Thrift Store of the Damned

So Jasmine and I are driving back from a lovely mini-vacation in Gettysburg this afternoon, and I’m in an impulsive mood. We notice what looks like a big damn yard sale as we’re coming up on Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium. How can you resist a name like that, when you’re on the road and have a little room in your schedule? You can’t.

Twenty minutes later, after an unremarkable candy selection and all the kitschy elephants in the world, we’re about to head back on the road. So, why not double-back and hit that yard sale? We remembered noticing it on the way out, too. And, hey, two days later, it’s still going! Let’s see what they have!

We park next to an old farm house that’s in not-so-great condition, and the early signs are encouraging. Doggies! Puppies! Healthy, bouncy puppies bounding out to greet us! Aw, who’s a good puppy? You are! Yes you are!

The puppies are so adorable that we don’t quite notice the condition of the merchandise right away — and there are piles of it, scattered throughout the yard. Old equipment, glassware, toys, much of it broken, all of it dirty. There’s stagnant rainwater in everything that can collect it. We notice grass growing through the handles of a pile of old coffee cups.

Were it not for the very conspicuous “Open!” sign hanging off a stick, we likely would have suspected we were trespassing. We look around to see if anyone is running the yard sale. Sitting at a table, back among the piles of consumer detritus, is a young woman with a round face, shapeless beneath a blue parka much too heavy for the weather. She seems aware we exist, but does not seem to care overmuch.

And behind her are some barking dogs, and more piles of stuff.

Old bottles. Flatware. Tools. Some of it stacked onto shelves. We begin to make out distinct trails going through the piles. Intrigued, we go deeper in to investigate.

The doggies continue to be adorable. An energetic cat leaps in and out of our way. I can’t tell if he’s trying to lead us, or warn us.

An old man with a beard tells Jasmine there’s more stuff in the barn, and she passes this along to me. I never saw the old man, but choose to believe he exists.

There is indeed more stuff in the barn.

Anything incapable of surviving the elements is stacked in the barn — art, mirrors, books, remnants of old games. It’s dry, but otherwise comparable to the stuff sitting outside. The floor feels soft and unsteady under my feet; I grow uneasy about whether the old barn’s floor can support my weight. In fact, I’m just uneasy in general. I feel like I’ve stepped into a horror movie. I decide not to call out to Jasmine and insist we stay in each other’s line of sight at all times, because hey, this is a real thing that’s really happening, run by real people who would no doubt be insulted if I imply that I’m afraid they’ll cook us and add the contents of my car to their “store.”

Because this collection has been growing; you can tell. Some of it is sorted, at least a little, like the bookshelves lining the far wall. Cardboard boxes hold mismatched sets of random things, like they got packed for a move but never made it to where they were supposed to go.

I make a mental note to keep track of where Jasmine is at all times.

I reach for my cell phone to take pictures, but realize I left it in the car. This makes me very nervous for reasons that have nothing to do with taking pictures.

Not that I think the pictures would have mattered much. I’m not a good enough photographer to capture the sense of dread permeating the place. It’s as though several thrift stores were stabbed to death and dragged out here to rural Pennsylvania, and we’re picking over their corpses.

Jasmine catches up with me. She’s found a lovely little serving tray. Normally, the best part of shopping with Jasmine is her sense of whimsy and glee, but not today. She’s just as freaked out as I am.

We decide it’s time to pay for her find and head out — and that’s when I notice the old barn has a first floor we haven’t even investigated.

Sitting inside is a rusted-out cigarette machine. The inserts advertising the brands have rotted to nothing, but the packs all cost 60 or 65 cents apiece. Against our better judgment, we go in.

And that’s when I find the epicenter.

I walk into a room to find a counter with a cash register. Based on the junk piled atop it, I’d say it hasn’t been used in quite some time. There are shelves running the length of the room, all with some semblance of organization, though browsing them requires maneuvering around the mirrors and decomposing pictures leaned against them. I see old kitchen goods with labeling that takes me back to my childhood. There are prices scattered on the shelves for the items that were once stacked there.

It must have started here. This must have been a perfectly nice country thrift store, once. But the merchandise grew, like a tumor. It choked the life out of the store proper, but still kept growing, until it filled the barn and the yard surrounding it. The store still limps on, a grotesque parody of itself. The store cannot be locked, the goods cannot be protected from theft. But what thief could it tempt? The more merchandise the store acquired, the less desirable its merchandise became.

There was no thrill of discovery, no excitement at the possibility of finding hidden treasures; searching for concealed coolness would require touching the merchandise, and neither Jasmine nor I were eager to do that. Part of the fear came from watching too many bad horror movies; I tried to push that nonsense out of my mind, but the omnipresent gloom and decay kept it from ever leaving quietly. Part of it was concern about our physical surroundings; the barn wasn’t actually collapsing, but it looked eager to get on with that stage of its existence.

Most of our dread came, I think, from the dawning realization that in order for this place to exist, something must have gone horribly wrong. The little pockets of organization actually made the random heaps of junk all the more disquieting; somebody had cared, once. Somebody had tried to make this a real store. They eventually stopped trying — but the stuff kept coming.

What the hell was this? Some mutant strain of hoarding? I felt like we were inside a tragedy, that we were rummaging through the symptoms of a serious mental illness.

But, what the heck. We did find a really cool tray. And freaked-out though we were, somebody was willing to sell it to us.

We asked the girl how much the tray cost. She ran into the house, and shortly returned with an answer of $3. Seemed fair enough.

I was thinking of other junkhounds I know, wondering if they might be interested in this place. “What days are you open?” I asked the girl.

“Year round!” she said.

I believe her. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, I believe her.

As we left — both of us relieved to be safely back in the car — we saw an old faded sign on the barn. “Totem Pole Trading Post,” it said. A Google search on "totem pole trading post" chambersburg pennsylvania turned up nothing. Which is a shame, because I wanted to see if the rest of the world knew about it. See if anybody had written the review “The staff was pleasant enough, but did nothing to allay the creeping existential horror that slowly covered us as we browsed.”

I really wish I had some photos, inadequate though they’d surely be, so I can prove this place existed. If you’d like to see it for yourself, it’s about three and a half hours east of Pittsburgh near Rt. 30, at the intersection of Newman Road and Lincoln Highway near Chambersburg, PA.

We may go back, eventually. But if we do, I mean to search for the answer to one question:

What the hell happened here?

  • Jasmine

    This place was completely and totally terrifying. I normally love hunting for kitsch, but this was too much. I couldn’t do it. If I go back, I’m bringing gloves and pepper spray.

  • georgeshannon

    This was awesome, and I’ve been places that hinted at situations like these. I can only assume people just don’t realize they have that much stuff. Helping my family try and figure out what to do with family member’s collections of things just makes me stare at the junk in my house and wonder where it’ll all go after I’m dead and gone.

    • BlairHippo

      It will go here, George. IT WILL GO HERE.