Goodwill Hunting

Decorum and order take a wrong turn and end up in a tangled heap on Clark Avenue between West 41st and 44th streets, a desolate stretch that's home to a ludicrously diverse stockpile of salvaged and donated paraphernalia. Stuff that really brings out the dirt in dirt cheap. Imagine a block-long Marc's closeout section. After a tornado. Today's mission: a cocktail table for the porch, big enough for drinks and ashtrays, sturdy enough to withstand the weather.

At This and That, Ron is perched outside on an old wooden chair at the door of his shop, looking a little disheveled and discombobulated--like his merchandise. (None of the proprietors would give their last names, citing previous hassles with building inspectors and cops.) "You got kids, ma'am? We got lots of kids' stuff," he says, trailing behind, ready to assist. Assorted bikes, still ridable, lean against a stereo console cabinet straight out of the '70s. In a corner, a spent Hoover vacuum cleaner awaits its second or 43rd wind. Wilderness-inspired paintings, once the focal point in a cheaply paneled family room, do battle with a few forlorn television sets. The entire west wall of the store is stacked to the ceiling with more . . . stuff . But no tables.

"Now, how in the world didja get back in there?" Robert, the grandfatherly proprietor of Anything and Everything (where everything is everywhere), asks a large gentleman who has bravely maneuvered through an obstacle course of furniture. "Hey, you know me," the man says. Step through Door #2 on the Clark Avenue stretch, and be prepared to spend several hours pillaging a phenomenal stock of . . . more stuff. Hundreds of worn comic books, conveniently arranged on a magazine rack, greet visitors as they walk through the door. Propped against the front counter are several fishing poles, "three bucks each," Robert says. Need a lamp? There are dozens to choose from, cartoonishly large, with yellowing lampshades that could double as hoop skirts. Kitchen utensils are strewn between books and beside appliances stacked on top of furniture, while ceramic curios vie for coveted shelf space among tools. Head straight back and hang a left into an entire room of record albums--45s and 33s stacked floor to ceiling.

"We have a whole warehouse over there if you wanna go look," Robert offers, pointing across the street. Wood and metal shelving units, an old hutch, and several toilets line the sidewalk out front. Inside beckon mountains of relics from people who have made their final journey--no need for that leather luggage, now laid to unrest on towering racks.

Served up in a square metal baking pan that looks like it's been trampled by the Budweiser Clydesdales is the day's real find: a pristine set of six hand-painted ceramic teacups, lined in a shade of sky blue that undoubtedly went the way of salmon pink in once-contemporary color schemes. "How 'bout two bucks?" Robert asks.

Last stop, Billy's Place. "Find what you're looking for, ma'am?" a voice from behind a partition asks.

"Hi, you must be Billy," I say.
"Naw, name's Cotton," he replies.
"I'm looking for a table for outside, like a porch table."

"Here ya go," he says, then heads across the room, where he moves a record player and a toaster oven, revealing a sturdy metal table with an impeccable smoked glass top. "Five bucks."

Cotton's less sure of the store's hours: "Eleven to five, always Saturday and Sunday . . . during the week sometimes, well, usually. I'm a roofer, so I gotta work seasonally, you know . . . so sometimes after five, too." The store's been around "oh, a long time, yeah." To be exact: "Oh, many years." And don't even think of calling ahead, as phones aren't made to be hooked up here--they're made to be buried under couch cushions.

--Lisa B. Radloff

This and That, Anything and Everything, and Billy's Place are located at 4210, 4206, and 4204 Clark Avenue, respectively. They're open mornings and afternoons every Saturday and Sunday, and usually other days, sometimes.