Columbia Thrift Store

In a post last winter I included a few shots of the Columbia Thrift Store.  Dark and silent in the snow—it was closed the day I was there. I said I’d be back when it was open as stores like that are usually good places to find interesting images. For those living outside this area Columbia has the distinction of being the smallest incorporated town in Virginia with a population of 49. (2000 census)  There were 18 households in 2000—doesn’t look much bigger than that now. The median income then was about $18,500—probably less than that these days. (Source: Wikipedia).

When I returned a few days ago—it was a gorgeous and glorious central Virginia spring day–Dogwood, Cherry and Redbud trees everywhere in colorful celebration of the end of a very cold and snowy winter.

Arriving at the store I parked in an open area just off the pavement—a small expanse of bare dirt and mud-puddles. Sitting on the front steps was a pleasant, welcoming 50-something lady and 2 teen-age girls—the front door and several windows inside were propped open to the fragrant spring breeze. A big sandwich board sign proclaimed “WE ARE OPEN.”

I said I was a retired old guy who likes to take pictures of old stuff. They believed me and said  I could take all the pictures I wanted and was pretty much ignored after that.

Except for one curious, good-natured young man—10 or 11 year-old Michael.  I had been shooting stacks of old plates and the soles of worn shoes for 10 or 15 minutes when I noticed Michael taking pictures of me.

Well—not really. He was squinting at me through the view-finder of an old folding Polaroid—looked to be of early 80s vintage—no film in it. (Can you even get film packs for that camera anymore?)

“Hi there,” I offered, “Looks like you’re a photographer too.”

He lowered the camera a moment to smile silently at me.

“Just go on taking pictures of me I said—and if you don’t care, I’ll take pictures of you.”

I shot several frames, asked him to lower the camera a bit so I could get a good view of his face and snapped a couple of informal portraits.

I asked his name—he told me.  I thanked him for letting me take his picture—and went back to prowling the stacks of mis-matched china, dog-eared paperback romance novels, 33 & a third LPs and countless racks of tired-looking, out-dated kids clothes.  Putting down the camera occasionally and looking around at the tons of stuff unwanted, the building had the feel of a forgotten bus or train station–filled with forgotten travelers. I found myself thinking of that line from Dante–”All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

The building looked like it was a general-store/dry-goods business many moons ago—when Columbia was actually a booming little canal and river town in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Now it seemed to be slumbering on the verge of collapse—held together by innumerable layers of paint, mildew and memories.

Secreted at the back of the store, an ancient, faded arm chair and love seat were curled around an equally ancient oil-burning stove—the pipe rising out of the metal cabinet, making a sharp right turn and exiting through a piece of sheet-metal covering a former window. I could easily imagine sitting there, huddled against the dark and snowy-cold winter outside the un-insulated walls.

A tattered “Out of order—sorry,” sign hung limply on a dirty-paint-peeling door—I could hear children’s voices inside. A wall of shelves—probably built to hold canned goods 80 or 90 years ago—now held only one small, non-descript framed picture and a six-inch plaque that read, “Life’s a beach and then you drown.”

Michael had put down his camera and now seemed to be shadowing me—not sure if he was the store’s anti-shoplifting security service or just mesmerized by the goofy spectacle of this old guy photographing nearly empty shelves and worn-out shoes.

Outside the front doors, I could hear agitated conversation—then someone calling, “Sir, sir.” I walked to the front, snapped a few shots of a clothesline string of little girls frocks hanging on display in the large front windows.

Parked in the wrong place,  a handsome, muscular young black man wearing corn-rows asked me to move my vehicle out of his front yard. I apologized and tried to make a joke about old people being easily  confused. Instead of finding this funny he nodded in perfunctory agreement and reiterated his lack of appreciation for someone parking in his yard. Throughout the entire exchange he never looked directly at me—he always looked at the ground.

I felt I had worked this subject pretty good so I climbed into my truck, made a u-turn in the street and pointed the hood toward home. I edged off the pavement across from the store to get a few shots of the store front before I left town. The woman and girls were gone—now a burly, middle-aged man and a boy a few years younger than Michael sat on the steps. As I framed the composition I could see boxes and miscellaneous junk stacked in front of the upstairs windows—wavy, bubbled glass and strips of paint curling from the window frames. I was struck again with the sense of indifferent time passing and the structure being held together by layers of paint, mildew and memories.

Sometimes that’s enough.

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