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Intersections: There's treasure to be had at swap meets

TelevisionBob HopeRose Bowl Flea Market

There is nothing I find more thrilling than a weekend spent at swap meets, estate sales and second-hand stores, rummaging through possessions that have been either sold or left behind.

My penchant for second-hand, vintage goods started at an early age, when I would beg my dad to take a detour from his route on our drive and follow the address on the “garage sale” signs plastered around the neighborhood. Some of my earliest finds included a complete set of classical music CDs that bolstered my love for Rachmaninoff and a pair of troll doll earrings — a find I treasured as if they were a pair of Tiffany & Co. diamond studs.

My mother, who has never been a fan of the phrase “One man's junk is another man's treasure” scoffed every time I walked through the door with a new find.

“You realize that someone else has used it,” she would say.

Yes, I did. And the connection to that someone through whatever object it was made the thrill of buying, of sorting through nooks and crannies to find that one thing that spoke to me, that much more exciting. It was a modern-day treasure hunt, a plunge into dust and sometimes dirt, to find the past in the present.

And although my love of junk and treasure has led to me to seek out swap meets and second-hand stores from Canada to the East Coast, Western Europe and the Caucasus, it is the Los Angeles region — and more specifically the tri-city area of Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena — that truly offers the best grounds for this type of activity.

Over the years, I've pinned the reason down to the fact that there doesn't seem to be a high resident turnover in these areas — while more move in, less move out, which creates houses full of amazing finds that sometimes span three generations. It also helps that three swap meets — Glendale Community College Swap Meet, Pasadena Community College Flea Market and the more commercialized Rose Bowl Flea Market — are here.

Though the allure of discovering something that will net a profit has been popularized in recent years by shows like “Storage Wars” and “American Pickers,” it is a fascinating pastime for more than monetary reasons. It's a look into history, how we live, what we live for and what makes us happy. It's also a need on the hunter's part to honor the people only defined to strangers by the possessions they left behind.

This weekend I attended a movie prop sale across from Bob Hope Airport in Burbank for one of the longest-running television series in U.S. history, that cheesy soap opera you, your mother — or in my case, my grandmother — came to know and love: “One Life to Live.”

The 15,000-square-foot warehouse had everything from furniture to clothes worn by the actors and a room full of costume jewelry. Due to the nature of the show, what with those classic soap opera flashbacks, nothing was ever thrown out.

The merchandise's tie with television characters instead of real people took away from its appeal. I moved on to a three-generation estate sale nearby, and what it lacked in size when compared to the prop sale — with its vintage bowls, Singer sewing machine, Northern California paraphernalia and boxes of textbooks and workbooks from the former Pasadena Junior College — it made up in character.

As I drove home with a box full of goods, I was reminded why the things we buy, treasure and leave behind are more than just junk, they're an insight into what makes humans tick, their diversity, their attachment to material things and how those things define their character. And for those like me who seek them out, it says a little bit about ours, too.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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