A few years ago I started to write a piece of dystopian fiction where secondhand products were outlawed by the Ministry of Planned Obsolescence. The logic governing this fictional land was purely economic – the buying and selling of secondhand products which often took place on the outer rims of the system, hurt the economy because it reduced demand for the production of new versions of the same products and it meant that people were giving their money to each other instead of the corporate regime that governed this dystopian land. So the buying and selling of secondhand products was pushed further underground, and those who continued to deal in such products were deemed criminals and dangerous.
Of course, this was a work of fiction – one that I never finished because as I read it back I thought, “Well this might be a bit too absurd…” So you can imagine my surprise when I learned about the City of Dartmouth “Junk Dealer” By-Law. In Dartmouth, a Junk Dealer is anyone who buys and sells secondhand products… and that’s ALL secondhand products, whether it is “junk” or not.
I have always been a cultural scavenger. No matter what I have done in my life and career otherwise, I have always returned to being a buyer, seller and trader of second-hand goods. If this means that I am a Dartmouth “junk dealer” than so be it. I am a Dartmouth Junk Dealer and my “Junk” consists of books, and art, and toys, and music, and movies and other cultural products…
And I am not alone. There are many other junk dealers in the City of Dartmouth. You find them on Kijiji, on eBay, at the local Markets, the consignment shops, the secondhand stores… In fact, based on my own experience, I am confident in saying that there are 100’s of Junk Dealers in the City of Dartmouth. 100’s of enterprising individuals who for one reason or another are making little bits of money here and there to help pay the bills through buying and selling secondhand goods.
Interestingly enough, the definition of what a “Junk Dealer” is changes between the City of Halifax and the City of Dartmouth. In Halifax, a Junk Dealer specifically refers to industrial recyclers and junk yards.
So in Dartmouth, you need a special license to sell secondhand products (but not in Halifax – except for Pawn Brokers which are a topic for another day).
But it was not enough to have this special license requirement for the Downtown Dartmouth Planning Committee. They decided in August 2009 that the Downtown Dartmouth Land-Use By-Law better have some extra defense from the scourge of the Junk Dealer. In this community plan, a secondhand shop “means a building or part of a building in which used goods, merchandise, substances, articles or things are offered or kept for sale. This is deemed to exclude used bookstores, antique stores, sports card shops, used clothing stores, and the sale of used bicycles as an accessory to a new bicycle shop or repair shop.”
In the Downtown Dartmouth Business District, “any retail, business, office, entertainment or service” is allowed to conduct business EXCEPT secondhand shops, not to mention “automotive service and repair outlets, vehicle sales, outdoor display courts and drive-through establishments, cabarets, adult entertainment, and pawn shops.” (Page 38 10(2).)
When I first heard about this, I didn’t believe it. Surely the Downtown Dartmouth Community Planning Committee would not prohibit a green practice like reselling perfectly good secondhand goods?! So I read the full Downtown Dartmouth Land-Use By-Law… then I read it again… then I decided to email Gloria McCluskey to find out if I was interpreting it correctly.
This is an excerpt from the email I sent her:
“My name is Charlene Croft and I live right in the heart of Downtown Dartmouth. I also operate a small shop at the Harbourview Weekend Market in the neighborhood as well, which specializes in a variety of secondhand products such as books, movies, records, and retro toys.
I have been a vendor at the market since it opened in July 2009, and we have been doing a brisk business. Our customers love our blend of kitschy trinkets, old school movies and music and of course, the books.
I would like to know why my neighborhood has a by-law which would prohibit me from pursuing such an endeavor.”
And this is the (full, unedited) response I got from her: “sorry Charlene. The Land Use By-Law for Downtown Dartmouth does not permit secondhand stores. The one on Portland St. was there prior to the by-law being written.”
So I emailed her back: “I understand the nature of the by-law, what I’m curious about is the rationale behind it. Why does the By-Law not permit secondhand stores?”
To which she responded: “I will try to find the change to the by-law and forward it to you.”
That was August 20th, and I haven’t heard from her since.
So I had to go back to the Community Plan to try and find the logic.
The purpose of limiting the types of businesses that exist in Downtown Dartmouth is to ” ensure that development complements the traditional small town character of the community.” This still didn’t answer my question, as I was left to wonder what small town didn’t have a secondhand store run by a local charity or small business person which was part and parcel with that “small town character.”
The purpose goes on to note that the business conducted in the area should “reflect a human scale of development.” Again, I found myself scratching my head… the human scale of development? Wouldn’t secondhand stores and the treasures they often contain reflect the human scale of development more than any other business? All that stuff… all those resources… used to create human products from various eras of progress and development… It just didn’t make sense.
It still doesn’t.
And it doesn’t stop at the secondhand shop. By my interpretation of the By-Law those who are regular sellers on Kijiji in Downtown Dartmouth are also in violation of the Junk Dealer by-law. You know, those people who go scavenging for perfectly good secondhand goods, and then offering them to a wider customer base through the Internet… that practice is a “home-based” version of junk dealing. Perhaps even those who sell on eBay are in violation of this by-law… but since I can’t get any kind of thoughtful response from the people who decided this was a good move for the Dartmouth economy, I am only left with my own interpretations.
While I understand the social stigmas that are currently attached to the secondhand economy, I work very hard to combat them in my daily life and practice. I constantly challenge people to ask themselves “Why do you need to go out to the mall and spend $100 on something you can get secondhand for $30?” “Why would you throw something away that is still usable?” “Why are you buying something new, that required lots of resources to produce, when you can buy the same thing used, and recapture those resources so that more don’t need to be extracted?”
There are very few things in my house that have come from a mall or big box store. My furniture, my computers, my CDs, DVDs, and records, my kids’ video games, my books, my clothes, my knickknacks, my art… if it wasn’t a gift, or a creation by me or one of my friends… you can be fairly certain it was originally purchased by someone who wasn’t me.
I also understand the inclination to connect the secondhand industry (in particular when it comes to the Pawn Shop side of things) with crime and criminals. It is assumed that the only reason someone would resell something was because it was stolen. So the buyers and sellers of secondhand goods, must then, be criminals. And while there are some seedy characters out there who are exploiting the secondhand economy through criminal activities, the same can be said about politicians and corporate shareholders. Maybe we should outlaw those activities as well… the exploitation in those systems are certainly more far-reaching and hurtful to our communities than a secondhand record shop.
The current by-laws pertaining to Junk Dealers and Secondhand Stores are actually hurtful to the economy and drive the secondhand economy further underground. As long as we are living in a world where over-production and planned obsolescence are the driving factors of our consumer-based economy, the secondhand economy is not going to go away. The tactic shouldn’t be to outlaw them… it should be to legitimize them.
So I will continue to try and figure out how I, as a Junk Dealer who wants to open a Secondhand Shop in Downtown Dartmouth, can continue to engage in the business I love and believe in. If you want to help me, or also believe that these by-laws are dangerous and irrational, I encourage you to email Gloria McCluskey (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask her why Secondhand Shops are not permitted to operate in Downtown Dartmouth, why all secondhand products are classified as “Junk” in Dartmouth, and whether there is any way to have this by-law changed so that it acknowledges the important contribution that the secondhand economy makes for a green and sustainable future.