Man in tan shirt looking at table of books, CDs and video games
A shopper browses old video games at Finn Abbey and Sam Davis’ stand at the Waterbury Flea Market on Saturday, May 1, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Waterbury Flea Market sits on a 30-acre field on Route 2, a few miles west of downtown. On a Saturday morning, the first of May, the ground is sopping wet, and a harsh wind tosses late snowflakes in the air.

At its peak on summer weekends, the flea market can attract thousands of customers and up to 100 vendors, owner John Farr said. But this morning, the cold seems to have driven away the crowds, and only a few vendors dot the field. 

In a far corner of the market, two men are slotting books into a row on a card table. The first, Sam Davis, said the books for sale that day had been rescued from a Dumpster. The second, Finn Abbey, said many of their items were retrieved from free piles as well.

Abbey has become an aficionado of used items, he said. Among the collection in his home are a retro gumball machine, tube TVs to play retro video games, and a working mechanical cash register, also found left on the side of the road, complete with a roll of receipts.

He believes minimalism is overrated.

“I have a small collection of trinkets that I find in the trash or thrifting or this or that, especially like little frogs and animals,” he said. “And it’s not like I pick everyone up every single day and say, ‘Well, this is great.’ But having all of them is quite nice.”

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I came to the flea market that day because I, too, have become a fan of Vermont’s free piles, thrift stores, swap meets and salvage centers. My curiosity began when I moved here in 2019 and noticed Vermont seemed to have an abundance of free piles compared to my hometown in New Jersey. 

I’m not the only one who swears by the fickle fortunes of the free piles. Vermonters on Twitter share stories of their favorite items found outside someone else’s home: A Victorian loveseat, Star Wars coloring books, a bathtub, cross-country skis, Moon shoes and, perhaps most unexpectedly, a framed yearbook photo of their own brother (likely from an old girlfriend).

One of my coworkers said her “entire house was furnished with free things.” Her recommendation for how to walk the walk: “Just take it, and deal with the consequences from your housemate(s) later.”

Though free piles are ubiquitous on warm-weather days, no one tracks just how much stuff is donated or exchanged through these unofficial arrangements. Unlike data on buying new items, which is tracked and published in detail by government sources, I couldn’t locate an expert who could tell me the value of secondhand sales in Vermont or how much used items contribute to the state’s economy.

But what is clear is that for Vermont’s used items, that moment of donation is often only the beginning of their journey.

At the flea market, Rick Powell was one of the first customers of the day to walk up to Davis’s and Abbey’s stand. Powell, the former owner of the Book Garden in Montpelier, has a phone app that lets him scan the books and tchotchkes to see whether they will be worth anything on Amazon.

Powell sold his physical store in 2020. He’s discovered that online sales are essential for books and collectibles.

“I’m trying to wrap my head around why people collect the things they do,” he said — and why they give it away. 

“It may not be that they value it more than the original person,” he said. “It’s just, it’s a cycle. The original person wanted it at one time, and then they didn’t want it anymore. And then they pass it along, and someone else wants it at a different time.”

A boon for growing families

Michael Wood-Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Front Porch Forum, said three of the four most popular categories on the social gathering forum were related to secondhand items: “For Sale,” “Free Item” and “Seeking Item.”

Starting out with Front Porch Forum in 2006, Wood-Lewis was as much a beneficiary of Front Porch Forum’s frequent exchanges as any of its users. 

“We had four preschool kids at that moment in our lives, and I’m not sure what led me to think that that was a good time to start a business, but in hindsight there was no revenue for quite a while,” he said. 

Front Porch Forum “delivered in spades” for his family, he said, from strollers, toys, bicycles and helmets to “clothes, clothes and more clothes.” 

After they had finished using something — say, a stroller — they would repost the item for another family to use.

Even today, kids’ items are the “bread and butter” of Front Porch Forum’s exchanges, since children grow out of their clothes and toys so quickly, he said.

“I think it’s a great option for folks to save money, to reduce their environmental impact and to meet neighbors,” he said. “The next step after that is to buy local. All those things are better than sending your money off to Amazon.”

But to Wood-Lewis, posts on the forum, including posts about secondhand items, are often just “the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s a lot more that happens offline, and that affects our whole mission to use the internet to stimulate more in-person exchange with neighbors in conversation,” he said.

Another frequently swapped item for kids is bicycles. At the Montpelier Bike Swap on May 1, Onion River Outdoors employee Ryan Leclerc said new kids’ bikes can go for $500 to $600, while a used one at the swap was around $100.

“Oftentimes used kids’ bikes are in pretty good shape because they only get use out of them for a couple of years, so a lot of people are coming to get their kids bikes without having to spend whatever new is going to cost,” he said.

Families shop for used bikes at Onion River Outdoors in Montpelier. Photo by Erin Petenko/VTDigger

They also get devoted bikers looking for professional-quality gear at the upper end of the budget, but still less expensive than buying new, and sometimes vintage bike collectors keeping an eye out for 30-year-old Schwinns. 

Used bikes have been even more valuable during the pandemic, Leclerc said, because of supply-chain disruptions, shipping delays and overwhelming demand.

“So the swap helps people to get on bikes that just couldn’t find a bike,” he said.

From books to barn doors

Monroe Street Books doesn’t look like a bookstore from the outside. The nondescript red building with a white roof blends into the storage center next door, both located along Route 7 a few miles north of Middlebury. The sign outside says simply, “Used Books.”

From within, the store’s purpose is unmistakable. About 100,000 books are packed 12 shelves high in narrow walkways. They overflow into side shelves and rotating displays. Rare or unusual books are kept in clear plastic bags tacked into the walls. Even for a devoted bookworm, the selection is overwhelming. 

Tim Williams, an employee of roughly 20 years, said the store has developed its own under-the-radar fanbase.

“There was someone in here from Long Island, and he said, ‘Wow, I’ve heard of this place over the years, and I was up here and we drove an extra hour north just to come up and see it,’” Williams said.

“People walk through the door, and it’s like the scene from ‘The Wizard of Oz’: Suddenly the world’s in Technicolor,” he said.

To keep its inventory organized, and to prevent their main store from bursting at the seams even further, the business keeps 50,000 books in another building devoted to online sales.

Williams said the store gets its stock in a variety of ways: donations, buying books, and looking “under every stump and floorboard” for rare titles.

Williams loves looking through donations and what they reveal about the lives of their donors. One common route for books to flow into the store is from older Vermonters who may need to clean off their shelves due to downsizing or health issues. 

“Often people come in and they say, ‘These are books that I had that I loved, and what’s most important for me is that they find a new home, that they find someone that appreciates them as much as I did,” Williams said. “The books have this energy to them, and people want to transfer that energy onto the next generation.”

Monroe Street Books is one of a subgenre of secondhand sellers in Vermont that focus on not only the practical value of used items, but also their rarity, history or beauty.

In White River Junction, Vermont Salvage Exchange sells items with a singular purpose: old architectural pieces taken from historic homes.

The store, located in an 1880s-era railroad building, is filled with doors, windows, tubs and sinks, mostly taken from their original location by the store employees themselves, said Joe LaBombard, vice president and son of the owner, Jesse.

Since they’ve been in business for 37 years, demolition companies and remodelers across New England know to call Vermont Salvage whenever they need to take out antique building materials and unique fixtures, Joe LaBombard said. 

The company has salvaged items from the original Ritz Carlton in Boston, Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire, and a house rumored to be the inspiration for Dr. Suess’s “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” he said.

The most challenging salvage job n recent memory was a bowling alley closing down in Maine. The wood of the bowling alley — all 32 lanes — was “really valuable, like a butcher’s block material,” he said, so they broke it into nearly 500 pieces to transport in trucks.

Stained glass windows are always popular, he said, but sometimes trends come and go. Right now, rustic-style pieces such as sliding barn doors are in high demand. The shop’s main clients are homeowners, with the occasional contractor, tiny house designer, bed-and-breakfast owner and artist.

And businesses. “There’s at least one piece from Vermont Salvage at every restaurant in White River Junction,” he said.

Vermont Salvage Exchange specializes in architectural pieces taken from historic homes and buildings. Courtesy Joe LaBombard

Trash or treasure?

On a warm, sunny day in Montpelier, cardboard boxes seem to crop up from the ground like the grass around them. Walkers detour across the street to eye the selection; many leave toting a new wok or a pair of boots nestled under their arm.

As days go by, the walkers stop coming, but the box remains. It may have nothing but a scratched pan and a faded sweatshirt. Then the rain comes, and the self-help book left in the bin is thoroughly soaked. At that point, the free pile has become a trash pile.

The generosity and community spirit of secondhand items has a downside. Much of what gets donated ends up as waste.

Heather Steeves, a spokesperson for Goodwill New England, is familiar with that cycle. Goodwill made headlines recently for asking locals to stop donating trash.

“Not a blouse with a button missing, but literal trash of a broken couch, a car battery, moldy books,” she said. “We’re reasonable. We can make do with most things, but we paid $1.2 million last year to dispose of waste.”

Goodwill has a finely tuned system to ensure donations get sold. New items get a pink tag, then a blue tag the week after, moving down in price until it’s a yellow tag, which means “fill a bag for $10,” she said. 

The Goodwill in Williston features a “by-the-pound” section with rock-bottom prices.

“I bought a Talbots sweater a few weeks ago for 20 cents,” Steeves said. Eventually, the last dregs of clothes are made into wiping cloths. 

Toward the end of Goodwill’s price chain, resellers for online thrift stores such as Poshmark hunt for items to upsell. Steeves said she’s happy to see them come. 

“Stay-at-home moms in Vermont might not have the capacity to do … full-time work but now have the opportunity to have a career in their own time through this,” she said.

It’s stuff like half-used shampoo bottles and lamp oil that Goodwill can’t find a buyer for at any price. Nor does Goodwill have the capacity to repair broken items, except for electronics, for which they partner with Dell Reconnect, she said. 

Steeves likened it to “wish-cycling,” the phenomenon of people trying to recycle items that aren’t actually recyclable.

“There’s this newfound logic of, ‘surely somebody wants my empty spaghetti jar to turn it into a flower vase. Somebody is going to do that.’ But no, they aren’t,” she said.

People don’t want to think that anything they consume has to be trashed, Steeves said. But the reality is, things are not made the way they used to be made.

“An Ikea couch has one life built into it. Your grandmother’s couch had a second life or maybe even a third life built into it … but if we’re buying disposable things that are one-time use, there’s only one life.”

Rachelle Gould, an environmental behaviors researcher at the University of Vermont, said her research has shown that people overvalue the benefits of recycling and composting, while undervaluing lifestyle changes further up the stream.

“I think it’s much better to not just say, ‘well, I’m going to recycle or compost, but I’m going to not use that thing in the first place. And I’m going to not waste food in the first place,’” she said.

On the other hand, it’s often more sustainable to reuse what you have than to buy something new, even if it was produced in a sustainable way, Gould said. 

The wish-donating problem has hit a former Vermont institution: the ReUse Zones at Chittenden Solid Waste District’s drop-off centers. 

Several Vermonters have expressed their sadness that the district shut them down in 2018. Michele Morris, director of communications at the district, said she “bemoaned the loss as well.” 

The organization decided to shut them down partly because of safety issues. People were leaving hazardous materials at the site, such as bloodied items, ammunition or explosives.

The donations also weren’t always “as idyllic a scenario as people who loved it had in their head,” she said. According to a memo she shared, more than 50% of the donations had to be sent to the landfill, at the solid waste district’s expense. 

But she pointed out that the internet, particularly Craigslist and Front Porch Forum, provided new opportunities to find a home for secondhand items.

“There’s a great reuse economy out there,” she said.

“We found a business that had closed down with thousands of greeting cards that couldn’t be recycled,” she said. “We put it in an email newsletter … where folks could contact them, and they cleared out their inventory to nonprofits as thank-you cards to donors.”

Secondhand stuff lovers have found interesting ways to repurpose items far outside their original function. At the Waterbury Flea Market, Dennis French sells vintage suitcases, globes and signs turned into home decor. “I just zhuzhed it up,” he said. 

And Abbey said he had a home in mind from that cash register he trips over every day when he wakes up. He’ll give it to his mother, a preschool teacher. 

“Preschoolers go bananas for that sort of stuff,” he said.

VTDigger's data and Washington County reporter.