Categories
News

Trust Me, It’s Free

(…and if there’s a problem, you did agree to the Terms of Service!)

You’ll notice every wi-fi hotspot you use asks you to agree to terms of service. These always include the caveat that the network may allow others to see the traffic you’re sending across it. No one hesitates to accept.

My lifestyle has me using public wi-fi to access the internet, always. I’ve long had an interest in computers, networks, and how they function. Network access is something I’ve done troubleshooting on with regularity. Not so much recently. I mention it by way of establishing a little credibility. At any rate that brings me to the point of this post.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a reliable, well-established way to keep your web browsing secure from outside observers. Back in 2010 or so VPNs were becoming increasingly prevalent as free and subscription services. Wanting to preserve my personal information while using wide-open public networks, I began making use of these services. They were great, initially. It wasn’t long before they became unusable. This followed a pattern.

At first, arriving at my regular wi-fi hotspots, I’d log in, join my VPN service, and it’d work. Everything went smoothly. It’d function perfectly, for a day or so. Soon enough, they’d fail to connect, making the network unusable. Without the VPN, access worked perfectly. Free or paid VPN, it made no difference.

This pattern spread to every public wi-fi spot. From Starbuck’s to Wendy’s, McDonald’s to A&W, before long every ‘free’ wi-fi offered to the public was unusable as soon as a VPN was engaged.

Every company offering publicly available internet was blocking access to the basic tools available to mitigate the very threat they were warning their users of.

The implications are clear enough. While there has yet to be a scandal (fingers crossed!), the business model offering free services to the public in exchange for rights to profit from their data is widespread, commonplace. Companies offering public wi-fi are collecting all network traffic, for profit. Without getting into the far flung regions of this subject, I’d point out what that entails. Your email address. Your banking details. All of your passwords. Your secret, flirty messages to your online fantasy affair. It’s all being collected and sorted, stored and used as data to model your behaviour.

Frighteningly, everything you’re using in the cloud, including any truly private, legally protected information you might access while working from your local coffee shop is also potentially being stored. All information you send and receive across one of these networks is being collected, recorded, collated and sold. Your personality, interests, economic status, sexuality, and private life are becoming the intellectual property of strangers, organizations who will use that information to extract maximum value from you, for the duration of your life.

Modern-day standards have been implemented to protect internet users from the threat of unauthorized traffic monitoring. Providers are side-stepping those standards, illegally accessing, collecting and profiting from your activity while denying you the power of self-protection. In a nearly Kafkaesque turn, any counter argument can be slapped down with reference to the terms of the agreement you entered into. In a world which increasingly demands access to networks as precondition to everyday living, this is a dangerous foundation to build upon.

Many aspects of this are troubling, though it is when looking at projected social futures the current state of affairs seem most ominous. Imagine your value being estimated at birth, the statistically probable limits of your economic value being projected based on generations of data and models — tried, tested, and deployed for profit and harmony in our technological future. ‘Dystopian’ hasn’t enough room in it to carry all of the hell that world would be.


The impetus for my posting this was the recent experience I had at my local library branch. My computer was hacked.

As part of my tech routine I format and reinstall my OS multiple times a year. I recently did just this. More than 24 hours passed between the format and my next sign-on at the library. Completely fresh install.

I’m familiar with the moods of the TPL network, including how often it requires a new sign-on — multiple times per day, no matter what.

When I connected to the library hotspot, it hit the internet, right away. No sign-in page, no terms of service. This was unusual. Based on evidence, I believe my laptop was being compromised, hacked.

After verifying I was indeed on the internet, I went about looking at the volume of traffic to and from my computer. That effort proved unnecessary. Next thing that happened was a segmentation fault in a privileged part of my OS. A segmentation fault is a form of program crash. Hackers will often use a specific sort of attack which results in a segmentation fault. The attack causes the system to execute code the attacker has crafted to gain privileges, breaking security so they can install software allowing them reliable access in future. In terms of seriousness, it’s many levels above monitoring traffic and collecting information.

What I am alleging here is that the administrators managing that network not only collect and sell user data, but, as with my example, have no qualms about installing software to illegally monitor patrons computer-based activity.

If you need help putting this kind of attack into context, I refer you to the Pegasus revelations. Pegasus is a formalized system of mobile phone hacking which has been connected to assassinations and kidnappings enacted around the world targeting journalists, activists, and uncooperative royals. Kidnapped, harassed, killed — phones compromised using commercially available Pegasus technology figure prominently in facilitating surveillance leading to violence and disappearances. Traces of Pegasus have been found on mobile phones all over the planet, indicating the widespread use of monitoring as a norm.

The power to illegally access private communications devices is not limited to those perceived as a threat to authoritarian governments. Identifiable data linked to an individual is key to profits for a broad range of businesses operating today. What purpose the Toronto Public Library would have for infiltrating and monitoring a patron’s laptop is something I couldn’t speculate on. Nor would I point to the close cooperation in harassment, gaslighting, and psychological abuse between GARDA Security (employed here in the library) and the City of Toronto as a possible basis for this specific incident.

Remember, the library is a public service institution. It’s a not-for-profit operation. It’s not a cog in the machine of a multi-national corporation. It’s an institution dedicated to public service. What part of that, I ask you, is represented by hacking the computers and personal data of the public? Next they’ll be finding security cameras hidden in public bathrooms. Uhhmmmm… they wouldn’t, would they?

Categories
Uncategorized

Creative Targets

Over the past few days I sought and found an Amazon delivery box to change into a container for my rice cooker. I lost it once, having to climb into a recycling dumpster to retrieve it. Today I went to work on it at Harrison Baths. Unsatisfactory is the only word to describe the result.

The problem, of course is a combination of things. Work-surface (the end of a bench, at bench height), less tape than I would like (for weather proofing), and, as always, time.

Constructing these isn’t very difficult, but along with space and resources to work, it takes some forethought and planning. Time and conditions are relevant factors. Figuring out how to fold the material while maintaining dimensions correct both internal and external requires a little finesse. And luck, but that’s also affected by factors.

The main thing about making these — or buying a new set of Tupperware, or new durable shopping bags, or any of the other items I use daily in my homelessness, is that it’s more than a just solution to an immediate problem. It’s an investment in a future which assumes continued homelessness.

Years ago, a volunteer I’d chatted with at a meal program saw me in the street. He greeted me, asking how I was. The answer I gave him encapsulates the reality of an institutionalized mind, a homeless mind. I said, “I was homeless yesterday, I’m homeless today, and I’ll be homeless tomorrow.” That is the truth of homelessness. Eventually, the future is your adversary.

My time homeless has spanned the years a person would normally build a career, a life, a history of their experiences, memories, which I’d argue are the brickwork of identity. Time, when it becomes your adversary, forces escape. Oblivion, nostalgia, anger, violence — there are many ways to run from an intractable foe. My own escape has been to attack time on it’s own terms. Whether by delving into fictionalized versions of the lives of Roman Emperors, the lives of real, living legends, or galaxies of imagined, extrapolated futures, my escape has been a fight, and a search for meaning, guided by curiosity.

My curiosity finds in history human meaning. It is made of stories, our past. No matter where on earth we are from, or where we are, our lives are the result of a long process of change, and growth, and evolution. People are what make the world, and people are living and telling the stories which make our history.

Periodically, I remember that spices were prized, of staggering value. These are items we now take for granted. Pepper, salt, these are considered staples, and bland staples at that. Items like these were instrumental in conjuring the institutions our world was built upon, the institutions we take for granted as inevitable, natural, normal.

(Wish I could spend time polishing this.)

Categories
Archive

strut, cut, blood, lunch [ʊ]

(March, 2022 – Additional update on text. All donors are now welcome. Things are pretty grim.)

York U (etc.) UPDATE: I’ve looked at the resources listed at the York U website and found a couple of bright spots (though not many). I’ve not yet contacted the Financial Aid desk at York University by phone, though I believe it would be helpful. The naked facts are these — while I am homeless I will not be studying. A return to housing does not look like a realistic possibility. The fundraiser has moved very slowly, a critical problem when the amount to be raised is so large. This slow pace is due mostly to the time cost involved in pursuing donations. At the outset I knew I wouldn’t be performing for the internet in the way people find engaging (see my ‘Ronald Villiers’ Guide to Fundraising on Social Media,’ here.) My rationale, and I stand by it even now, is that homelessness is immoral and unjustifiable. It’s my position that people ought to assess my case for their donation and act according to their own beliefs.

There are only two groups of people I won’t accept donations from — high school students, and activists for human rights/social/climate justice. Everyone else is welcome to contribute. I’ll even take money from celebrities, on the condition they keep it private (I’d rather be homeless than someone’s mascot, thanks just the same).

Much of the money I’ve raised over the course of the fundraiser (500+ days at time of writing) has been spent. You could not be blamed for thinking it irresponsible of me, slowly chipping away at that money meant to be saved for housing. In response I’d ask you to put yourself in my shoes. To date, it’s meant the difference between having a rain poncho, or not; clean clothes four times a month instead of once a month; it’s meant an upgrade from ramen or tomato soup & rice every day to mini-ravioi; it’s meant the first pair of new shoes in years; it’s meant owning a phone with the same phone number for longer than a couple of months; it’s meant haircuts, health, grooming, and pain relief supplies without asking for personal credit; it’s meant a minor though meaningful reduction in daily stress. Crucially, it’s meant not going hungry every 26 or so days, and not having the shame of begging a shop owner for a meal. Of course, the pandemic took a hand in things. My expenses tripled.

That’s the most recent update. It’s December 8, 2021. It’s snowing outside. It’s getting colder and I haven’t found a winter’s jacket worth a damn. Also in need of a new pair of shoes. I don’t expect to find anything worth paying for. This is fairly typical in recent years with so many people needing to economize using thrift stores. Subsequent to higher demand, prices have gone up. Quality and volume of clothing donations has gone down as people hold onto items longer, or donate them to friends and family. It’s a cycle which puts a lot of pressure on the homeless, and others living in poverty.

Thrift stores fill a niche for consumers. They’re a useful (and perhaps inevitable) response to a need. Homelessness is not inevitable. It is not the cost of our economic system, or the price of greater prosperity. Homelessness is a result of the decision to deny people resources they need. Governments, bureaucrats, academics and policymakers decide what resources will be directed at homelessness. They have perpetuated a cruel and inhumane condition taking those decisions. We who live it are only visible as unworthy, filthy, and undeserving. Those stereotypes themselves are perpetuated by decisions made in committee rooms, by vote, by silence.

You may be one of the new generation, those who have a homeless family member. It’s not uncommon anymore. Yet they do nothing. The problem of homelessness will continue to worsen, affecting increasing numbers of people until it is impossible to ignore. Great harm will be done. Human lives will be destroyed. Real and wide-ranging problems will have become entrenched. Then they will pronounce, they will celebrate new initiatives, and cry out the mistakes of the old regime. By then it will be — as with so many other issues threatening people today — too fucking late.

Categories
Archive

Picanha?! It’s Pic-AHN-ya

(Contains some swearing)

In my time homeless I’ve had a lot of dealings with security guards. Some of them are bastards. Some of them are fucking bastards. Some of them are sadistic fucking bastards. Some of them are decent, and some are simply passing through the job, not much invested in it as part of their identity.

Security guards, I’ve noticed, act within the boundaries of the culture of their particular company. Those cultures can vary quite widely. Consider the City of Toronto uniformed security guards. They’re the best and friendliest guards that I’ve ever encountered. In my experience, they go out of their way to accommodate people, applying their own discretion to situations rather than simply consulting a rule book.

Some corporate cultures take a mostly hands-off attitude, keeping out of the way unless action is necessary.

Other cultures, though, make the decision to actively enforce policy by aggressively pursuing outcomes. You can imagine which will be staffed by real people and which will be staffed by cowboys.

I’ve lived and slept a long time on Toronto’s Hospital Row. I’ve seen and experienced some of the ways different hospitals engage as publicly funded institutions.

At one hospital in Toronto, for instance, I have witnessed the security guards who work there take homeless and elderly men violently off the premises. At a hospital! I mention this not because it is an exception, but because it is the rule at that hospital. In at least three instances (over the course of one Winter) I witnessed this sort of behaviour, including a lot of laughter as the group of guards watched an elderly or otherwise infirm homeless person stagger and limp away from the hospital after being ejected.

My own experiences at that hospital have been centred around having an urgent need to use the toilet at early hours. Even in that circumstance I was aggressively approached and told to leave. The rationale on one occassion, according to the three security guards who pounded on the bathroom door, was that I wasn’t registered at Emergency. That doesn’t merit a response, to my thinking.

I’ve got a lot more on this subject and I look forward to casting some light on it.

I just wanted to bring some attention to how near to normal the actions of the security guards who killed that man in Brazil Thursday night are.

And of course open the question of exactly how much authority we are comfortable handing over to people whose only legitimacy stems from a lease agreement and business license.

Categories
Archive

Abraca-plaza!

Lazy, and obdurate. Masochists. Filthy, greedy, animals. We are feral. Cunning and vile. We simply do not know what’s good for us.

These are the terms City of Toronto applies to the homeless, discreetly.

Watch the news, and you’ll see reports featuring public servants, credible people society relies upon — Firemen, Police, Paramedics, speaking about what they’ve found.

The Mayor, a press conference. One step away from a scolding, an attitude of firm, tough love. During Christmas holiday season you’ll find a note of compassion. Elsewise, it’s ‘beware the menacing homeless.’

City Hall wouldn’t write any of those words into a memo or policy. They’re people. They don’t want to appear unkind. Instead, they push the concept, the facade. It’s the lightly crafted use of a half-formed idea. A tweet, or a look. A photo, an article. Bias and stereotype do the rest.

Words, barely formed, surface in the public mind. The shadow of a thought. You needn’t think too hard on it. They’re dirty. They’re thieving away your hard-earned tax money. Don’t give it another moment, we’ve got this. It’s only common sense. We’ll take care of it. It’s what you’re paying us for.

You’ve seen us on the street, in the park, on TV.

We’re a threat to ourselves. We nest, unwanted and uninvited. We set fires. We are criminals. We invade City property. We make a public space unsightly.

Coming away from a story on homelessness you carry that message with you. The seed of an idea, already rooted. You nurture it every time you see an encampment, an addict, or a panhandler. It’s not your fault. Soon enough, you’ll see another story about a fire, or statistics about overdose deaths.

Once a year, you’ll hear about a serious crime involving a homeless. You’ll see the grainy videos of shit-throwing vagrants, angry beyond proportion over a closed bathroom, or some other nuisance.

What’s it all about?

Why don’t they just go to shelters? Why do they refuse to leave the parks? It’s a shame. The help is there, why don’t they just accept it? Make everybody’s life easier.

Milk or cream? Sugar or sweetener? Coffee or tea? We all make decisions. When last did you refuse something? It was something you didn’t want, probably. Why? Why do people refuse things? Any number of reasons. You don’t simply accept anything offered to you.

Who did you answer to for your refusal? Maybe you’re a bit wild and answered to a judge. No? A bureaucrat. A security guard? Your mom.

More than likely, you only answered to yourself. Your partner, your children, your loved ones, if the decision was contentious.

Did you question yourself? Your right to decide? Your ability to make a decision? Your faith in yourself, or your legitimacy? No, probably not.

Were you made to feel less than a person for saying no? Look at the image below. The title, in particular.

‘Homeless… refusing outreach.’

You already know what I think.

Categories
Archive

Let’s Have a March

A while back I watched Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times.’ It’s hilarious, touching, and an easy watch.

The film calls attention to so many of the problems exacerbated by capitalism. Almost one hundred years later, things are not any better.

Categories
Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral III

Thrift Store Death Spiral – Three

The standard approach to dealing with problems and errors in a system is mitigation. We mitigate the probable cost of crime by employing police, and by doing things like supplying the poor with welfare payments. We mitigate the trend of economic failure, repossession, foreclosure and exclusion by providing unemployment benefits, consumer credit and payday loans. We mitigate stagnant income and rising transport costs by gradually shrinking the portion size of food items. We mitigate the cost of producing those food items by substituting ingredients of lower quality. Toxic agricultural practices, unsustainable frameworks of corporate governance and policy, on and on — this web of generalized unconcern mitigates the responsibility and the accountability of power structures which have never taken their position or their responsibility seriously. Despite the reality that people everywhere are paying a human cost for systems-wide neglect and malaise, profit margins don’t shrink much and traditionally-defined inflation is virtually non-existent. By common metrics, that means we’re doing it right — which assumes we’re measuring the right things, of course. Returning to the point, thrift stores fit nicely into the category of mitigation. There are some uglier terms we could apply to the overall function of donation-based retail — ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is one — but let’s stick to some practical aspects here.

The poor need many of the same manufactured goods that everyone else use. Clothing, furniture, shoes, knick-knacks, items of utility, few or none of these are likely to be hand-made by a modern individual. With a need to economize, the poor and working people of our society naturally look for secondary options, legal and illegal. Thrift stores are a reasonable response to that demand. For the purpose of illustration I’m going to use the example of an item close to my heart, shoes. Some people buy new footwear based on fashion, season, or social requirements, as with a graduation or funeral. Others will only own one or two pair of shoes and wear them until they need replacing. Then you have that breed I’ve never really understood, who simply love having a lot of footwear options, buying and buying and buying shoes that they wear a little at a time. Seems a little weird, but that’s people. Whichever sort of consumer they are, the people in this example one day decide they’re going to donate a pair of shoes they’ve not got any further use for. You can imagine the difference in shoe each different type of consumer might be donating. The person who buys new shoes for style or occasions is likely to be donating moderately used items, well cared for and of brand name quality. The person who only owns a couple of pair will be donating shoes that probably have little in the way of life left in them. The shoe-obsessive is probably laughing at anyone who gives away good shoes or buys from a thrift store, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and say it’s probably a donation of a pair of high quality shoes with maybe a scuff that won’t take polish. Now we have these three sets of donations, each of a quality that you’d hope represents the broadest range you’ll find at your thrift store, good quality, poor quality, and subjective.

The important parts of a shoe are the heel, the blade, the toe, and bridge support. The upper and the sole are important, to be sure, but when the interior of the shoe has collapsed, the rest doesn’t matter. My own shoes wear pretty heavily at the heel, collapsing the support in a poorly made shoe fairly quickly. Some people ride the outer blade of the foot, which breaks the edge of the internal part of the shoe down. Others are particularly hard on the ball or the toe of the shoe. Across brands, these problems will exists depending on design and material. Most of the shoes you’ll find on the shelf will have at least one of these issues. Depending on what condition the shoes were in when they were donated, the internal wear pattern can be tolerable for a little while, or at least until you can find a better pair. If they’re in bad shape from the start, though, you’ll end up walking around like you’re drunk, always a little off balance, always seeking to correct and offset inertia and momentum. Worse, it can badly affect your posture.

The quality of the products on a thrift store shelf is entirely dependent on the quality of products people have donated. That in itself is dependent on the decisions being made by those donating. Some people donate items because they no longer have use for them. Some donate items because they have obtained something newer or better. Some items are donated as a matter of habit, people thinking of a donation as recycling. As salary and wages continue to stagnate and people of all income levels are motivated to look for savings, a long and insidious cycle begins. More shoppers accessing a limited pool of items, all sourced from the consumption cycle, means there are fewer items available overall. That difference, between goods manufactured and goods reclaimed, presents us with real problems. With no mechanism to increase the available supply, the existing material is depleted more quickly, and standards, already low, are lowered. The poor and working poor, people who have a real need to shop for necessities at thrift stores have increasing difficulty finding the items they need.

Over a slightly longer time-line, the impact of the complex of factors which produce the conditions in which thrift stores, dollar stores, and retail liquidators thrive creates a situation that reaches into the homes and families of the middle-class and of professionals. This has a dangerous, cascading effect.

Categories
Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral II

Thrift Store Death Spiral – Two

As a result of the time I spent in thrift store book sections, I found some real treasures. Those, I remember happily, were mainly passed along as gifts to friends. I remember with particular fondness finding one of Stephen King’s books in first edition. It was published under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman, including a fictional author’s photo and bio, which made it a rarity. It gave me immense pleasure to gift that to a childhood friend of mine who was very much a King completist. My own treasures were mainly reference books. My interest in gardening… well, I’ll spare you some obvious puns and simply tell you I was always on the look-out for titles on specific areas of horticulture. Like many who get a little obsessed with the subject, I badly wanted to grow orchids and other rare cultivars. Unfortunately, I hadn’t the right set-up or budget at the time.

Serendipitously, gardening and horticulture is an area of interest aided by a natural correlation between source material and relevance. That’s to say you’re not likely to find a book on desert gardening where there is no desert. Of course, as is true anywhere if you’ve an eye for it, it’s possible in a thrift store to catch a glimpse of the wheel of time in motion as trends in fashion, design, and aesthetic rise, fall, and rise again. The gardening world has it’s own trends and fads, some of them very distinctive. Terrariums and aquaculture were quite the thing back around 1977, apparently. Those have both evolved radically but as elements of interior design their resurgence has been subsumed, repeatedly, by larger forces and excluded by more powerful design strictures.

Apart from books, I centered my shopping on coffee mugs and cardigans, records, (too many) useless experiments with 8-Track, some minor furniture restoration projects, that kind of thing. I was never one for buying second hand appliances, those (by the time they get to a thrift shop) typically being useful only to people with some interest in tinkering. It wasn’t until I became homeless that I would come to depend on thrift stores for footwear and clothing. As a result of that necessity, I’ve tracked another sort of pattern developing in thrift stores, a worrying change in standards. If you’ve done any bargain hunting in the past ten years you’ll have noticed this change as well. It makes sense when you contextualize the life-cycle of a thrift store, but is easy to dismiss as unimportant or coincidental. When you zoom out a little, though, you may agree with me when I tell you what I think this pattern indicates.

(Most adults have a detailed awareness of the concept of supply and demand, I know, so please forgive me as I describe a version of it here for the purpose of framing.)

Normally, a retailer stocks items that have been manufactured to meet the demand of consumers. Consumer demand is something that depends on a lot of factors, not least being the amount of discretionary income available and a consumer’s willingness to spend. Typically the number of items available, cans of soup as an example, won’t far exceed the amount expected to sell in a given amount of time. This is fairly safe as an arrangement for all parties. The products consumers want are made available, and as they run out, more are manufactured and delivered. The consumer does not usually have to wait, and those involved in the process of producing, ordering, and transporting those products can safely assume they will be sold, which allows for planning and all of the correlative processes around businesses linked to retail sales. Because of the responsiveness and efficiency of production and shipping systems, those involved can respond to consumer behaviours fairly quickly, adjusting processes in the supply chain based on needs and expectations.

Thrift stores are unusual in the retail landscape because of their supply chain. For supply, thrift stores rely on behaviours that are based entirely in the consumption cycle. The improvised nature of that supply chain is vulnerable in some unusual ways. Its development and process involves a couple of important decisions. The cycle begins when a consumer buys an item, new. At some point, they decide they’ll discard the item and, instead of putting into the trash, they donate it. It’s pretty straightforward. While it is the nature of a consumer society to generate a steady-flowing stream of waste products as the cycle of demand, acquisition, and obsolescence proceeds, the introduction of re-consumption as a significant portion of that system has some problematic outcomes.

Thrift stores are a sort of outsider, a foreign influence, or, to borrow a word from two loves of mine, movies and gardening, they are a ‘grex.’ A grex is an unnatural or artificial hybrid. This is something you may already be aware of, as it’s a concept from botany mentioned in the 1978 movie, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ It’s proposed by one of the leads as a theory for the presence of the strange flowers that have started appearing in cities. While the film offers no explicit explanation of those unusual flowers, it’s safe to imagine they are the hybrid product of an alien life-form and an Earth-bound botanical native. You might also think of their function as akin to that of a virus, or perhaps the Xenomorph, living by diverting native resources towards producing undesirable outcomes not easily checked. As a description for what thrift stores represent, those flowers and their pods offer a pretty robust metaphorical hook.

As a group, people prefer to be lead. Our leaders are very effective at placation. As things exist right now, we live in a society that accepts the existence of poverty as a fact of life. Our society acknowledges the existence of chronic homelessness, hungry children, widespread deprivation, abuse of power, and innumerable ongoing problems. We dedicate resources to things like homeless shelters, holiday food drives, safe houses for abused people, and other stop-gap efforts. Yet collectively we do as little as possible to actually correct those problems. We settle for dedicating the minimum of resources and apply the lowest standard of effort. It achieves an easy-to-measure outcome and ticks some boxes on a form. We make ourselves complicit as we ignore the failures of our systems, trading away the lives of others for the comfort and safety of our personal worlds, keeping to our own small bubble. Sure, we sometimes wear pieces of ribbon, or go for a group run, a march, or retweet political ideas, often producing meaningful results. Some people volunteer, others work within the system, hoping to bring change in that way. The source of complex problems can take a long time to recognize, and even longer to know what to do about them. No matter the issue economics play an important role, both in the solution and the problem itself. Once we see the root of a problem, it is easier to imagine a way forward. Thrift stores, dollar stores, and other elements of the broader day-to-day of human life serve as indicators, as weather-vanes for an underlying reality. In a society that continues to only apply short-term fixes, spin, and tactics of division, problems will continue to propagate.

Categories
Archive Serial

Thrift Store Death Spiral I

Thrift Store Death Spiral – One

As someone who moved away from home early I often had to find ways to stretch my funds. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar situation. At that time, which was before Wal-Mart, before Amazon, and just as Dollar stores were opening across Toronto, anyone seeking discount retail value only really found it at second-hand and thrift shops. Early in my teen years I’d found second-hand bookshops a great place to discover new stories and authors. Not always the broad selection available at the retail chains, but a reliable source for some of the greats, and at a discount. Downtown had an abundance of used book shops, while my own suburban neighbourhood had only two. The calculus involved turned any search for a new book into something of an adventure. Really hunting around for the right book at the right place and the right price was a fun day out for my teenage self.

There’s more to life than reading, and more to books than shopping. Putting my acquisitive experience on a more practical footing, I did a lot of comparison and measuring, usually around cost but also which edition and what cover art any given book might have, the condition it was in, and whether it would fit in my back pocket. Thrift stores were, naturally, a resource. They could be found, much like franchise fast-food joints, paired up and competing wherever they stood. My apartment wasn’t large, which set a high bar for what came through the door. Small pieces of furniture, records, books, and miscellaneous tools and implements all had to meet criteria beyond simple need or desire.

Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village, there were perhaps one or two others… They each had that same distinct odour. (I mean, it’s not a bad smell, really, but if you give it any thought it’s definitely enough to make your skin crawl.) This being before the internet, I sought new information and guidance browsing book sections. There were usually a lot of books on spiritual and religious matters, pop psychology, and a hodge-podge of card game and car mechanics guides. My own hobbies were primarily gardening and house plants at that time. Having taken a deep interest in those subjects, the abundance of magazines and reference material was like a feast to me. The fiction was all pretty mainstream, and there were the inevitable large-format discount hardback books full of glossy pages recommending poorly designed culinary fusions, shoddy homeopathic advice, and unproven crafting projects. Adherence to genre and category were lax on the shelf, and the amount of attention paid to monitoring was limited to clumps of new arrivals all being fit into the appropriate section, resulting in a process of natural selection disturbed only by curious and indecisive shoppers.

Across franchises and locations the selection was at times uncannily similar, even consistent. Noticing this, I would often speculate on how much effort I ought to put into scrutinizing the shelves. A usual trip thrift store shopping was with my girlfriend at the time, which meant we were browsing with purpose. My approach would be to break away and give the book shelves a quick scan, just because. That would sometimes pay off, though not as often as a more thorough search. In some stores, though, a thorough look could take as long as an hour. To save time, I developed a kind of consumer profiling system in which I would try to predict behaviour. I’d guess at which would be the least-often-browsed sections, usually the uppermost and lowest shelves. It was easy spotting where no books had been added or removed. Using this approach, I could, when I made the rounds of our shops, focus my search in areas that I knew few others would have looked. Additionally, I relied on the probability that an employee adding books to the shelves would go about their work applying the least effort, and made plans to influence where they would apply their efforts. To this day I remember observing those upper shelves developing movement at a much slower rate than mid-level shelves. By creating gaps on the top shelves, I found I could encourage placement of new additions there so that I would get first crack. Another tactic I tried out involved basing my level of time-commitment on how quickly I came across a copy of the novel, ‘Coma,’ which virtually every thrift store had a copy of. It was a little unusual to find that book absent. Hard as I tried I couldn’t make a correlation between the selection available and the volume of copies of that book. No doubt there’s some explanation related to demographics and timing, sales, distribution, and the appetite for (re-reading) thrillers, but that was all beyond my expertise and interest. Ultimately I found that while I could influence the probability of success (as I defined it), I had no reliable way to predict my chances, so I just read every title on every shelf and sorted the wheat from the chaff.