Thriftstorm #13 – Thrift Stores of Nova Scotia

Thriftstorm is Captain Video’s secondhand anthropology project. Follow @Thriftstorm on Twitter for the latest news on things people were just going to throw away.

In early October, I took a 10-day trip around the Maritimes, an immersive experience that left me instinctively driving in kilometers per hour when I finally crossed back into Maine. Canada is so much like America that every difference made me feel like I was in a parallel universe, rather than another country.

The Maritime Provinces are New Brunswick, which I found to be beautiful and empty; Prince Edward Island, covered in farms and rolling hills made out of red rock; and Nova Scotia. I spent the most time in Nova Scotia, and it’s paradoxically the province I felt I least understand. Seeing more of it built a more complex picture in my mind. I can resolve the other two provinces down to a single visual – trees (New Brunswick) or farms (PEI) – but Nova Scotia defies categorization. I saw small cities and vast woods and Celtic fiddling and enormous power pylons carrying electricity across the top of it all. I went to the Cape Breton Miners Museum, which features a coal mine tour, which I heartily recommend to any of you passing within a thousand miles of Cape Breton Island. It is very, very interesting to be 5’10” tall in a mine shaft that is 5’6″ high. Being unable to straighten your body for 45 minutes while a retired miner tells you about how he used to do this for 12 hours is a profound experience.

And I went to thrift stores.

Don’t let Thriftstorm fool you; I have multiple hobbies and try to indulge them in balance. Thrift shopping in Canada was a last-minute thought; I Googled some locations and put the addresses in my itinerary. Oddly, the only thrift stores I could find were in Nova Scotia, so I only got one third of what I presume is the full Maritimes Thrift Experience. It was enough.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

As in the United States, the Salvation Army has a major thrift presence in Canada. The contents varied from store to store, as thrift stores do, but the template was the same: Lots of clothes, a decent book and media selection, not a whole lot else. I found Land Before Time III in a Salvation Army outside Halifax, thus closing a gap in my Land Before Time collection.1 Another Salvation army sold me a collection of Pogo cartoons and a Canada Scouts handbook. A third sold me a tape of The Little Engine That Could, which I haven’t seen since childhood.

The rest of the thrift stores I went to were non-branded. One of these, which I will not give the name of, was easily in the Top 5 creepiest buildings I’ve ever been inside of. The front end was cluttered and dimly lit (the thrift store usual), but it had a basement that went down and down and down. I kept taking left turns and going down ramps, and finally realized that the building was corkscrewed into the ground. Eventually, I left behind the area where things had prices, and was simply in rooms packed with random, weird household items. Have you ever been in a room that was so packed with completely unrelated things that your brain stops trying to identify individual items and starts treating the conglomerate whole as “stuff”? There were kitchen appliances and bicycles and furniture and buckets and things that, even now, I can’t identify.2 Eventually, I reached what I think was the final basement, with floors of concrete. I didn’t see a single other person the whole time I was down there.

Topside, that place had an 8-track player, which isn’t something I’ve seen in a thrift store in maybe five years. (I was tempted to buy it, but I wasn’t convinced it would work, and I would have had to pull it out of a pile to test it.) I bought a stack of the weirdest Canadian records I could find and a VHS tape of somebody’s wedding.

So yeah, I’d go back.

I also went to a used bookstore, where I was delighted to meet the cheerful, elderly proprietor, his quiet younger employee, and their impressive selection of vintage sci-fi paperbacks. I found books in that place I thought I’d never see again. I bought The Doomfarers of Coramonde, a weird Vietnam war/high fantasy mashup I read in college, and Barnard’s Planet, a pulpy space adventure I’d read in middle school. I also bought about a dozen other books, largely on the strength of their titles and covers, and got a great deal. You may hear more about them in future Thriftstorms.

The impression I got from the thrift stores of Nova Scotia is of a land out of time. All of the thrift stores had the kind of inventory that Vermont thrift stores had five or 10 years ago, rather than today. The thrift stores here are slowly ridding themselves of VHS tapes, and some things I saw in Canada – the 8-track player, a lone Betamax cassette – have disappeared here entirely. In Canada, though, the VHS and audio cassette selections are robust, and VCRs are not yet the rarity they’re becoming here.

One thing the Canadian stores have in common with their contemporary American peers is the pricing for vinyl records, which is now more or less standardized at $1. Still, at the time I visited, a Canadian dollar was worth 78 American cents, so I’d say I still got a pretty good deal.

I’m not comfortable embracing the obvious conclusion here, which is that Canada is technologically five to 10 years behind the U.S. That seems trite and condescending. But, at least in the places I visited, its thrift stores are a glimpse back into the recent past – a lost world where a grown man can buy The Little Engine That Could on VHS for 50 cents.

Next time: It’s back to Canada for the movie that was originally going to be Thriftstorm #11.