Staff Columnist

Embracing the joy of reducing and reusing

Used housewares are seen for sale in July 2016 at Drop Inn Resale Store in Iowa City. Gazette columnist Alison Gowans sa
Used housewares are seen for sale in July 2016 at Drop Inn Resale Store in Iowa City. Gazette columnist Alison Gowans says she enjoys shopping at thrift stores because of all the eclectic finds and the reduced environmental impact of buying used items. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

When my parents walked into my 100-year-old house on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids for the first time, my dad took one look at the built-in shelves along one wall of the dining room and declared I would be taking the box of antique china plates sitting in his basement, courtesy of his grandmother.

I was thrilled. I’ve read about my fellow millennials rejecting the antiques and collections their parents and grandparents hope to pass down to them, and I understand it. My sister lives in a shoebox of a studio apartment, the only way she can afford rent in pricey Southern California (she makes up for the lack of square footage with sun and sea, so she probably still wins). She doesn’t have room for more than a few items to begin with, let alone her great-grandmother’s dining set.

And I also understand the allure of sleekly gleaming sets of matching white plates and chrome flatware, well designed new products with minimalistic lines, satisfying to hold and stack in one’s cupboards.

But I’ve come to embrace a house full of an eclectic mix of items; antique tea cups and mid-century coffee pots and contemporary art prints on the walls. Mix a little bit of kitsch and a little bit of class and some potted plants and you have my decorating aesthetic. I’m sure I’m breaking all kinds of interior design rules and I don’t really care.

I love that most of my furniture and many of my dishes come with stories. There is the trunk a relative whose name I don’t know brought on a ship from Europe. And the wooden rocking chair built by hand several generations ago, and the end tables that sat in my grandparents’ houses, and my great-grandmother’s kitchen table. I have one grandmother’s wine glasses and another grandmother’s hand-crocheted blankets.

I don’t always know the histories of the items in my care, but I feel a thread running backward from them, connecting me to those lives that led to mine.

I also love estate sales and thrift stores, enjoy drifting through the ghosts of other people’s lives, finding small treasures here and there, wondering where they came from and why there were left behind.


I recognize there is a privilege in all of this; in having family who were in a position to collect such items to pass down to me; in having never lost those items to floods or fires. And that even having the choice is a privilege; for some, growing up being able to afford only thrift store shopping weighs secondhand stores and hand-me-down items with added baggage. I mean no judgment on those who enjoy buying something new over hanging onto something old.

The first set of dishes I bought a few years ago came from St. Vincent de Paul in Cedar Falls and cost a quarter a plate. At the time I bought them because money was tight and I needed to stock a kitchen on a budget after moving back to Iowa. A quarter a plate made that a lot easier. Soon, I realized there were more quirky and pretty and useful dishes at the thrift stores of the world than I could ever want, and I haven’t really looked back since.

There is another reason I love filling my house with mismatched but eclectic items. We were taught in elementary school that if we want to help Mother Earth, we should follow the “three Rs” of reduce, reuse, recycle. We’ve sucked so many resources out of our planet to keep making more and more new things, cheaply produced and quickly passed over for the next shiny new style. I don’t want to add to that cycle more than I have to. And there is no need to; there are enough vintage dish sets in the nation’s thrift stores already to cover America’s tables several times over.

Let me reduce and reuse, any day. And know that my house is filled with good stories along the way.

I’m sure that my great-grandmothers, raising their families in the shadow of the Great Depression, and their parents before them, scraping by as farmers and new immigrants, would approve. I’ll think about that the next time I use one of their dishes. Hopefully I’ll be able to pass those items, and those stories, on to my own children.

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