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The Past Lives in Second-Hand Stores

For the fifteenth time that week, the girl with the long curly hair walked past the window of my home, a second-hand clothes store on Hornsgatan in Stockholm’s hipster haven of Södermalm. As always, she lingered by the windows. Her eyes scanned the display cards for the prices of the clothes on the mannequins before their gaze shifted towards the interior. This time instead of a closed sign, she saw Elsa, with the perfect gray pixie-cut. Her kind eyes peered at the girl over her crimson framed reading glasses as she waved at her, “Hej.”

The girl, let’s call her Messy Hair, needed a cheap pair of shorts for the warm sunny days she had planned in the Stockholm Archipelago. She’d forgotten to pack any before her trip and she’d just spent a few days on the islands hiking in pants, wishing she’d have brought shorts instead. She was going back in two weeks and 40 Swedish kronor for the navy pair on the mannequin didn’t seem so bad.

She stepped into the store and into unfamiliar territory. You see, she had never shopped at a second-hand clothes store before. Her eyes darted between curiosity, fascination, and amusement as she inspected the outfits, some that had been fashionable in the 80s, and their happy price tags.

She’d grown up in a big city where everything was either gray or shiny or both. The gray roads were perfectly smooth and the gray skyscrapers glittered with sunlight on the windows. If you looked into these windows during the day, you’d see a smartly dressed person tapping away relentlessly at a keyboard, pausing only to sip from the coffee mug on their desk. On the weekends, this person joined a whole bunch of others as they ambled around in a huge shiny building with several floors, they called it a ‘shopping mall’. The space was like a wonderland for adults; brightly lit and decorated with alluring window displays of mannequins and labels they called ‘high-fashion’. The price tags on those windows looked nothing like those on the windows of my home.

Messy Hair had little use for shiny things; she liked to spend her money on flight tickets so she could come to far-flung cities like mine to amble in their streets all by herself, and to look into the windows of shops that simply did not exist in her hometown. So, here she was, browsing through racks of clothing that had once belonged to someone else. A beautiful patterned denim skirt. An ombré shirt from Zara. A maroon pleated skirt. An emerald silk scarf. Mommy jeans. So many mommy jeans.

I watched as she began to smile, her eyes dreaming up scenes, one by one, from the past lives of my friends; the stories they’d been part of before they’d ended up here on hangers and shelves as a rite of passage into new lives.

She picked up Flower Power, a pair of floral-printed denim shorts striped in rainbow colors, he looked like he’d once belonged to a fun and spunky girl, who often wore him to the beach and didn’t settle for a pair of boring blue denim shorts like everyone else. Messy Hair tried him on and stared at herself in the mirror for a few minutes. He looked great but wouldn’t go with any of her tees or tank tops.

She rummaged through the fourth rack looking for options and gently ran her fingers over Beatrice, a black satin blouse, that she thought had once belonged to a middle-aged woman who liked to do her hair up in a bun to show off her pearl earrings. Had she worn Beatrice to dinner with the man she was now growing old with? Does he still notice when she makes an effort?

She glanced at Superwoman, the six-inch heels in faded denim and pictured a flawless Swedish woman with straight blonde hair standing tall outside a trendy bar in Södermalm, a cigarette balanced between her perfectly manicured fingers.

Shorts, shorts, but where were the shorts?

Suddenly her hands reached out for Freddie and me in our cozy corner between Martha, the oldest pair of mommy jeans in the store and Grayson, a gentleman of a gray cardigan. She approved of the 30 kronor price tag on Freddie, and the red backstitch pattern on his back pockets but he was a waist size too big and an inch too short. She looked at me; with my slightly distressed light blue denim and mid-thigh length, I’d be perfect but I cost twice as much as Freddie.

Messy Hair tried Freddie on first. As expected, he was bigger than what she needed, but it was nothing that a belt couldn’t fix. But she didn’t think her legs looked as shapely as those of his previous owner. At least, that is how she imagined it. She took him off and tried me on. She liked my relaxed fit, comfortable length, and how I was slightly ripped around the pockets. She stuck her hands into my pockets and stared at her legs. I could tell I was going home with her. She took me off, checked my tag again, and flipped me over to look at my label. Why did I cost twice as much?

She left the trial room with me slung around her left arm. Holding onto me, she began to look for options again. Why do people do this? Why don’t they stop looking when they find what they need? What is this obsession with the idea of perfection, an abstract concept even in their minds? She spent another ten minutes browsing through things she didn’t need and couldn’t fit into her tiny suitcase, already threatening to burst at the seams.

Then, she parted with 60 kronor and we went home.

But Messy Hair’ strange fascination with second-hand didn’t end there. In fact, it had only just begun. The next day she put me on under a white off-shoulder top and off we went to Myrorna, a second-hand store selling vinyl, Japanese fiction, quirky rag dolls, and the kind of priceless things that are only found when you spend long enough in a second-hand store.

She gazed longingly at Marilyn Monroe’s face smiling at her from a large clock that would look great on the amber wall next to the mahogany bookshelf she didn’t yet have in the writing room of the home she hadn’t yet found. “Things,” she whispered softly, “I don’t need more things.” A few steps and she stopped again, to look at an old typewriter that she wasn’t crazy enough to lug around on the rest of her travels.

Messy Hair had owned a dollhouse a long time ago. I could tell by how she looked at the peaches and cream one that stood in a corner. She smiled as she stared into its kitchen, almost as if she could somehow enter it and whip up an omelet in the tiny pan on the make-believe stove. Where was her old dollhouse now? Had it ended up in a store like this or found a home with another girl who liked dreaming up doll stories?

She was looking for stories in the past lives of old things. As she walked around the aisles, she picked them up from the objects around her and wrote them down, as quickly as she could, on the bare pages of her mind, promising to fill the notebooks in her suitcase with them. The more she looked and longed, the more parts of her own story she left on the shelves in the second-hand store, on the corner of the busy street, in the hipster neighborhood of Södermalm.

This travel story was inspired by the many hours I spent browsing second-hand and vintage stores in Stockholm, Sweden. If you enjoy this kind of storytelling, read more stories like this in my From The Heart section. To read posts about Sweden, check out my Sweden travel blog