The Nostalgia Show

The Nostalgia Show is a wonder of nature.

No scientist could possibly predict or explain such a singular event. What is it, anyway? Where does it come from? How does it form?

It starts off on an ordinary drizzly Sunday in late winter, at the fairgrounds in, say, Woodstock, Ontario. Or thereabouts. Anyway, everything’s normal til about 7 AM, when, as if driven by some instinct, cars from across the countryside begin to converge on the Agricultural Building. Vendors emerge, and empty the vehicles of every conceivable object. If it can be fit into a mini-van, it’s here. Scuttling back and forth like so many beetles, the eager merchants ferry their wares into the building, til that vast concrete expanse is filled with banquet tables, bursting with the flotsam and jetsam of twentieth century Canadian culture:

Small Antiques, Tins, Bottles, Vintage Paper, Postcards, Old Photos, Old Books, Vintage Clothing, Vintage Magazines, Automobile Advertising, Gas Station Memorabilia, Country Store Items, Movie and Television Memorabilia, Coca-Cola Collectibles, Brewery Collectibles, Advertising Signs, Vintage Sports Collectibles, Vintage Sports and Non-Sport Cards, Railroad Memorabilia, Old Tin Toys, Western Toy Cap Guns, Old Dolls, Vintage Action Figures, Old Plastic Models, China, Glassware, Coins, Paper Money, Stamps, Military Collectibles, Comic Books, Records and tons of other older collectibles…

Two hundred and twenty five tables groan with the weight of these sacred objects long past their purpose, but still alive with memory and meaning. Amid them, at a pace too slow to be leisurely, shuffle the kinds of creatures only these extraordinary events attract. Flea marketers. Nostalgiacs. Bargain hunters. Hoarders. Rubberneckers. Collectors. Compulsives. Curiosity-Seekers. Guys like me. Folks like us.

We’re a weird bunch, eh? But who’s weirder: people who let a perfectly good something-or-other go, or people who will reluctantly part with a few bucks to give it another chance? Or at least mull it, and agree it’s a fair price. I ask you: A perfectly good one-gallon gas can, for five bucks? If you can see that, and not buy it to make into a lamp, well, you’re a stronger person than me.

Ever wonder who the keepers of the tables are? They seem to dress in sweatshirts, and/or track pants more often than not, but don’t judge. If you were going to be sitting on a folding chair on a cement floor for hours, watching retired farm folk from all over southwestern Ontario poke at your goods, you would want to be dressed comfortably. And warmly, for that matter. I know I would. Cement floors are always cold.

From time to time I think about joining the vendors and getting a table at a flea market. I have a basement full of items ideal for the purpose, many of them actually purchased in such places. Not junk, but the good stuff. A collection of license plates, the pride of my boyhood years. Old tools worn with use. Road signs. Time-Life series books in complete sets. Lamp parts. That sort of thing. It’s an attractive notion, and I think about it a lot. Lord knows I could use the money. But truth be told, it’s not for me. I could never let go of stuff that easily. You’ve got to be tough to be a vendor, not just to get the best price, but to be willing to sell things in the first place.

At the Nostalgia Show, there’s a vendor with a hand-lettered sign reading “Make me an offer, I’m not emotionally attached to ANYTHING.” He frightens me.

What interests me isn’t the money to be made, anyway. Nor the bargains to be had, truth be told. It’s the phenomenon. Flea markets are fascinating, as a rule, but the Nostalgia Sale is to an ordinary flea market as a hurricane is to a summer shower. This is akin to a meteorological anomaly, almost a perfect storm. This thing is a big deal. It cries out for contemplation. We may never understand such things, but by studying their effects, we can learn a bit more so that future generations may have the benefit of our wisdom.

What happens to the space-time continuum when a few hundred people, maybe a thousand or more, pay the price of admission to go sniffing through a hundred years’ worth of mementos and memorabilia? At five bucks a head, just to poke around, The Nostalgia Show has a considerable impact on the local economy if nothing else. That’s before counting the actual sales, not to mention the redistribution of goods. A significant number of items, thousands of ‘em, change hands, and get scuttled away in different vehicles than they arrived in. Where do these items wind up? What becomes of them?

And this is important: if you buy something at the Nostalgia Sale, are you implicitly promising to keep it safe from such a fate henceforth? Or is it okay to come back next year, and sell what you bought this year? What could I get for my gas can if I let it age a little, maybe til next year’s show?

But this isn’t just an issue of objects, of the distribution of material things. It’s not about the numbers, or the price somebody puts on something for someone else to haggle over. We all know that’s arbitrary anyway. How can you really put a price on… a beige rotary dial phone? A Murray McLauchlan record? An antique tricycle? The Nostalgia Show is not about what’s bought and sold, it’s about what that stuff represents. These are not just commodities. These things, unlike most things nowadays, have stories, emanating like auras. The stories fascinate, they engage, they intoxicate. They inflate the prices, as a matter of fact. But that’s not the point. These things are icons, they’re powerful, and they affect people, they must. That’s what stories do. Truth be told, it’s probably why everyone’s here. It’s why I’m here.

What happens when several hundred men, mostly in their later years, many sporting ordinary well-worn ball caps, ponder, over the course of an afternoon, the same carefully kept captain’s cap from a World War II RCAF uniform? You can bet they all do. It has to affect them. It affects me. You see a cap like that, and you wonder who wore it.

I think of my grandfather, who wore a cap like that in the Second World War when he flew missions overseas as a navigator. He survived the war, raised a family, and eventually died when I was a kid, his memory gone and his wartime stories melting away silently inside. But we’ve all seen the pictures of him wearing that cap: cocky young captain Cameron, astride a military motorcycle with a sidecar at Trenton air base. Home on leave while my mom was being born in Belleville hospital. He was younger in those pictures than I am now.

Every man in that flea market, most of them older than me, looks at that cap and sees somebody they knew, their dads, their uncles, their teachers. Every one walks away a bit more thoughtful because of what that cap represents. You have to wonder whether such a thing should even be sold, really. Shouldn’t it be in a museum, or something? It’s a shame that it isn’t. Anyone would agree, if they thought about it.

Look at those grey-haired ladies eying well-thumbed recipe books, fingering the fabric of old tea-towels, gesturing at antique quilts and nodding and inhaling affirmatively. Here amid job-lots of hubcaps, hockey cards and the gas-station giveaway gewgaws of yesteryear are the graters and grinders and peelers and parers their moms used to use. And cookie tins. And rolling pins. And laundry bins. It’s strange to see, isn’t it? Especially at these prices. It’s a crying shame, really. You can feel it.

But you can only feel it for so long. Numbness nulls nostalgia after a while. It’s a self-protection mechanism. You can only take so much before your sensitivity starts to thin and you get overwhelmed. It takes a while, mind you. When you first get there, you’re keen, you want the whole shooting match. You’ve been in the door for five minutes, you’re down five bucks admission plus five for the one-gallon gas can, and you only took out sixty, and there you go and nearly blow your remaining fifty dollars on a Valdy poster from 1979.

You have to be careful. The Nostalgia Sale is so large it has its own gravity. It pulled us all here. It has its own atmosphere. It gets us all high on the aura of old objects. You get so hyped at first you think you’re doing society a service. Buying stuff in this sort of situation is like taking a puppy home from the pound. It’s a rescue mission. It’s good karma.

You see a sign for Pure Spring Ginger Ale, a lit-up one with a classy logo and a working clock. You start humming a jingle you haven’t thought of in thirty years, and wondering where good old Pure Spring went, anyway? “Anytime a thirst won’t quit… Pure Spring Ginger Ale will quench it!” You could rescue that sign. You used to love that stuff. It would look great in the kitchen. So many things would. Or in the garden or the basement or the front window. A cobbler’s last. A catcher’s mitt. A catfish lure. A candle mold. You’d spend a fortune a thousand times over, but the plain massed quantities prevent you. If there weren’t so many options, you’d be bankrupt: A wee working spinning wheel. Snowshoes, hand made, in great shape. A little cast iron skillet, perfect for cooking over a campfire. A typewriter. You have one, but can you have too many typewriters? The hood ornament from an old Ford Indian Chief. Remind me to tell you a story about that some time, about a guy named Mike Lake and a tree-planting camp north of Cochrane.

But it wears you down after a while. All those curios are stranded like jellyfish at low tide, separated from their origins and their uses and the hands that once held them well. You can’t save everything. A saint couldn’t save everything. It’s hopeless. That baby change table for example, is in impeccable condition. The enamel is barely chipped and the little decorative cherubs holding the ABCs look practically as innocent as the day it was manufactured, c. 1937. It calls out to you, and you have to turn away. The toy soldiers your dad may have played with. A whole jeweler’s case of pocket-watches. All those old gents, whose retirement gifts those were, whatever became of them, do you think? You sift through some black and white boudoir photographs, lying loose in a box of old snapshots. They’re more silly than smutty by today’s terms, but then you think cripes, all these cheeky young women in naughty lace are old ladies now. At the very least, they are very old. And it’s not so funny anymore.

There are a million objects rescued, rejuvenated, rehabilitated and ready for reselling here at the Nostalgia Show, and every one of them has a story. Some have too many stories. Moosehide mitts with beaver cuffs and perfect bead-work flower decoration: James Bay Cree, c. 1900. The pang is palpable. That’s not just nostalgia, it’s aching loss. Not just a life, but a way of life was lived in those mitts, and traded or sold and lost, now to be sold or traded and maybe lost again. So many stories, so much memory, mystery, myth. Every object and all its stories, all its possible stories, all the stories it evokes in the memories of every one of these good people, slowly shifting from foot to foot, from spot to spot, among the cluttered curios in a long slow march backward into how far we’ve come and how fast…

And where the heck have we gotten to, anyway, since ice tongs were commonly seen? Since every man knew how to sharpen an axe? Since ladies wore lace? Since somebody put on that uniform and went off to War? Since a doll house made by her daddy was a little girl’s dream gift? Since Bobby Orr smiled for a rookie card picture? Since eight-track tapes came in, and went out of style? Since an Atari became an antique?

The Nostalgia Show is a great place to come as a hard-nosed bargain-hunter. It’s a dangerous assignment for a wistful worker in words. It isn’t a job for the faint of heart. If you’re as sensitive as me, if you suffer as I do from a Velcro soul, and everything sticks to you… well, after a couple of hours, you can’t feel things properly anymore. You’re overwhelmed.

At a certain point, you can’t take it, and you’ve got to give up and get out. Your humanity is actually at risk, a little bit at least. For me it was when I saw a clear, plastic Ziploc bag of used Smurfs, the little rubbery figurine ones. Three for four dollars, they were priced at, and I walked by like they were nothing. That’s when I knew I was done. “These are from my own childhood. They’re in a sealed bag, for goodness’ sakes. They can’t even breathe!” cried a voice inside me. I gritted my teeth and kept walking.

Those Smurfs would have been nothing but so many jacks to me then. Sure, I could have scooped a few for old times’ sake if I’d felt like breaking a five. But I wouldn’t even have looked to see which ones they were. I’d have just grabbed them and stuffed them into my pocket like a near-sighted pagan deity snatching up Argonauts for fun. It just shows how far gone I was, that I didn’t feel like breaking a five to save a handful of helpless Smurfs.

And anyway, I didn’t have a five. I’d spent it on a gas can, to make into a lamp. I may have mentioned that.

It was one of only two things I bought, actually. You’d have been proud of me. The other was the sheet music for a song I’ve never heard. It’s called “Blest Canada”, and truer words than that two-word title have never been sung. I paid two bucks for that. So what with the five dollars admission, and the gas can and the music, I got in and out of The Nostalgia Show for an even dozen dollars —with the makings of a new light to read by, and a song to sing, and a story to tell.

And at that rate, God willing, I think I’ll give the Nostalgia Show another go next year. You get your money’s worth, anyway. It’s worth looking around.

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