American Thrift Store: A Photo Essay

Aaron Gilbreath
10 min readJan 6, 2020

The places that sell old stuff can be as beautiful as the stuff they sell.

Glendale, Arizona thirft store. Photo by author

Here in the US, it’s often said that the best way to experience the so-called “real” America is to visit small towns. Right along Main Street, sipping low-grade Arabica bean coffee at the counter of a mom and pop café, the essential national character will rise, like the scent of cooking bacon, up through the manner and conversations of the working class locals around you. I don’t mean character as a matter of dress or genetic disposition — Wrangler versus Levi’s jeans; boxy versus rounded jaws; nor do I mean it as a measure of quaintness or simplicity, those visual elements of the nostalgic yesteryears preserved in the pickling jars of American period pieces such as Happy Days and The Brady Bunch. I mean character as the definitive, underlying qualities of a thing, its inner reality or, in Aristotle’s philosophical conception, its hypostasis. In this sense, any real America that might exist would manifest in the same way as any other country’s essence: as a measure of how we as a nation think; what we value; what we fear; what pursuits we find worthy of our time and energy; how we interact with others; and how we view ourselves and the world. For instance, are we greedy or generous? Communal or unconnected? Empathetic or thoughtless? Intellectual or hedonistic? Tolerant or small-minded? And how so?

Recently a rival notion of national identity has taken root. It debuted as parody on the derisive website the “People of Walmart” and has, through the work of civilian cell phone documentarians and blog anthropologists, spread through popular culture with the strangling persistence of a vine. Its core message: if you want to see the real real America, forget Main Street; go to Walmart. There in the cavernous, overstuffed aisles of the biggest big box store lives the modern version of Normal Rockwell’s iconic paintings, a dispiriting vision that offers an antidote to any remnant optimism about whether we, as a superpower, will forever remain as such, for in Walmart lurks the corrosive, fast food-eating, non-voting, prolifically reproducing, too-small-a-shirt-for-so-big-a-belly, uneducated welfare underworld that isn’t a world under anything at all, but instead has become the all too visible public face of our nation’s blotchy surface complexion, the nation’s true…

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Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.