Junker’s Blues

For those of you who've been enjoying this column over the last couple of months, it's time to let you know that you need to take the whole thing with a large grain of salt.

Illustration by Nathanael Roney

Because I'm a junker, and all the junkers I've ever met are liars. Well … "liar" is such a harsh word. All used-stuff salesmen are not used-car salesmen, so to speak. I mean, there are those that junk dishonestly — who will lie about what they're selling you, what it should sell for, obscure its condition and generally rip-off their clientele.

But that isn't the subject of today's column. Today's column is about little white elephant lies. LWELs, as we'll call them from this point forward, are fish stories. War stories. Stretchers. They don't impact directly upon a transaction, or do any harm. They're mostly told in the mornings, before the flea market or the trade show starts, or at the end of the day over beers. Most LWELs have a few grains of truth to them, but are not, strictly speaking, objectively realistic accounts.

In the course of a Little White Elephant Lie, the stuff a junker uncovers is more rare, of greater quantity and conditional quality, or is acquired more cheaply than how it actually went down "in the field." Things sell, in the telling, for greater amounts than the real-world green that changed hands. Deals made with other junkers go better for the LWEL'er. The goal is to hear the words "that was a good deal" or "that was a good score" come from another junker's mouth.

Say someone says "I found this box full of Jim Thompson firsts and a bunch of other Lion Books pulps the other day." Lion Books is the ne plus ultra of violent existential 1950s paperback originals with great covers and actual literary value. People collect them, they carry a little weight on eBay. "Good condition, too. Got 'em for next to nothing." Well, in reality, there may have been a box. There may have even been a copy of, say, After Dark My Sweet. But its cover hinge was devoured by weevils and the glue in the binding turned to powder when the book was opened. And the other Lions were their public domain reprints, like Candide or Frankenstein. And maybe those were in good shape, but they weren't copies of Tall Dark and Dead or Sin Pit. And next to nothing may have been 10 bucks for a full box with four Lions in it. And the rest was '60s Fawcetts. Still a cool score (greatest Frankenstein cover ever) but not a Score. LWELs let a fellow junker's imagination run wild and filling in the necessary blanks, making the treasure glitter more brightly in the mind than it does in reality.

Or say, for instance, Junker A acquires something from Junker B. A tells Junker C about it. C says "that was a good deal." C sees B later in the day, and says, "Sell anything today?" B will offer the same anecdote but the price will be different. I have yet to figure what the actual junk-calculus involved is, but I'm sure there is a formula where if C knew the price A claims he paid and B claims he received, C would be able to determine the actual transaction price. Said equation will certainly have to deal in imaginary numbers. 

One reason junkers tell LWELs is for status. Junking is not an occupation that promotes typical workplace pecking order — promotions, career advancement, titles. Nobody is going to be made Vice-President in Charge of Rare '50s Pinup Magazines. We rely on our skills, luck, junk-knowledge and deal-making abilities to establish bona fides in our community. So in relating the tales of our latest scores, everything skews in our favor, making the teller into a kind of super junker. It's one thing to be a junkman, quite another to be Junk Man. 

Another reason for telling LWELs is to protect our sources. A good junk source is like a little gold mine. It is unwise to let another miner know exactly where your goods are coming from. But if you've got a good source somewhere, eventually you're going to wind up telling a LWEL about something you found at your new "spot." Inevitably someone is going to ask (and the better you tell your LWEL the more they're going to want to know), "Wow! Where'd you find that?" Then you're stuck. You can't really refuse to reveal your sources. That's rude and severs the bond that the LWEL has been establishing.

But at the same time you know that if you do say where you really got it, you're going to see that mother junker scouring the place the next time you go in there. To combat this conundrum, the junking community has developed its own version of "don't ask don't tell": "I found it at the Goodwill". These six words kindly say, "I respect you, but I'm not for real going to tell you where I get my junk." IFIATG is unquestionable and inviolable unless used too many times in a row, at which point you will stretch the credibility of your whole web of LWELs. 

Another reason people tell LWELs is because they are crazy. Crazy junkers tell that most amusing LWEL, the Little Pink Elephant Lie, a tale so beyond the bounds of possibility it verges on pathological. I have one absolutely KILLER LPEL that involves Elvis, a signed record, a safe, a million dollars, and an arena full of screaming Charlotte residents. Unfortunately I'm out of space for this week, so I'll have to tell you some other time.  But I can tell you I got it off of a guy at the Goodwill in Hendersonville.

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