Part II/ Recycle to Reconnect: When material objects bring people together

“Le Bon Coin,” the French equivalent of Craigslist, became my best asset in my quest for the perfect second-hand furniture. As I set out shopping all over Paris, going from one seller to another, I discovered a couple more major benefits to buying second-hand: we contribute, at an individual level, to breaking out of the vicious cycle of overconsumption, thereby generating a virtuous cycle of recycling, and we connect with total strangers at a deep, intimate level.

This last point was quite a surprise for me. I wasn’t expecting that what I thought would merely be a quick business transaction could turn out to be an intense plunge into somebody else’s universe. With some sellers, the entire “meeting” would not take more than a few minutes: they’d open the door, hand me the object, take the money and close the door. And I would suddenly find myself at the doorstep of a total stranger’s home, in an unfamiliar building on an unknown street somewhere in Paris, about to leave with a piece of someone else’s life in my hands. An object that just a few days, if not minutes, before had been touched and used and had been playing its part in a web of relationships. For the “customer,” how is this experience different from the more classic one of shopping in a store? Consumer behavior experts would be best able to answer.

What I can say based on my experiences is that when I purchase something in a store, I feel I am the rightful owner of the object as soon as I walk out of the place. When buying second-hand, however, I feel like it takes some time to make the object my own, as it carries with it a portion of its past life. Indeed, when I would go pick up my item, most sellers would take some time to chat a little bit: a few were curious to know what my occupation was, but all of them, almost invariably, told me about the object they were about to part ways with as if they needed me to know its history. In a sense, they were unconsciously handing down a legacy of meaning and, in doing so, accelerating the ownership process. I remember this likable thirty-something young man who worked in an NGO. It seemed important to him to tell me how much the bamboo table I was about to load into my car had originally cost, to recount the countless dinners he and his girlfriend had hosted for their friends around this table and the products she had used to take care of it. There was that lady who told me that she had bought the wardrobe she was selling when she and her husband were still students and that it had been exclusively used to store her police uniforms. Neither of these people would have sold these objects if they had not been moving out of their apartments. And neither of them seemed to care as much about receiving money as they did about knowing I’d understand the role the object played in their lives. The most memorable encounter I had was with a judge at the Cour des comptes (Government Accountability Office), but that is a story for another time..

Everyone needs a story, right? Aren’t we always asking each other, “What’s your story?” Those who don’t have one are tagged “bastards”: no story, no identity—they don’t exist. Objects have stories as well. By telling me these stories, the sellers were enabling me to value what used to be theirs, but beyond this, they were sharing a part of themselves.

In our concrete jungle, where the pursuit of individual dreams sets the pace for our collective frenzy, the humble object is thus turned into a means of establishing a real, down-to-earth, human-to-human connection.

 

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