Where do all the can openers go?

When I suggested to my friend Don Lindgren, owner of Rabelais: Fine Books on Food and Drink in Biddeford, that we put in a rack of vintage and lightly used kitchenware, I really didn’t think he would go for it. He already has an extensive array of antique kitchenware for display and a copper vessel collection that seems to grow exponentially. His shop is a destination bookshop, being the only foodie themed shop north of New York and squirreled away in the restored Pepperell Mill building, 99% of his customers go there with intent and I shouldn’t expect the same kind of cross inventory turnover I would get in a shop built for purpose. But being one of the exceptional human beings I keep as friends, he thought it was a fine idea. That’s when the panic attack set in.

It took me weeks to wrap my head around the idea of WHAT would I vend and why. If I really wanted to spend my leisure hours buying old stuff, transporting it and vending it in a different location, I can rent a booth at any number of multi-dealer shops Maine. Been there, done that, 30 years ago. A collectibles booth is a cuckoo chick, one has to feed it constantly, it’s basically of a lifestyle. I decided to treat this foray as an art installation….but people can buy things from and if they do that’s a bonus.

Only until very recently have I purchased anything specifically FOR vending. The majority of the items are surplus to requirements in my own kitchen, or ones I just bought to play with. So why not just donate them? For that matter why am I pulling things from thrift shops only to introduce them to each other on a display rack elsewhere? After all, isn’t the thrift shop the natural and appropriate waystation of the ‘thing’cycle I am trying to encourage? If left in the shop someone else would bring them home and give them purpose, it’s not like I am pulling these things from dumpsters and landfills. What’s the point I am trying to make?

I chewed on this for a while, and like Agatha Christie plotting murder, it came clear while I was washing dishes, or as I was polishing up a US made Foley Food Mill. These have been made since the 1930s, and are pretty much indestructible, save for those that die from overwork, where did they all go? Most of the items I am fascinated with were US made inventions and things of classic design. Granted things break, things rust, things just fall apart and are replaced, but WHY so much and so many? Where are the hand me downs? Why aren’t there MORE thrift shops? Why aren’t they full to the brim? How many of these DO go into the trash because folks can’t be bothered rehoming them? or even cleaning them?

For the last 12 months, I have been researching kitchenware restoration, care, and maintenance, a landscape which seems to have no edges. For every oval baker, can opener or pudding mold there seems to be a different puzzle. To me, a thing is not just a thing, the use, design, and manufacture all have a history. Why did the previous owner stop using it? did they replace it? does it still do what it was made to do? was it too hard to clean? What is on the market right now that does the same thing? What it is made of? has that changed? where is it made? How much does it cost? Were there better ones and cheaper ones? Why do the better ones cost more? Why do they stop making the better version? Why do people go out and buy the cheaper version, when a second-hand version of the better one can usually be found? Each object I have handled brings in all those questions. Along with how to keep it clean and functioning.

We have filled the internet with how much we loathe low quality imported manufacturing yet, we continue to consume the items anyway. Shortlived and disposable items are easier to find and certainly cheaper. Finding a NEW long lasting item ALMOST always costs more and takes time to find. Why aren’t we making it easier to rehome the items that have already been manufactured? Is there just not enough commercial interest in doing it? Surely shipping a crappy can opener from the other side of the world makes a larger carbon footprint than buying a used one? In the last five thrift shops I have visited, I didn’t actually SEE that many can openers…so where did they all go? I don’t think I have ever seen broken a can opener. Do we throw them out accidentally? Do they escape down the back of the sofa?

As for the Foolish Kitchen rack of vintage and lightly used kitchenware, it will be a constant work in progress. It may have alleviated the traffic jam under my kitchen table, but it has also given me license to troll thrift and antique shops again. My greatest weakness, with every item trying to tell me their story, somehow it satisfies an ancient hunter-gatherer impulse in my amygdala, and putting my trophies up on a rack is my way of counting coup…..besides it’s just fun. And selling them means I don’t have to give them house room.