting a tedious exercise in futility might find themselves gently seduced by her eccentric tales of personal treasure.
Besides, who can resist a sale?