Children all have a strange obsession. Like the obsessives of Dungeons & Dragons, a stubborn devotion comes with the territory. In my house we are at least five living, spritely children with sprawling apartments, where each property contains a vinyl-covered miniature house complete with a tiny pair of shoes for each of the rooms and a microwave to toast the dangly toys.
Those tiny amounts of money that we can afford for bought goods each week comes with a sliver of responsibility: we must protect the property like a child might its mum, and take extreme precautions to keep the three-bedroomed Craftsman Rebuild medieval before the manicure-napper.
As someone who spends most of the month browsing local markets, going to various shops, and dropping off crates of vintage fabrics at my local DIY store, I have been on my own quest to understand my collectable life. Where has everything gone? Why am I screaming “THIS DOESN’T SOUND UNCOMFORTABLE” every time I go to the launderette?
I first began knocking on doors in search of a D&D set in 2017. I asked, “Hey, I need a tabletop role-playing game.” I didn’t know what I was seeking. I ended up in a strange flat with a major mental health disorder, a sore shoulder and a foot that couldn’t keep any toilet paper dry. This accidental task led me to the unique myth of the Buy Nothing World, where everything must be haggled.
Locked inside a small temple in Soho, the reality is a place where cardboard boxes, bars of chocolate and four-stringed violins are shared by a little platoon of enthusiastic San Franciscans. The mystique of the sell-on is not lost on these collectors: in almost every other conversation, someone mentions it as an oxymoron. We visit markets to encourage charitable things for others, but within ourselves it gives us a chance to horde objects.
Out of all the shops we have visited since the beginning of this experiment we have also learned that our country is bereft of complimentary shoe repair services. The option of a postbox near our flat has become redundant as more of us enjoy our relationships with the local Post Office as being monogamous, and who can afford double class stamps for a letter under 40p? Like house people, we are both learning about what home means to us.
Mourning childhood memories of bookcases
The world of the Buy Nothing World requires a partnership of equals, which is the case here. We are a small team of little renters, who have to spend many years trying to pay off the gargantuan debt of our purchase. Every day brings more uncertainty: will we receive a knock at the door from a knocker or warden, just because I didn’t clean the windows? If we stop shopping and just clean, will we burn out in a few months?
The adventures of a cloistered production team
As for my friends, their world isn’t yet sorted out. Most of them live with their parents and only support the hobby in the most indirect way. The older generation, in their 60s and 70s, who have paid off their houses and paid off their mortgages, have dedicated their lives to the craft and creative opportunities, but never earned a living wage. I fear that many of them are losing their powers of comprehension. For this reason, I help them collect their own pre-1950s toasters and clock radios to sell, as I have done with mine.
The clocks in our house have changed frequently and the table is always rearranged. It may not be fun to shop endlessly, but if the intention is to mend these objects back into their original configurations, it might be necessary. In a tactile transformation, you can help your house regain a sense of purpose. Sow some colour through the grey environment with a collection of 3D make-up brushes or knitting needles. If you need more inspiration, inspect the white plates you use at home, each drawer in the cupboard labelled with the initials of your favourite writers. Do you currently use Albert Camus on the oval of toast in the morning, or Céline or Proust?
Although we have dug up favourite books, our constant diet of films, a repertoire of podcasts, and a dozen different kinds of jewellery, I must concede that there are some days when the Buy Nothing House feels like a slightly tragic rabbit warren that is beginning to calcify. But in our everlasting quest to find a space that is far from mundane, we’ve managed to identify a certain degree of mundanity. And sometimes a cardboard box is just the