I like junk.
I collect it. Old metal signs from long-dead businesses. The glass insulators that grounded telephone wires from their poles. Handplanes that haven’t been used to smooth a board since before my father was shaving.
There’s a lot of junk near where I live, the product of family farms shutting down and businesses moving south and west. I’ve spent many a happy summer Saturday cruising the junk shops of Washington County, New York, finding things that were once precious to someone and bringing them home to my garage.
This probably helps explain why I find visiting flea markets when I travel completely irresistable. If there’s one thing more interesting than junk, it’s unfamiliar junk.
The best junk market I’ve ever been to is the Vernissage in Yerevan. As I understand it, it began as an art market near the main museum downtown where professionals and amateurs showed their works. (The term suggests an art opening, which is true, except it’s open every weekend.) At some point, the market opened to antiques, as well, and to an amazing variety of junk. The dealers at the Vernissage are some of the best organized I’ve ever seen, with one selling nothing but forceps, another torque wrenches, another carbide-tipped drill bits. It’s a reminder that Armenia was a major center for precision engineering under the Soviet Union – when those factories closed, enterprising Armenians stripped them bare and now trade industrial detritus every Saturday and Sunday morning.
There are remnants of Soviet-era factories in Budapest’s Ecseri Market. There are stunningly awful paintings of kittens, record albums from the early 1980s featuring desperately unfunky Hungarian youth, and countless medals featuring red stars and the Hungarian national colors. Look further and there is heirloom furniture, beautiful porcelain and glass, antique coins and currency, as well as a surprising array of Nazi memorabilia (and a disconcertingly authentic-looking leather vest featuring a yellow star of David…)
I’ve meant to go to the market my past three trips to Budapest, but never managed to get up early enough on a Saturday morning to follow the advice of friends who’ve told me to go before 8am. Today I pulled it off, sauntering in at 7am, with two full hours to explore before I needed to return downtown to a third day of board meetings. It was long enough to make my bags heavier and my wallet lighter.
Because I’m travelling light, most of my favorite objects won’t be making the trip home with me. I spent a good part of the morning imagining what I would collect if I lived in Budapest, and owned a large house and a pickup truck. Radios, for one – the dials of 1950s Hungarian radios don’t feature station names, but the names of European cities: Vilnius, Prague, Leipzig. Typewriters that aren’t quite Underwoods, featuring characters that aren’t quite present in English. Impossibly blocky and awkward camera bodies with near-perfect Leica lenses.
Visit enough junk shops and you discover how local crafts work. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find old quilts and handmade toolboxes in a Western MA/Eastern NY junk shop. In Budapest, my favorite ungainly handicraft are these wire-wrapped bottles. The patterns are pretty similar to the raffia-wrapped bottles they share shelves with, and I’m betting they’ve got the same origins as Zulu Mbenge baskets…
But my favorite are the tin toys. My friend IstvÃ¡n RÃ©v tells me that Hungary was a center for the production of aluminum toys until the Chinese entered the market; my friend Jerzy Celichowski promises me that there’s a store somewhere in Budapest that sells modern reproductions of old toy designs. And somewhere in the Open Society Archives is a collection of these toys.
And now, sitting on my bedside table, there’s a wonderful tin rocket marked “HoldrakÃ©ta” – or “Moon Sputnik”, as my friend Ildiko puts it. The payload is a female cosmonaut, who looks either well-fed or pregnant. And if you press the nose spike, a spring-loaded mechanism readies it for launch, putting it into an unsteady upright position.
I couldn’t be happier.