Sunday, May 6, 2018

Mrs. Whitaker's Thrift Story via Neil Gaiman

As my friends and colleagues already know, I've recently embarked on an interesting new side project called Thrift Story CU, along with one of those friends and colleagues, Madeleine Wolske of Imbibe Urbana. This is a Champaign-Urbana, IL spin-off of the original Boston-area Thrift Story project created by the clever public radio producer Lydia Emmanouilidou. The premise is that folks tend to hang on to objects, even if they've stopped using them (or maybe never did) because there's a story attached to them. It's really the story they want to keep more than the thing itself. Paradoxically though, stories are best kept if they're giving away, in the form of telling. The way to ensure a tale is not lost is to tell it, and retell it, and let others know and appreciate it so that they too might tell it, and allow the tale to ripple outward and touch still others.

So Thrift Story encourages people to donate those objects, with their backstories attached, written on index cards. The items are then sold at pop-up thrift sale events at various community venues, and the proceeds are donated to local charities and non-profit projects. Lydia started this as a way to explore storytelling, and to raise funds for hurricane relief at the first sale. She shared the story of the project online, and I found it and incorporated it into a class I was teaching on reuse. But the story was a good one and stayed with me, so I reached out and asked Lydia if she would allow her idea to take root elsewhere. And Thrift Story CU was born. See what I mean about sharing stories? You share them and they live, even more than you may have imagined. Madeleine and I love storytelling too, but we also care about reuse, shopping local, and celebrating the character of a place. So that's what Thrift Story CU means to us. This past Friday evening, I was at the Revelry Market (organized by Madeleine, who did an awesome job if I do say so), promoting Thrift Story CU. Below is an example of the sort of item one might donate with an attached story, which was featured at the booth on Friday. 

So I've got Thrift Story on the mind this weekend. Today is a Sunday, and I'm being slow about getting to the things I really must do. This morning, over breakfast and house chores, I began listening to an audiobook version of Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, by Neil Gaiman, read by the author. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and when possible, I listen to him narrate his own books, because I think he's as good a narrator as he is an author. One of the stories included is, in fact, one I had heard before--one which fits eerily nicely into the whole notion of Thrift Story CU. It's called Chivalry, and is the story of what happens when an elderly woman, Mrs. Whitaker, finds the Holy Grail at a secondhand shop.

Now THAT'S a backstory.
Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons 

Mrs. Whitaker is like so many "grandmothers" we all have known, yet her uniqueness is not something we can overlook as we might have with other ladies. She has her habits, simple tastes, and is caring and kindly. When Galahad shows up in search of her thrift store find, she treats him as you would expect her to treat any nice young man. But once she owns something, like so many of us, she hesitates to let it go. She values the small things in life, and she has lead a rich life full of such small details. Her existence is content, comfortable, and oddly mysterious.

If you find the notion of Thrift Story intriguing, then let me suggest Chivalry to you as an entertaining tale. I'm sure it will stick with you, and you might just tell some friends about it, as I'm telling you about it now. And who knows what magical (metaphorically or otherwise) finds you'll make at the first Thift Story CU sale? Watch our events page or Facebook for details as they're announced. 

You can access the audio version of Smoke and Mirrors for free via Hoopla with your Champaign Public Library card number. There's a lovely version of LeVar Burton reading Chivalry on YouTube prefaced by some interesting commentary. You may find the story on Audible as a stand alone, performed by Christina Pickles. Both of our local public libraries have Smoke and Mirrors available electronically via Overdrive and My Media Mall. If you prefer, you can obtain a hard copy of Smoke and Mirrors at the Champaign Public Library or your favorite bookseller.  Enjoy!

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