Friday, October 19, 2012

Swap shed success

The swap shed at the Carlisle Transfer Station is like its own little box of legends. People who take its "drop-something-off, pick-something-up" credo to heart make claims of astounding finds: showroom-quality furniture, electronics in their original packaging, children’s toys that appear to have never seen the imprint of a child’s finger.

Maybe, but sometimes I think the legends exceed the reality. When I stop in the swap shed to drop off outgrown toys, what I usually see are tattered computer manuals, mismatched Tupperware, and the occasional action figure with a couple of limbs missing.

It’s a nice idea that you can drop things off and someone else might want them. And it’s fun for small children to browse among the discarded toys. But in reality, it’s something of an open secret these days that many of the people sorting through the items on the swap shed shelves are more likely to resell their finds on eBay than to display them on a shelf in their china hutch.

Yesterday, though, I made one of my rare stops at the swap shed as I unloaded trash and recycling at the other stations in the dump. We had recently bought a new vacuum cleaner, and I had been doing battle with my conscience about what to do with the old one. The swap shed isn’t supposed to be a repository for broken stuff that no one could possibly find a use for; that’s what the trash bins are for. But the vacuum cleaner wasn’t broken; it just wasn’t the greatest vacuum cleaner. It might work fine, I tried to convince myself, in a different setting, one with less floor space, fewer rugs, or no shedding dogs in residence.

I was the first person to visit the transfer station yesterday, so the swap shed was empty. Or so it initially appeared. But as I lugged in my vacuum cleaner, I spotted one singular item on the shelf: a glass pedestal cake plate.

“I could use a cake plate,” I thought to myself. I love making desserts, and I like the way pedestaled cake plates look on a buffet table amidst a number of other desserts. It’s even the right time of year to add this to my collection: we host an annual appetizers-and-desserts party in mid-November, followed by Thanksgiving two weeks later, and then a pre-holiday party in early December.

There was something so pleasing about the symmetry as I dropped off my vacuum cleaner – genuinely hoping there was someone who could use it and that I wasn’t just leaving trash – and helped myself to the cake plate. I didn’t need to sort through piles of items to find it. It was the only thing there. I dropped one thing off; I picked one thing up. It was the essence of simplicity.

The swap shed attracts its share of controversy. The idea of neighbors trading treasures from one household to another in a small town has a certain charm that the boxes of dusty National Geographics piled in the shed’s corners sometimes belie. And there are those who resent the reality of the eBay dealers and other forms of resale trade that goes on there, believing it dilutes the altruistic intent of the facility.

I don’t particularly agree with this argument. I think reselling on eBay is as honorable a job as any, and if there are people willing to spend their time going through junk at the transfer station to make a living this way, they’re welcome to do so. But for those of us who have dropped off boxes of dishware or other household items only to have them snatched out of our hands and shoved into someone’s car, sight unseen, to take home and resell, it does sometimes make the overall experience of stopping by the swap shed less appealing.

Yesterday’s experience felt like the swap shed returning to its roots. One item left; one item taken. I’ve already washed the cake stand and put it in my kitchen; this weekend Holly and I are going to make a cheesecake that we can serve from it when guests come for dinner on Sunday. I’m happy I found it and happy I took it home. I just hope someone can make equally good use of my mediocre-but-functional vacuum cleaner.

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