Fifteen dollars seemed like a good price for an artificial Christmas tree. Then I paused. It would easily go for thirty.
It was well into my Saturday afternoon volunteer shift at the Piviniit Thrift Store in Iqaluit and I was starting to get sticker-happy with my pricing machine. Twist, click, slap—I settled on the lowball price for the fake fir. The holidays are a hard time financially for most households anyway, right? But I didn’t get much farther than the back room.
“Is that a Christmas tree?” a senior staffer asked. “Those don’t go out yet.”
He turned both me and my steal-of-a-tree around, scaled a ladder in the charity’s sorting space and hoisted the three-ish-foot rectangular white box onto one of the store’s highest storage shelves. The tree would be put out closer to the holidays, with other used knickknacks to deck the halls of Iqaluit homes. It was still September after all, and there were three boxes bursting with Halloween costumes, ready to be rifled through by trick-o’-treaters.
Like any small-town second-hand store, the Piviniit Thrift Store runs on a seasonal cycle: parkas come out with the first fall flurries and prom gowns dress the window display come spring. But I noticed not long after starting my twice-monthly shifts at the downtown shop—which shares a building with the Iqaluit soup kitchen, and a parking lot with the Anglican ‘Iglu’ church— this isn’t your typical second-hand store.
This realization came after we unloaded a large box of DVDs in the sorting room one afternoon. The collection included every season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and extended versions of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. After quickly separating the Blu-rays, a volunteer put the movies out on the floor. Shoppers swarmed her—and then the Rubbermaid crate of plastic cases—like honeybees on a nest.
You see, on those cold and dark winter days in Iqaluit, cozying up with Netflix is not always an option. Not only is the satellite internet service expensive and slow, but there are often data caps for household usage. Maybe that’s why there’s still a video store in town. The same rush happens with CDs—still a thing in Nunavut—because downloading on iTunes gobbles up data (and time) as greedily as streaming video does. The good CDs, I have learned, go fast.
The thrift store is an important spoke on what I call Iqaluit’s ‘stuff wheel.’ That’s because not all donations that come in start their journey to new ownership at the thrift store. Instead, the stuff might have already been put up for sale on a Facebook sell/swap page, or at a weekend rummage sale. Often it’s the leftovers that we get at Piviniit.
Still, with the cost of goods so high—a new Brita filter runs you $60 at NorthMart—the store plays a role in keeping items affordable for families in a town where many live below the national poverty line. Though it does fill up with faded giveaway T-shirts (from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. or the airlines) and extra large Wind River fleeces like any second-hand store in the south, Piviniit helps in its small way to give Iqalungmiut access to regular stuff—be it a cheap can opener, or a few dozen hours of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
What we don’t sell might be given away for free to those less fortunate. Old blankets are packed up for the animal shelter, and worn or surplus clothing is delivered to the medical boarding home where people from small Nunavut communities stay while in Iqaluit for doctors appointments. A ‘free’ shelf by the door is a catch-all for odds and ends like small toys for the kids who come in, or scratched dishes that would work fine for camping. Stuff that shouldn’t ever have been donated, like old underwear or broken electronics, goes to the city’s dump, where everything in Iqaluit eventually winds up.
Much of what comes into town—and works its way through the stuff cycle—arrives via Canada Post, or is lugged inside the suitcases of new residents from all over the world. They bring as much as they can, based on the horror stories they’ve heard of high prices.
And often they bring tokens of the places they came from. I came across a Dave Gunning album while sorting through a stack of CDs. He’s a folk singer-songwriter from my hometown in Nova Scotia.
I wondered if I might ever bump into whoever was responsible for dropping off that small piece of Pictou County.