Beki Grinter

Emmaüs: adventures in other people’s stuff

In European Union, France on September 2, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Emmaüs is a second hand shop just south of Georgia Tech Lorraine. It receives and resells things that people don’t want. And in general, I’m not a huge second hand shop sort of person. I don’t go “antiquing” very much when I’m in the United States, it’s just not my thing. In fact, I go only when there’s a dearth of other things that I might do, or when I think I am somewhere sufficiently strange that an interesting bargain might be had (somehow the many years of watching Antiques Roadshow have had only that influence on me).

But last week I went antiquing and on an adventure into the world of other French people’s stuff. And it was fascinating.

I went on a Wednesday, accompanied by a GT-L colleague who is very knowledgeable about lace, has a good sense of whether things are hand or machine produced and what style of lace they are. Also knows what fabric the lace is sewn on to. And this matters. I’m not really a lace person, but this is France and France has a long and substantial tradition of lace making. And we’re close to other countries that have that history too.

Emmaüs has a lace room, entirely devoted to the stuff, and it comes in in the form of bed linens, clothing, as well as pieces of lace still waiting to be used as trim for garments. And it’s beautiful. It’s easy to see the hard work that went into it, on the better linens with the better threads, the lace feels rich… and it looks even to the most untrained of eye, beautiful.

Also in the lace room, costume jewelry and vestments. Yes, the latter is ecclesiastical robes. I have not seen any hats yet (once did see a mitre in a Norwich antique shop, quite near the cathedral appropriately). But there are vestments, cassocks, and other forms of regalia. In a large box, in a mess. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Among the jewelry I made some important finds. A brooch made out of a Queen Victoria (young Victoria) half rupee. And then there’s the tie pin which has a roman coin from Elagabalus‘ reign, he was a real charmer. But that is of course what treasure hunting is all about, you win some and you lose some and it’s not always about money (in this case 1 and 8 euros a piece)… sometimes it’s about getting the good romans and sometimes about getting the completely crazy ones. I knew what I was getting into more with the Victoria rupee, and 1 euro is probably a fair price.

So, that’s a lot about specific things, and I didn’t even touch on the limoges pottery i saw or the couple of art deco lamps. But, Emmaüs is more than just its items. It’s an experience. For a short time you enter a museum, a museum of French life. But not the type that privilege the rich and largely ignore the poor. You see the whole life, and it is very different from the life you can see in American shops. It’s a story about grandma’s 1920’s nightdresses, all hand made, now all for sale, and the costume jewelry that adorned the clothes, and the coats (fur, with hat and gloves), and then to the furniture made out of real wood (no IKEA here) and inlaid with other woods, and finished with marble tops and so forth. And walking through Emmaüs I’m able to glimpse at past lives, more like those I might have had if I had been born in France in the early-middle 1900’s.

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