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At the right spot with a 10-spot

I don’t know exactly when the bug first bit me, but I do know I wasn’t yet out of single digits.

Luckily, My Home Town had the perfect venue where I could indulge myself. It was the co-joined J.J. Newberry-Woolworth store on Main Street. In that sacred enclave I could lose myself browsing for my next score. And whatever it might be, it could be had for a nickel, or at most for one thin dime.

The object of my my searches? Tchotchkes.

Tchotchke (pronounced chatch-ka) is a Yiddish word that most closely translates as “trinket.” But just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, one man’s trinket is a small boy’s treat. And obviously, that small boy, the little trinket tripper, was me.

Newberry’s and Woolworth’s each had trinkets galore that cost mere pennies. And while I was intrigued by all of them, there’s only one I can remember — a pack of fake paper money.

The bills were the same colors as regular money (at least to the eyes of a child) but were much bigger, and there’s only one detail I recall: In the center of one side was a drawing of a hay wagon heading off into cartoon-blazing sky. And in a circle around the drawing was written: “Make hay while the sun shines.” Since it was a metaphor, I had to ask my mother what it meant. And after she told me, the money took on totemic importance, as if following that advice would see me in adulthood rolling in more ca-ching than the Nizam of Hyderabad.

I outgrew my fake money mishegas in short order, but I never outgrew my love of tchotchkes. While some might label that the sign of arrested development, I disagree. On the contrary, I believe a Successful Tchotchke Hunt can impart a greater sense of joy and well-being than a week at an Omega workshop or, for that matter, a decade of Freudian therapy. And of course a great part of that joy is due to the cost of an STH, which compared to those alternatives, is minimal, if not nonexistent.

The big irony of tchotchke hunting is if you do it right, both its drawbacks and its beauty are the same: Namely, you have no control over it. In case you didn’t know, the way to “do it right” is to confine all your shopping to thrift shops and low-end consignment stores and the lot. If some place has a fancy window display with a professional sign that says “Vintage,” I’d avoid it like I would opening an email from someone with a Slavic-sounding name that begins, “Dearest beloved …”

Here’s the essence of Tchotchke Love: No tchotchke is worth even looking at, lest alone buying, if it’s expensive. For what makes them valuable isn’t their monetary value but their emotional one. What matters is what it’s worth to you, not to a collector, a dealer or anyone else. And much, if not most, of its “value” is if it’s a bargain in the first place. If you get it dirt-cheap, not only are you copping a great deal, of and by itself, but you’re also proving just how smart you are.

Besides, let’s get real: Even if it’s worth much more moolah than you paid for it, you won’t sell it anyway. For if you’d sell it, you’re not a true TL but just a black-hearted SOB.

On the hunt

This is always the hardest part of the year for me. Winter Carnival’s over, but winter isn’t. It’s cold and too often gray, spring seems as far away as boot camp, and my morale is sinking faster than whale poop. In short, it’s a perfect time to go on a tchotchke hunt. So when Jen-Ex told me she was going to Malone to Joann Fabrics and asked me if I wanted to go along, I jumped on it.

To clarify: I was not the least interested in going to Joann Fabrics. But I was most interested in going to the Market Barn.

If you’ve never had the privilege, the Market Barn is one of Malone’s stellar attractions — at least to me. It’s a two-story building chock-full of merchandise of all ilks from all sorts of vendors. It’s clean and well-ordered and, in keeping with the Code of the Tchotchke Hunter, ya never know what you’ll find. Likewise, you’ll never know if you’ll find anything. Sadly, my last two times there, the only thing I found was disappointment, so I hoped this time my luck might change.

We went through a bunch of booths, but almost nothing caught my eye. And the few things that did were, upon close inspection, rejected for the usual reasons: too expensive, too new, too big, too cliché … and on and on. But, hey, I’m hardly a newbie — while I was hoping for a score, I was also resigned to not getting one.

“Hey, check this out,” said Jen-Ex, holding out something.

I took it, and after I got a good look, my heart skipped a buttload of beats.

What she handed me was not a mere tchotchke — it was the grail of tchotchkes!

It was a chalk craft novelty ashtray. Chalk craft refers to things cast in plaster of Paris, then painted, which were popular from early to mid 20th century. They were cheap and colorful, and a bunch of them were used as carnival prizes. Due to their delicate structure and paint jobs (and the fact they were cheapies in the first place), few remain. And almost all the ones you find today are missing chips (or chunks) of paint and plaster. But this one was almost pristine.

Both plaster and paint were there in their entirety, and even the manufacturer’s name and the date were on it. (If you’re curious, it was J.H. Fuller and 1952.)

And what was it?

Just something I’ve been intrigued with since childhood, that’s what!

It was the torso of a pathetic shmendrick of a man, flushing himself down a toilet. And written in gold letters on the front of the ashtray was, “Good-bye, Cruel World.” I mean, this was as tony and upscale as it gets: “Good-bye” was hyphenated, and there was even a comma after it, as is proper when preceding a noun of address. For all I know, ole J.H. Fuller hired only skilled rhetoricians for his slogans.

Premium ware at premium price

About 20 years ago I scored a plaque with the same slogan, but with a different character. And while I’d never seen another one, I assume there a lots of them around, in craft fairs, estate sales, attics and who-knows-where-else. But an ashtray — especially a plaster one in fine shape? They gotta be as rare as Bigfoot sightings by sane people.

Due to its rarity and condition, I figured it’d command a premium price, and I was right. It was $7.50.

A lesser man would either have tried to bargain for a reduced price or simply left it there, a silent protest against the price gouging of today’s tchotchke dealers. But I’m above such shoddy displays. Also, maybe the reason the piece has such a sultanic price is because the dealer wants to make sure it goes to the home of a connoisseur, not some low-brow trashmo with no appreciation for fine art.

Moreover, I’ve a compassionate side I keep modestly hidden: Perhaps the dealer needs the money to care for an ailing wife or mother, or for his kids’ college education. For all I knew, the dealer was in worse shape than the guy on the ashtray. The world is a cold, cruel place, and if I can improve the lot of one of my fellows, I will — without hesitation. Ultimately, this was less a mercantile interaction than a stellar act of philanthropy.

And so, with no further thought about such a base thing as money, I strolled over to the cashier and handed her a 10-spot.

And believe me, with the Milk of Human Kindness coursing through my veins, I had to force myself not to say, “Keep the change.”

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