Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

Requiem for a Perfect Experience

I was raised to be a shopper, the quintessential middle-class American, striving to acquire STUFF.

One local enterprise has enabled me to manage – and enjoy – this unsustainable trait, while benefitting students in a most inventive way. I have called it, irreverently, the Squalor Shop, although its stuff quality was the opposite of my descriptor.
“Upscale Resale” was a brilliant original idea in 1960 when the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis opened a boutique to sell donated goods. Its business model solicited designer and other gently used clothing contributions from well-heeled supporters.
Proceeds subsidized college tuition for students in need. When I discovered ScholarShop in the 1980s, the non-profit’s retail operation had grown into its second, prime location across from a hotsy-totsy shopping mall.

Last fall I and many others felt bereft to learn the foundation was planning to close shop, outcompeted by online DIY selling of high-end goods and resale’s commercial proliferation. Store expenses were too high in proportion to earnings for awards of scholarships.

I have treasured and relied upon Squalor expeditions to meet two essential self-care needs:

  • Controlling my tendency to want to get STUFF. By investing a couple hours in SS shopping every month or so, I could satisfy what I came to call my Hunter-Gatherer Urges.
  • Maintaining my capacity to talk to myself, clearly and with a sense of humor – a more complex intra-personal dynamic.

Upscale Resale was so true. SS donations were curated. Devoted staff and volunteers (who knew their fashion stuff) sorted the input and stocked the racks, thoughtfully arranging by both color and size. Fabrics, garment quality and designs were a generous cut above the tide of castoffs one would wade through in any other charity-run resale store. I could handle and admire fine woolens, silks, weaving and patterns. I could revel in exploring luxurious quantities of beautiful things – seasoned with some flotsam – without feeling covetous.

I enjoyed the Thrill Of The Hunt, discovering items truly unique and exciting, encountering the kinds of goods one might find in a retail store, but freed from the massed overload of too-much, too-expensive, too-greedyneedy (and associated I’m not good enough) feelings that our consumer culture force-feeds to keep us hooked into spending and acquiring.

Early in my long SS adventure era, I set myself some shopping rules. These boundaries kept the experience fun and always helped me sanely decide, even when factors like lack of lunch muddled my reasoning and desires.

I never edited choices at the rack. I let myself pick up and try on EVERYTHING that remotely caught my interest. Then, in the privacy of a dressing room, I talked to myself – aloud – about the look and feel of every item. Telling myself cheerfully, frankly and exactly what I thought (Are you kidding? Look at your butt! BLEAHH! I don’t think so.
You will NOT wear that color.) was a practice that happily and unfailingly cleared out my pipes for sound self-talk, a necessity in life in general.

The stuff was different every time, while the routine was blissfully constant. The combination never failed to recharge me, and it did not matter if I bought something. Very often, I did not.

When I found a gem, I knew it at once. If I wavered over an item, my rules kicked in with three clear choice criteria: (1) I have to really like it, (2) It has to fit NOW, and (3) It has to be a good deal. Over three-plus decades of SS shopping, I’ve bought maybe twenty items that I regretted bringing home. That’s pretty darn good for a conditioned consumer! And I sent those things back as SS donations.

I recall some favorite SS times and finds:

  • In a flash of inspiration at the leather-goods rack, I bought a buttery black leather mini-skirt as a high school graduation present for my friend Johanna who was college-bound to NYU. A young woman in Metropolis, I reasoned, could use this kind of (SS affordable) wardrobe classic. Surprisingly, her parents did not agree.
  • A lupine-hued plaid satin skirt by Worth du Paris found me the day I sought SS solace after my best friend Sarah passed from this sweet world. She was a shopping expert too, a kindred appreciator of superb stuff. I wore it with water-colored silks from her closet for the Celebration of Life I helped to host with her family.
  • For beloved nephew Tyler, the Christmas he became a hunky young man, a marigold cashmere sweater blossomed into a handsome gift.
  • The vintage silver Lanz oak leaf broach, with acorn, that I plucked long ago from the SS jewelry case is pinned to my sapphire blue SS boiled wool vest this very day.

True of everything material, it shall pass. My years of days of whimsical, therapeutic browsing in this field of wearable dreams were material reality at its best, passing now into memory.

Thank you, dear Squalor Shop. You have circulated so much beauty, and served more abundantly than your founders could imagine.

Jean Ponzi invites you into Green conversations each week on her Earthworms enviro interview show, podcasting from KDHX St. Louis Community Media. Pick ‘em up (free!) at Podcasts.KDHX.org, or through iTunes.