Before the Halloween wrappers have even hit the ground, advertisements bombard us with what we should want to see under our Christmas trees. This year, will it be an iPhone X? Or how about a $50,000 Dolce & Gabbana refrigerator from the 2017 Nieman Marcus Christmas Book?
Those of us of more humble means know that secondhand merch can be just as delightful, surprising and useful as the latest gadget from the Amazon or the Apple store. It can be more fun to shop for such gifts – like a treasure hunt – and it requires more creativity and imagining than simply pulling out your wallet. It will help you stay within your budget. And, of course, secondhand gifts help, in some small way, to preserve the Earth’s resources.
This Christmas, we asked a few Mainers to talk about their favorite “recycled” gift, and we told some of our own stories, too.
Kate Dempsey, state director, The Nature Conservancy of Maine
Dempsey’s family is focused on charitable giving for Christmas. “We have said, ‘Nobody needs anything more. We are all grown.’ So what we have done and have fun doing is choosing a charity for each person to donate in their name.” That might mean the Tedford Family Shelter in Brunswick or the Coastal Humane Society, or even a membership to the Nature Conservancy.
But Dempsey’s mother has a gift-giving habit that Dempsey particularly cherishes. “My mom is the master of consignment shops.” Every year, Dempsey can count on her mother to visit one of the consignment shops in Philadelphia, where she lives, to pick out clothing items or something for the home. “She takes great joy in the hunt.” What does it yield? Great dresses and skirts of all different styles (“lightly worn but that make me look like a grown-up professional”). Her mother also has an eye for beautiful bowls. “She knows the colors in my house and she is always finding funky midcentury modern or something older and really unusual.” Like mother, like daughter. And like granddaughters: “My daughters and I love going to the flea market here in Fort Andross” (in Brunswick).
There was a point in Dempsey’s life where she did crave brand new, unused clothes and objects, but that phase has passed. “Now I love it when someone has actually gone out and thought about it and found the right thing.” It’s that much more special, Dempsey says, when the gift “has a story behind it.”
— Mary Pols
Erin Kiley, co-owner, Portland Flea-for-All
If you are lucky enough to be in Erin Kiley and Nathaniel Baldwin’s inner circle, you have a better than excellent chance of getting a recycled gift. The owners of Portland Flea-for-All particularly like to give pairings that “span the handmade and vintage spectra.” That could mean an old Dansk ice bucket from the Congress Street indoor flea market, with a bottle of wine for chilling. Or vintage glassware accompanied by a bottle of good rye or a mason jar filled with handmade granola. “It depends on what the mood is,” Kiley says.
But one tried and true gift that stands out? “I love giving antique cutting boards with a homemade loaf of bread (Baldwin is a baker) that I’ve tied up in an antique tea towel,” Kiley says.
Pro-tip for people who love to shop vintage but tend not to think of used items for children: Find a nice old jewelry box and then load it up with $1 pieces of costume jewelery. “They play dress up for days and days.”
For Kiley, shopping amongst recycled goods is both professional and personal. “The joy of our business is that everything is one of a kind,” she says. “I always like to get gifts that I know I can’t buy for myself.” If she wants a new sweater, she’ll go get it herself at, say, J. Crew. “A gift should evoke the sentiment behind the connection you have with the person.”
— Mary Pols
Lisa Pohlmann, executive director, Natural Resources Council of Maine
Another kind of recycled gift is the family heirloom in need of a home. “There is a certain age bracket where you are faced with dismantling your parents’ home,” says Pohlmann. “I can’t tell you now many people I know who say, ‘I’ve got my grandmother’s dishes. We used to have Thanksgiving dinner on them and yet nobody wants them.’ ” It’s bittersweet, Pohlmann says. We might not have room for them, “since most people have a ridiculous amount of things anyway,” but we still want someone to value these family heirlooms. “It is really difficult to just put them all in a box and just take them to Goodwill.”
When Pohlmann moved her aging mother from Iowa to Maine, she and her brother had a whole house to dismantle in a weekend. A few of the objects made their way into the hands of distant relatives and friends who Pohlmann felt sure would appreciate them. That included a large painting from over her mother’s fireplace to the daughter of a first cousin. Later, after her mother died, Pohlmann came across her porcelain “August angel.” (Vintage angels meant to represent each month of birthdays, like a birthstone.) Pohlmann had her own, “July angel” so she decided to give the August-themed figurine to a dear friend who had an August birthday, like Pohlmann’s mother.
“She knew my mother, because we go way, way back, so I knew it would have significance for her,” Pohlmann says.
Making gifts of these inherited items feels like an homage to a family once fully intact.
“Each time I have found a good home for a particular item, it has just felt really good.” And sustainable.
— Mary Pols
Tim Swan, digital media specialist, Maine Coast Heritage Trust
When Swan was 15, his father gave him a Pentax Spotmatic camera. “Used, somewhat worse-for-wear” and purchased through the Connecticut version of Uncle Henry’s for what Swan guesses was a fairly small amount. Nonetheless, he says, “it felt unbelievably generous.” His father wasn’t in the habit of giving lavish gifts. Swan at the time was bound for an art-oriented high school to study photography. He’d been using one of his father’s old rangefinder cameras and had fallen in love with the medium, but this was the first camera that was Swan’s alone.
It was used, but durable, had good lenses and was, it turned out, exactly the kind of equipment in use at art schools. It was also a game changer.
“It changed the way I look at the world,” Swan remembers. “I feel like I see things differently. I trained myself to see things differently than I did without a camera.”
He’s never been exactly a professional photographer, but photography has always been part of the work he’s done, overseeing creative production at design and branding companies and now at Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Swan no longer has the camera – it was stolen from his apartment in Boston years ago, before he moved to Maine. He could pick up a replacement used Pentax Spotmatic on eBay or Etsy. “There are a ton of them,” he says. “So few people are shooting film now that you can get them easily.” But that one, the one from the year he was 15? It bore the memory of a customarily taciturn father not just observing his child’s interest in photography, but endorsing it. It was special.
— Mary Pols
Anne Roosevelt, president and CEO, Goodwill Northern New England
Anne Roosevelt learned how to cook from her maternal grandmother, Agnes Schneider.
Sometime around 1970, when “Granny” decided it was time to retire her apron and mixing bowls, she invited Roosevelt and all her cousins over to go through her things, much of it 1940s-era cookware, and choose items to take home to their own kitchens. Roosevelt’s cousins weren’t interested, so Anne Roosevelt got her pick. She scored a Magnalite roaster, original Fiesta Ware, and an enamelware double boiler she now uses to make kedgeree, a family breakfast favorite.
Many of the items Roosevelt salvaged from her grandmother’s kitchen have since been passed on to her own two daughters. But there’s one thing she will not part with: Granny’s rolling pin. Roosevelt used it on Thanksgiving this year to make two pumpkin pies, an apple pie and a pecan pie.
“The handles were painted green at some point and there are just little flecks left,” Roosevelt said. “It rolls really smoothly, and it just has good vibes in it.”
Roosevelt said she likes older kitchen ware because it’s been made with “a thoughtful design” and has been useful for a long time, which gives her a sense of satisfaction.
“It makes me feel good when I use something that somebody has appreciated and loved and therefore taken good care of it,” she said. “It feels like a privilege to be continuing that good care of something that is useful.”
– Meredith Goad
Bob Crowley, winner of “Survivor: Gabon”
Bob Crowley’s favorite recycled gift made him a millionaire.
Crowley is the oldest winner of “Survivor” in 34 seasons of the CBS reality TV show (he was 57 when he took home the prize), and the only winner ever from Maine. He says he never would have made it onto the show without the “gift” the town of Cape Elizabeth bestowed upon him in the 1970s.
Crowley was doing a browntail moth survey at Fort Williams Park when he ran into a friend in the line of buildings known as Officers’ Row, pulling boards out of an attic. His friend told him the town had given him a permit to take what he wanted because the buildings were going to be burned down and the brick recycled. The two men agreed to take on the project together, and split everything 50-50 – slate, boards, beams, doors and flooring.
Crowley used his share of the materials to build an energy-efficient summer house on Stave Island in Casco Bay. Fast forward to the early 2000s. A man came to a goat roast that Crowley’s son hosted at the island house. The man heard the story of the house, and got to know Crowley a little, too – that he was a physics teacher who fancied himself part Indiana Jones, part Robinson Crusoe; that his island house was not the only structure he’s fashioned from recycled materials: Crowley has also built wharves, saunas, a chicken coop and a hunting cabin.
The goat roast visitor ended up getting a job working for “Survivor.” Ahead of the 2008 season, he threw Crowley’s name into the casting ring. “They had the whole cast of cute young girls, the buff guys, these women with the augmented breasts,” Crowley said. “They were just missing the skinny old man.”
At first, Crowley rebuffed the producers. “I find the show very interesting, but I don’t like people not working together,” he said. “I don’t like the backstabbing and that sort of thing.
“But it was such an opportunity, I could not pass it up.”
Good thing he didn’t. After outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the other players, Crowley took home the $1 million prize, plus another $100,000 given to America’s favorite cast member.
“The spinoff from being on the show is I’ve met so many wonderful people at fundraisers and (people who became) good friends,” he said.
And it all started with the gift of recycled building materials.
– Meredith Goad
Kimberly Curry, director of community relations, Goodwill Northern New England
Kimberly Curry of Portland was visiting a good friend in Denver before the holidays last year when the two avid thrift-store shoppers hatched a plan: They’d buy all their Christmas presents from thrift stores. They’d call it “Thriftmas.”
While still in Denver, Curry fell and blew out her knee. When she returned home, she had to have surgery.
Soon, Curry found a package at her door. Inside were Thriftmas gifts with a “healing theme” from her Denver friend – items Curry could enjoy during her recovery. There was a brightly-colored polyester quilt, “so bright and pretty,” that she could snuggle under while she read a book that also came in the box: “A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson, a novel about the power of choice. Finally, the box contained a yellow vintage dress.
Curry has some advice for folks who want to Christmas shop at the thrift store. Give the gift hunting a theme, she suggests. Curry and her Denver friend once held a “squirrel contest,” scouring thrift stores to find objects that look like squirrels. They discovered squirrel salt and pepper shakers, a squirrel Christmas ornament, and all kinds of other items that were “quirky and strange.”
Also, she suggests not growing too attached to any gifts you receive. The vintage yellow dress in her healing box, for example, didn’t fit, so she passed it along to someone else. She held onto the book for a while, then gave it to another friend. (She still has the quilt.)
Curry and her friend are celebrating Thriftmas again this year, though it could be argued that Curry has an unfair advantage since she works for Goodwill Northern New England.
“I love something that’s got someone else’s fingerprint on it,” she said.
– Meredith Goad
Meredith Goad, reporter, Portland Press Herald
My paternal grandparents weren’t big on giving gifts. They lived on a farm and didn’t have much money, so my brother, sister and I were always surprised and delighted when they’d occasionally slip us a 50-cent piece. The large coins felt strange in our little hands, and we hung onto them as if they were solid silver. We carried them around in our pockets, until eventually they went into our piggy banks with a satisfying clink.
But the best gift I got came when my grandmother found out I was moving to Maine. The last time I saw her before the move – almost 30 years ago – she handed me a large, thick, handmade patchwork quilt. “It’s cold up there,” she said. She was used to being serenaded by cicadas during hot, humid Tennessee summers; I doubt she’d ever seen a blizzard.
This was not the first quilt she’d given me. She made each of her five grandchildren a lovely wedding ring quilt, each one a different color. Mine was lavender. I displayed it on a bed once in a while, but ultimately I packed it away for safekeeping. Sometimes, it seems a shame, but my grandmother died in 2005 at age 103, so there are no more quilts to be made by her hand. I want to be able to pass mine along to another family member.
But this quilt I can actually use. It’s not as thin and soft as the wedding ring quilt. It’s a true patchwork of recycled pieces of fabric that are god knows how old, cut from the dresses that country women wear. Warmth, not beauty, was her objective.
This quilt has kept me warm as toast in my bed through nor’easters and ice storms, but these days I keep it on my sofa and snuggle under it whenever I watch television or read a book. It’s beginning to show its age – the edges are starting to fray – but I will use it until it falls apart. And every time I do, I think of my grandmother.
Tom Atwell, Maine Gardener columnist, Portland Press Herald
The favorite recycled gift that my wife Nancy and I have received might have been recycled more than once.
Shortly after we moved into our home in 1975, Nancy’s grandmother, who lived on a farm, gave us a concrete birdbath. Nancy remembers seeing it upside down in the section of the farm’s barn called the tie-up, but she doesn’t recall ever seeing it set up outside by her grandmother’s house.
We are pretty sure Nancy’s grandmother couldn’t have given this birdbath to anyone else. It is too heavy to lift into a pickup without heavy equipment. Our house is about 100 yards from the barn, slightly downhill, and we simply rolled it to the spot where it stands today. Still, it took two men and a small boy to roll it.
This birdbath leaked from the start. With treatments of concrete patch and Thompson’s Water Seal, it now holds water for about three days after a rainstorm, and I occasionally fill it with water from the rain barrel as I water the plants.
We keep a rock in the middle of it so the birds – chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, warblers and robins are the ones I recognize but there are others – don’t have to get their feet wet when drinking, and I have seen chipmunks and squirrels enjoying a drink, too.
Mostly, though, we like the way it looks in a quiet area of our property, and it reminds us of the heritage that goes along with our piece of family land.
Mary Pols, reporter, Portland Press Herald
I’m notorious for my flea market holiday shopping habit and lucky to have a big enough (and weird enough) family to justify it. But one person in my life would say he suffers for it. At Cabot Mill Antiques & Collectibles in Brunswick, there is a wingback chair that my son has spent many, many hours in over the course of his 13 years, waiting for me to finish looking at and touching everything in the place. Usually he suffered with an iPhone in his hand, but he’d still ask you to cry him a river for his agony.
My desire for recycled predates writing for Source and comes directly from my parents, who moved to Maine in 1949 and decorated almost their entire home from auctions, many of which I attended with them, watching them bid on tables, bureaus and desks, with $50 about the max. It was both practical and a passion, and it was contagious. I still have a tiny celluloid white elephant my mother bought for me as a child at F. O. Bailey in Portland, and when I look at it, I can feel my small self staring into that glass case on Middle Street, and remember how special she made me feel by acknowledging the worth of – and meeting – that day’s longing.
Despite that precedent, I haven’t expected my son to follow in my treasure-seeking footsteps. He enjoys swinging the vintage baseball bats and looking for old cards, but mostly the wing chair calls him. In recent years though, my sister began bringing him to the mill to shop for my Christmas present. My favorite of all is a tea set (pot, creamer, sugar bowl) in the brightest of aqua blues, tipped with gold paint. It’s all curves and grace. Until now, I hadn’t even looked up its provenance (Pearl China Company, a 1940s pattern called “Atomic Age”) because none of those details mattered except this one: My son knows me.
– Mary Pols
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