Thursday, July 1, 2010

There is thrift in alley trolling

A few days back, I was hauling the remains of a tree a neighbor cut down and left for reclamation in the alley. We’ll run this new woodpile through the table saw and to begin our stash for the winter. It beats buying wood at over $100 for half a cord; add in a delivery fee and a stacking fee and the cost tops off near $175. Often we discover we’re stuck with a lot of pine, which burns much faster than hardwood. The money has left our hands. No returns. Funny how customer service seems wither quickly and die after cash has exchanged hands – a lesson I’ve been trying to work with Petite Poe. “Money back guaranteed” ain’t so easy. I’m no longer ordering wood. I can cut it and stack it myself. If I use a tree saw, I’ll get a great upper body work out. Besides, I like honest exercise.

One of the qualifications when searching for our home was that it: 1) be walking distance to restaurants and parks; 2) be old to symbolize it can brave the forces of time; 3) have an old fireplace and; 4) have a claw foot tub like children still draw in their artwork today even though claw foots have long been replaced by giant fiberglass shower-tubs. It’s odd how children draw items from the past, houses with high-pitched roofs, claw foot tubs, window seats... I wanted a home a child would draw.

Denver has a pollution season where they designate days with wood burning restrictions, with corresponding requests for people to drive less. The only way you’re going to find a real fireplace in Denver is in an old home. Wood burning fireplaces where banned from new home construction decades ago. Gas burning fireplaces are allowed, but it’s just not the same.

The irony is that it’s the cars that make that ugly Brown Cloud. But no one limits cars. A few years ago the number of cars exceeded drivers in Denver. No caps on cars you can own, but heaven forbid a family turn off the TV and gather around a fire in the hearth to read, play dominoes or roast marshmallows.

Our 1900 coal-burning insert in our fireplace makes for a comfortably lit, cozy living room on cold nights. Sometime in the 1920’s our fireplace was restyled with – what I am certain are - Van Briggle tiles. Artus Van Briggle started his pottery shop just down the road from us in Colorado Springs the year our house went under construction.

As I think about hauling long limbs of a retired tree in the heat of summer, I realize I’ve never discussed alleys. I love alleys. The children on our block ride bikes, race scooters and toss footballs in ours. I’ve a blackberry patch in a 4’x5’ raised bed next to our garage.

I often dream of a non-profit or an extension of the Mayor’s Office that helps develop alleys from places of neglect to resources for neighbors to garden and meet. It’s really amazing what one can do with small spaces, especially with gardening. One can harvest loads of fresh berries or vegetables from very small spaces. We don’t need an entire farm to feed a single family. Like zucchini and yellow squash. Ever heard the adage --- “Good friends don’t give friends zucchini”? Beautiful flowers that thrive on heat and neglect can be tossed in alleys, hollyhocks, poppies, lavender and, self-seeding cosmos. Roses love the heat of Colorado; here they are flowers that can withstand neglect.

As if from a magician’s top hat, I’ve pulled glorious things from the alley; items people chuck out their windows. My red Schwinn cruiser came from the alley, as did the bike that Little Pie currently rides. Tables, pots, old dishes, flowerpots, the coolest old chairs…My neighbor built all of her raised beds for gardening from salvaged wood from the alley.

My favorite alley find is a fainting coach. Yup - I pulled a fainting coach from the alley. Refinished and re-upholstered, it’s now a beautiful addition to our living room and rests by the fireplace. All little girls dream of fainting couches. Least I did. I’ve refinished many pieces of furniture but never re-upholstered anything. It wasn’t that hard.

I think I love these finds more than I do a planned store bought item. They were surprise gifts.

In our information-overloaded, multi-tasking world, we’ve forgotten how to truly be resourceful. Value can be pulled from every space in your life, apartment, home, and property. Are you using it wisely? Is there neglected space? Do you live in a home that has too much space? Our 1,800 square foot home fits us just right.

A few years back we had a family with two children on our block opt out of their gorgeous three bedroom Victorian with wood paneled walls, fireplace, and pocket doors for a huge newer house in the ‘burbs. They sold their house in a day. Upon their moving, a lovely 85-year-old neighbor asked me why they moved. Upon learning they wanted a bigger house, she was appalled, “Why? They have one the biggest houses on the block! What more do they need?” This wonderful woman should know. She grew up on the block in the house that her grandparents originally bought when the house was just a few years old.

This reminds me of our neighbor Joe, who passed away near ninety. Joe was Italian, originally from Philly. We used to chat over coffee at the neighborhood bagel shop. He and his new bride bought their one floor bungalow after he returned from the war in 1946. The two of them happily raised six children in that home and the children went to a parochial school down the street. They held the important things in their lives close together. These days we’ve scattered our resources to far away places.

What do we really need and are we looking in the right places for those needs? I found one of the nicest pieces of furniture in our home in the alley, not a high-end furniture store. Chances are mine is one of a kind and all I had to buy was some sand paper, varnish, stuffing, upholstery fabric and upholstery tacks. I love that fainting couch more than any new piece that could be bought. It’s priceless to me.

Treasure is always found in unexpected places. It can’t be bought in a mall where you are but one in a few hundred thousand in the world, left holding the exact same item.


Anonymous said...

I've never commented on one of your posts before, but I have followed your blog for some time now. I am always left with the feeling that I have just been chatting with a friend. You write with such honesty and common sense. I admire your outlook on life. If we all adopted your attitude of frugal/green living, what a better world it would be.

Shopping Golightly said...

Thanks for your kind comments Anon.

I'm green in some areas and need to work on more. However, I find that the simple, money-saving solutions are often the green ones, like a retractable clothes line.

I've been meaning to start worm composting in the basement, ugh, for years. Little Pi is now on me about it. Once completed, not only will I save money in my gardening but, I'll be making black gold and diverting more trash from the landfill.

However, if families came down to one car and shopped thrift, we'd see a marked difference across the country.

Jill Pait said...

We don't currently have an alley, but sitting serenely in my garden is my trash-picked Buddha. I find something very poetic about a trash picked just seems right!

Shopping Golightly said...

Wow. A trash picked Buddha. That is poetic!

Laurie said...

Excellent post. I found the Dutch door for my kitchen on the side of the road. I got it in my car just before the garbage truck arrived. My favorite pieces are ones bought secondhand, or passed on to me. They have a soul that new things don't.

Shopping Golightly said...

OMG! Whenever you find an old home being gutted, circle it like a vulture! It's unbelievable the things they chuck in those big bins. It should be criminal because they are truly tossing history out the window. But, we ARE a throw away culture.

info said...

Lovely post! I absolutely agree that more cities should turn alley space into productive community space. And, I'm happy to say that my hometown Fort Collins is doing just that! ( While their focus is more on design, I'm still excited to see a city developing alley space into something more useful. On a side note, my husband and I frequently pull things out of dumpsters and alleys to use in our home. It's amazing what treasures people will throw away! We don't have much space (800 sq. ft.) but it's the perfect size for use and we've been very creative with the space we do have.

Anonymous said...

the alleys give so much!

we've (& when I say "we" I mean me with ocassional grudging help from the other nice people in our home) found music, books, art easel, toys, clothes, great vintage furniture,

love your fainting couch!

Daisy said...

My next door neighbors would understand the old house value. The children (youngest now 19) are the fifth generation of the same family to live there. I love it when the mom tells me stories of her family and the way the neighborhood has evolved. Even better: old pictures that include my own home!

Lauren S said...

Judging by your post, I wonder if I live near. I don't go in our alley often, but when I have, I've mostly seen complete trash. Sometimes, a neighbor even lovingly places it right in front of our fence's door to the alley. :)

Saver Queen said...

Ahh, so many great thoughts come to mind while reading this post. I love the imagery that comes to mind while reading about your descriptions of alleys and the flowers and vegetables that can easily grow in overlooked spots. I love the idea of turning them into places for gardening and meeting. You're right - we don't need a lot of space, or of anything, to create a little magic.

I also love that you salvage wood. To me, that's truly resourceful. We're not just talking about reusing clothing and furniture here; the basic necessities such as heat can even be found in resources that would otherwise be wasted. It reminds me of how my sister showed me how to pick the blossoms off of pumpkins in the pumpkin patch, which would otherwise be left to decompose; she battered them and made a tasty snack.

Thanks for a lovely post! Inspiring as always!

Summer said...

Jill, I am so glad you rescued Buddha. That was just wrong to throw him away!

I'd like to share the soap box about moving to a bigger house in the 'burbs. We live in the 'burbs because we work in the 'burbs, but many who work in our offices go even further outward. Houston traffic is infamous. And yet the same people who gripe about it ask why we live in an apartment a few blocks from work. Hello! I would love to land an old Victorian, but in our area there aren't many. I'll take a modest ranch over a humungo McMansion.

BTW... ever notice that places like Urban Outfitters/ Anthropologie base their whole aesthetics on thrifted finds? I often visit UO just to steal their ideas. (I poke through the sale bins too.)

Serena said...

Your eloquent comments brought to mind a bumper sticker I see every now and then: "Live simply so that others may simply live." How much better the world would be if we followed that sage advice.

Van Briggle said...

Wow, I'd love to have some Van Briggle tiles.