When old beats new
I got a phone call last week from a person organizing an antiques show in Albany, who wanted to point out that browsing an antiques fair is a green way to shop for furniture.
Not that he had any promotional reason to call, of course. But then again, he’s right. From an environmental standpoint, buying used furniture is generally a better choice than causing a new piece of furniture to be made, and for many reasons. By buying used, you avoid the use of new and virgin resources, chemical pollutants, unknown labor practices, distant shipping.
I prefer the price of used furniture, too. And even if you’re paying more for antiques, whether at estate sales, antiques fairs or stores, you’re often buying the kind of quality that lasts, another good point environmentally. Because cheap junk winds up in the landfill, and fast.
For me, the top problem with new furniture is that the stuff they make it out of — from pressboard with formaldehyde, to foam, to fireproof fabrics — contains volatile organic compounds, which are bad for you, your kids and the world at large.
VOCs are chemicals that evaporate, or out-gas, at room temperature. They include acetone, benzene, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol and perchloroethylene, among others, and can cause breathing problems and asthma.
Long-term exposure has been linked to cancers. And VOCs can be found in all kinds of household products — cleaning supplies, cosmetics, carpets, pajamas (for my kids, I buy cotton long johns, the kind conspicuously labeled “Not Intended For Sleepwear,” to avoid the fireproof fabric in pj’s.)
But we’re talking about furniture. Of course it is possible to buy new furniture and avoid VOCs, poor labor practices and unnatural components — if you don’t mind spending an arm and a leg for an armchair or table.
But if you’re looking for affordable furniture made of, say, real wood and built to last, you’re probably going to do better buying used. And, as my caller pointed out, furniture that was built to last hundreds of years — and has — is not likely to fail you.
When I got married, my grandmother offered to buy us a dresser, and told us to shop around until we found what we wanted. My husband is a bit of a woodworker and was appalled by the joints — or the lack of joints — in the drawers. “These are just nailed together,” he said. “They’re not even dadoed. These drawers will never last!”
We stopped looking at furniture stores and went to a big St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop. They had a room of furniture, and we settled on a solid maple dresser, with drawers that were dovetailed in the front and dadoed in the back. It cost $60 and my grandmother was appalled. “It’s used?” She almost shrieked. “It will never last!”
That was 25 years ago. It’s held up just fine, and no new maple trees had to be cut down to make it.
I’ve only gone new furniture shopping once since then, when I was looking for bookshelves. A friend with a big van needed something called sectional seating — I’m still not sure what that is, because we never found any.
We had my friend’s sister-in-law with us, her 7-year-old and my daughter, who was around 2 at the time. Which was good, because it made what would have been a shopping failure into a festive outing, complete with lunch and ice cream.
The furniture stores smelled funny, and had no bookcases. “Would you like an entertainment center?” a salesman asked me. “You could put some books there.”
I did not want an entertainment center, and the smell was giving me a headache. “Why don’t they sell bookshelves?” I asked my friend. “Who reads?” she answered.
We went to a few more stores, including a big furniture warehouse. My friend who wanted sectional seating bought a couple of baskets. The 7-year-old gave me some sage advice, although not about furniture: “Don’t let your daughter watch ‘The Lion King’ until she’s at least 5,” she told me. “It’s too sad.”
Back home, my husband had reclaimed a stash of used pine shelving from a feed store that was going out of business. I am not much of a woodworker, but I built several bookshelves. I just nailed them together, with no dadoed joints, but they hold books. They even stand up straight, but only because they are anchored to the walls with metal braces.
We’ve since found better bookshelves at the antiques and junk store in our town. And I make it a point to look for bookshelves, the kind that are really made of wood, every time I’m in a second-hand store. I’ve had too many friends buy put-together-yourself shelves that look a lot like wood, but are actually made of something pressed together with a veneer on the outside. Something that sags under the weight of books, and that out-gases strange smells.
Checking out the used or antiques furniture stores is one way to get something made of genuine materials, something that will last, and that you can feel good about reusing. Ballston Spa is full of antiques stores, and the antiques trail runs down Route 50 into Burnt Hills and Glenville. There are used furniture barns in all the outlying areas — I’ve had good luck at one on Feeder Street in Hudson Falls. Round Lake and Schoharie County hold regular antiques fairs.
And this Friday and Saturday in Albany, at St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church, there will be 40 antiques dealers buying and selling furniture. Maybe you’ll find something you’re looking for, and something you can feel good about buying.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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