In Defense of Stuff: Confessions of a Souvenir Junkie

Hero Table Souvenirstable full of souvenirs
Amy Lundeen

Social media posts are fleeting and photographs can fade, but a commitment to collecting trinkets and miscellaneous stuff from your travels keeps your best memories within reach daily.

The vintage macramé kimono I bought on a recent trip to Tokyo makes me think of young Japanese teenagers and their obsession with American hip-hop. I bought it in a secondhand store stocked with a vast selection of track suits, and the teens were trying them on, asking each others’ opinions. Then, in broken English, for mine. The cowboy boot–shaped mugs I bought at a thrift shop in Cheyenne remind me of a late night in a honky-tonk in that city, when a group of merry leather-clad motorcyclists broke out in a full-blown Garth Brooks hootenanny. The magnets in the shape of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, and Kentucky remind me of the path of a five-day road trip I took last summer with my Scottish friend Sarah. We stopped at roadside diners, a firecracker megastore, and lookout points galore. She drove the whole way on the “wrong” side of the road and only got one speeding ticket. The flummoxed look on the face of the cop in Kansas when she handed him her license was priceless. (Being from a small Scottish island, her entire address is the name of her village.) I laugh about it every time I open my fridge.

In a day when Marie Kondo, the pundit of purging, is a pop culture darling, what with her Netflix series and appearances on daytime and late-night talk shows alike, I should be ashamed to admit this, but I’m not: My name is Liza, and I’m a souvenir addict.

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Well, maybe “souvenir” is a bit derogatory. Aside from the kitschy state-shaped magnets, it’s not like I’m shelling out for overpriced state-themed shot glasses or dish towels or sundry other tchotchkes. Not that there’s anything wrong with kitsch. (I just admitted to owning a macramé kimono, for goodness sake. And that’s to say nothing of the embroidered-patterned shoes with flamingo figurines for heels that I bought at an eccentric shoe store in London.) No, it’s just that in our digital era, buying things cements my experiences and puts them on display, so I never fail to be reminded of a place I fell for, a person who intrigued me, or a drink I tried. (Yes, I have quite a collection of bottles from distilleries around the world—piquant birch liqueur from Iceland, a delicate single malt whisky–sherry blend from a distillery in the Cotswolds, gin from Juneau, Kyoto, Helsinki, British Columbia, etc.) If I can wear it, apply it to my body, drink it, write with it or on it, or decorate my apartment with it, it becomes a tangible part of the narrative of my travels, a Proustian distraction from the everyday.

A Family Matter

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Part of me blames genetics. A few months before my parents downsized from our longtime family home in New Jersey to an apartment in Queens, my mother shut me in a room to go through boxes of Stuff. It was easy to get rid of the high school yearbooks and old clothing. Less easy to discard was the assortment of bejeweled insect-shaped brooches that belonged to my paternal grandmother, the Pepto Bismol–pink pencil case adorned with igloos and moose and scrawled with the word “Alaska,” a prize my other grandmother bought for me on a cruise to the 49th state, the furthest she’d ever been from home. My paternal grandmother in particular was a gifted collector—neatly packed pouches of jewelry in her drawer, tidy piles of stylish handbags in her closet, menageries of small ceramic animals and miniature furniture in the grand breakfront cabinet in her dining room. She survived World War II, so I often wondered if her passion for collecting was an attempt to reclaim all that she lost.

These are all things I think about when I purchase an object I know I could do without. Even the simple act of collecting—regardless of what it is—reminds me of my family, and the pursuits and penchants that bind us.

In Praise of Collectors

Let’s take a moment, please, to acknowledge collectors. Too often, collecting is confused with hoarding. The two are not the same. Hoarding is an illness. Collecting is anything from a passing hobby to an active commitment. It’s the rush of the chase, it’s the thrill of the find. And in some cases, it ultimately serves a larger purpose. I consider Noah the godfather of all collectors. Two of every animal in one place? World, saved.

We would have nothing—no progress in the humanities or life sciences—without the dedicated, some might say obsessive, pursuit that defines a collector, whether it’s the art aficionado who accumulates a world-class collection to lend to a museum, the scientist who gathers data for years in pursuit of a groundbreaking discovery, the record collector who zealously seeks out rare jazz albums and unearths lost Coltrane sessions in the process, or the chef who stockpiles vintage cookbooks from around the world as a resource for his own award-winning restaurant.

Sparking Joy

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Marie Kondo's fame pivots on the mantra “spark joy.” Hold an object, she instructs, and ask yourself if it sparks joy. If it does, keep it. If not, get rid of it. I abide by that. And that’s why I won’t get rid of the hard-shelled wicker purse shaped like an armadillo, complete with piercing ruby-sequin eyes. I bought it in Goldie’s General, a vintage store attached to The Hollows, a retro-chic, progressive restaurant in Saskatoon, Canada. The chef, Christie Peters, is also a butcher, and a fashion plate in her own right. The purse had belonged to her, and she was charmed to know that it would go to a loving home. The bangle bracelet, made from a strip of license-plate metal that I bought from an artist in Anchorage, also sparks joy. Same with all the rest.

Entire fields of psychology are dedicated to studying the motives for collecting. Some collect as an investment, some for academic purposes. Some, it’s said, do it to fill a void. Some do it as a means to immortality or fame, thinking their stuff will live on when they’re gone. For some, there's sense of control that comes from arranging belongings or classifying parts of a messy, tumultuous world. For me, I do it because it sparks joy.

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