The Other Place: Life At The Car Boot

When I stay at my mum and dad’s house in Nottinghamshire, I sleep in what used to be the main bedroom – the only real bedroom – of the house. Ever since my parents got the place extended early this century and I graduated from some big cushions on the downstairs floor, I have shared this room with a variety of 20th Century clutter. Depending on which car boot sales my mum has been to recently, this can include anything from piles of beautiful 1960s fabric and costume jewellery to an old child’s doll with a hare’s head. I know she’d hate that I use that word, “clutter”, to describe what’s in there, and, in truth, it is not a fair description. She’s a very clean and tidy person and what’s in the room, as eclectic and haphazard as it might seem, is there due to a very careful process of editing: it has arrived in the room as a result of her ability to see through layers of rubbish to the one interesting or rare artefact sitting on an overburdened camping table in a field in the north east corner of the Midlands. 

I have been to a few car boot sales with my mum, but one in particular sticks in the mind. This would have been just over the border from Nottinghamshire into Lincolnshire in late spring 2009, the time of year when the grass begins to get brown in that part of the country. I didn’t have the car boot bug at that point but was content to be able to purchase a straw hat for £2 and find a stall containing a few boxes of records, all of which had the initial appearance of being mega bargains but on closer inspection weren’t. I could see that there was nothing else at the car boot that could be of any interest or aesthetic worth to anyone. That was very clear. An hour later, I spotted the distant figure of my mum, who could not have been holding more paraphernalia if she had three extra arms. How many bags was it, altogether? In the version preserved in my mind it’s 14, and I’m sure it must have been half that, even in the less hyped reality of the day. I rushed over to help just in time for her not to drop the art deco lamp wedged awkwardly under her arm, and grilled her about what had happened. Where precisely was this other car boot sale she’d been to? And how did she get there and back so quickly? Because surely none of the stuff in these bags – a 1950s potter’s bowl, a Victorian paperweight, two beaded 1920s evening purses – could possibly have come from here.

I was approaching my 34th birthday in spring, 2009: a time of life when it can seem like your personality is pretty firmly established. But, looking back, I can see numerous quite significant changes that have happened in me since then, and several seem to involve the latent adoption of elements of my mum’s personality. Formerly a flailing maelstrom of uselessness at DIY and problem solving in the home, I’m now fairly competent at it. Soil and what grows in it is of infinitely more interest to me than it was then. And I now also seem to have inherited my mum’s ability to see through a wall of crap to the golden prize at car boot sales. When I picture my mum, the way she was as I was growing up, it’s as a distracted, highly industrious person with constantly full hands. A loaded paint brush is in one, a metal owl and a pot of Nasturtiums in the other. She is hurrying but also stopping to look at stuff. She has a vague idea of how many hours she has remaining on the given day and an incurably optimistic concept of what she can fit into them. It’s a picture that’s so clear in my head because all I need to do now to see it, a lot of the time, is check out my own reflection. I used to expect to turn into my dad: a loud person who swears at the telly and breaks bit of your house. But that has not turned out to be my destiny. I have become the woman with a surplus of old plates and no concept of time.

“No, this Thursday is no good, sorry. It’s the car boot sale. Oh, and I have the chiropractor, and quite a complex procedure at the dentist,” I said to someone recently. There’s quite a bit to unpick there. The order of importance is plain to see: car boot, then the upkeep of my body. Also: detectives might notice a few telltale links. Heavy bags of secondhand junk… chiropractor. Additionally: a car boot sale on a Thursday? That can’t be right. But, yes, they actually have midweek ones here in Devon, and they’re some of the best and most exciting, not least because they’re often solely populated by me and some septuagenarians who – without wishing to generalise – tend largely to not be searching for neglected abstract paintings, West German pottery and near mint first pressings of Donovan’s ‘Barabajagal’ LP. A few days ago, when asked to do a radio interview, I realised that the time suggested clashed with my favourite one of these midweek sales. “That’s ok!” I thought. “I can do the chat from the car boot.” What you probably won’t realise if you listen to it here is that, as it starts, I’m struggling to open my car door while holding – in addition to my phone – a mid-century rug (£5), eleven obscure countryside and knitting magazines from the late 70s (free!), a pile of brocade fabric (£8), a maroon waffle sweater (£3), a book from 1979 delving into the history of Newton Abbot (50p) and a nice clean original 45 of ‘Rock On’ by David Essex, with fully intact picture sleeve (25p). That was a pretty solid haul, I thought. Nothing super special or surprising, but undeniably all-round watertight. After doing my interview in the car, out of the wind, I popped back into the gentle melee and was disappointed to find that the lady with the lemon drizzle cake stall had packed up and left, but I bought some blueberries off the Fruit Man. Same amount as you get in the posh farm shop, but almost £3 cheaper. Result! As I paid, The Fruit Man multitasked impressively, seducing various passers by with fruit talk, and waving a pineapple at his friend Brian, who was some yards away

“I’ve got a pineapple here for 80p if you’d like it. Brian!” shouted the Fruit Man.

“No, I’m all right this morning, thanks,” replied Brian.

The Fruit Man is an unfailingly big draw, no matter which car boot he turns up at, and seems to me to be the wholesome antidote to the Meat Bloke at the car boot on the industrial estate just south of Exeter. While The Fruit Man is always unplugged and natural, the Meat Bloke uses a microphone to amplify his banter, so, no matter where you are in the boot sale, there is no escape from his attempts to seduce the crowd with his polythene bags of refridgerated bone and flesh. A DJ of Death, he leaves you with the feeling that you have wandered by mistake into some kind of 1980s Radio One Roadshow where lamb has taken the place of Bananarama. The boot sale with The Meat Bloke is my least favourite boot sale, but that might also be because the first time I went to it, many years ago, a man got quite close to punching me in the face just because I took a photo of a small, fairly ordinary cupboard he was selling. “What the fuck are you doing?” he asked. I told him that I was taking a photo of the small, fairly ordinary cupboard to send to a friend, who was looking for a small, fairly ordinary cupboard. “Well, fucking don’t,” he said. “I didn’t give you permission to do that.” I wondered if the small, fairly ordinary cupboard had had trouble with paparazzi in the past and pictured the man and the small fairly ordinary cupboard attending various high profile events in London, the man indiscriminately swinging at photographers who got too close to the small, fairly ordinary cupboard as the pair entered the VIP area.

My attitude to car boot sales is pretty much like my attitude to life: there’s very liittle I’m not interested in, on some level, but music is my chief concern. I begin by scanning for vinyl, then start to take a look at the bigger picture. A 25p copy of ‘Rock On’ – a freak minimalist glam rock masterpiece, anomalous in the David Essex repertoire, seductive to even a slightly glam rock resistent person like me – is more musically than materially exciting, and many a car boot will lead to nothing but box after box of Rogers and Hammerstein and Richard Clayderman, but there is always the slight possibility of something more unique: that possibility that used to be there in charity shops but has almost completely vanished now most of them just look up the most expensive Discogs price for every record and stick it on the front, and/or sell their highest end records online. With records at boot sales, I’m like a lion who’s caught the scent of a herd of antelope a couple of valleys away on the breeze. Even if the lion has just eaten, he’ll have a look. Sometimes I just know. There’s one very variable boot sale about 35 minutes from my house and a couple of weeks ago I got this strong primal feeling that I needed to be there at opening time but got held up by 45 minutes due to housework and traffic. My instincts were correct: two three quarter-empty boxes of records were there, waiting for me. You just knew, looking at what was left, that there had been some incredible stuff in there a short time ago. It was like the person who had left them had left them only because they had to leave something, left them because their very standards had been raised merely by what else was in the boxes. A personality of a former owner began to form from looking at these mere leavings: jazz-loving, meticulous. I bought ten for a tenner, and asked the stall holder where the LPs had come from. “My uncle,” he said. “There was a lot of other stuff, late 60s jazz.” “Some psychedelic things?” I asked, holding my breath, to stop the tears coming. “Yes. Quite a few. A lot of Frank Zappa originals.” He hadn’t even needed to say it, the suggestion was all there in the three-quarter picked carcass. I’m not a Frank Zappa fan but that doesn’t mean that I don’t find the idea of finding originals of his early records in the wild very exciting. And as I write this it makes me realise that so much of my booting is in fact about the hunt itself, rather than the rewards. But the hunt only has meaning because what it can lead to isn’t just mass produced homogenous crap; it’s pieces of history, preserved parts of lives and narratives, all ranked and displayed and (often) priced in beautifully haphazard fashion. 

Because of the theme of the novel I’m currently researching, but mostly just because I like doing it, I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the secondhand universe lately. When talking about how they got into it, they often say the same thing: it became a way of sustaining a habit, without simply haemmorhaging money to the extent that they could no longer afford to live. My mum stopped car booting for a couple of years as the pandemic raged, although this decision wasn’t solely related to Covid. She doesn’t sell any more and there’s no room for any more secondhand stuff in the house, not a free space for even the smallest junk shop painting on any wall. It was probably her longest break since one time around 2002 when she took a month off to recover after seeing a yellowing human skeleton being sold at a boot sale in east Nottinghamshire. She found that she missed the process of the car booting. Recently – possibly prompted by my rhapsodic tales of finding 1970s designer mushroom lamps for £2 – she has started booting again. No, there’s probably no point to it, but she loves it and gets a buzz from it. You could also argue there’s no point to me buying old records. After all, I already have plenty of them to listen to, and they’re nearly all available much cheaper via streaming services. No point, apart from the fact that they fill my days with infinite amounts of magic and intrigue and witchcraft and alchemy and wonder. While you’re chugging down this line of thinking, you might also want to take the time to argue that there’s no point to anything anyone does ever. 

Here’s another reason to go to a car boot sale: you’re supporting sustainibility, taking part in a grand recycling project, spinning on the great roundabout of life. Here’s another: it’s full of interesting conversation. All of life is here. I don’t go to car boots for the people-watching and the chat but I increasingly enjoy that side of it. I buy some fabric for my girlfriend and hear the story of its origins, its geographical and family history, and, by extension, the touching tale of a late life love affair. “I’m not posh,” I overhear a man say, as he attempts to flog a van full of cheap duvets. “I don’t have a bidet. I stand upside down in the shower.” A couple of weeks later, I watch what appears to be a 250 year-old wizard pick up a World War II gas mask. “Ere Paul!” he shouts back to a colleague, sitting on the back of a van. “Look at this! Shall I get it?” Paul answers in the affirmative and the gas mask seller agrees to a price of £12. “I wore that in Waitrose the other week,” admits the seller. The following week, looking at a stall full of art and old gardening tools, I overhear a man carrying a watercolour of an owl tell a woman that he was responsible for Tracy Emin. An apparently unloved stall in the corner of another boot sale that doesn’t seem to be selling anything other than invisible tickets for Jesus, asks, “Do you need to believe in Creation?” I prefer it just before that, when I misread “Creation” as “Crediton”. I decide that I do need to believe in Crediton. It’s a good solid Devon town, underrated, not too pockmarked with second homes, and boasts two excellent bookshops, each very different from the other.

You can get conned into thinking being rich is the answer to life. Everything’s smooth and simple and you get to pay other people to do boring and tiring things for you. But, while I’m only guessing at this with no firsthand experience, I reckon that in truth being rich is mostly pretty bad for you, takes away your hunger and all the good things that come with your hunger, sands your creativity smooth and dull: whether that creativity comes in the form of actual art, or the way you cook, decorate your home or edit your possessions. I used to assume very rich people had taste. And they do: terrible, terrible taste, a lot of the time. But even if their taste is refined and thoughtful, it’s all too easy for them. They go online, find exactly what they want, and, without worrying too much about the cost, make it arrive at their house the next day. Meanwhile, they could be at the boot sale. They could be finding amazing stuff they’d never thought to look for. They could be experiencing all that ambience, all that tumble of life. When I look at the furniture in my house, I am looking at the story of years and years of bargain secondhand purchases, in the real world. Not worrying about money is nice, it’s true. But it’s also quite nice to look at your possessions and witness them tell the story of your life as a hunter-gatherer back to you.

Of course, I’m not saying rich and affluent people don’t go to car boot sales. But what I predominantly hear at boot sales is a working class West Country voice: a voice you don’t hear much in the high end tourist towns, the second home meccas, the Totneses, the Salcombes, the Chagfords, the Padstows. It’s nothing at all like the voice of where I come from yet feels more relatable and familiar to me than the voice I hear in the hipster coffee shops and pubs and markets of the South West: the places that so bluntly remind me of my peasant heritage, every time I visit them. I am hyper aware at the car boot that there are people who are here for far more financially pressing reasons than I am. I don’t need to visit a car boot to survive, to eat, to make next month’s rent, but there is no doubt that I have been pushed more in their direction due to the fact that my writing, especially over recent months, has not given me the income that I thought and hoped it would. That leaves me with the odd feeling – a feeling I get in other complex ways, sometimes, too – of being a little bit glad that the world isn’t more interested in what I do creatively.

But apparently it’s ultimately all genetic, the car booting. Before me and my mum there was my nan’s mum who, in the small gaps between giving birth to 16 children, somehow found the time to absolutely rinse the jumble sales of 1930s Liverpool for the best bargains they had to offer. The booting gene skipped a generation in the case of my nan, who, though she didn’t possess my mum’s thrifty digging instincts, enjoyed the fruits of them, when, during the 1990s, her tiny terrace in Nottinghamshire began to fill up with pots and chairs and plants and paintings my mum had found at car boots. There was a lot going on back then, so much more than I realised at the time. The Dog Shed at the bottom of our garden (known by that name because of the bite marks all over its doors and architraves) filled up with Lloyd Loom chairs and Singer sewing machines. If my mum wasn’t cooking or painting or cleaning and tidying or gardening, she was outside, sanding down a cupboard. “I was working full time and looking after a husband and a teenage son,” she says now. “Looking back, I don’t know how on earth I managed it all.” A small watercolour of Venice by a Royal Academy painter – no Google back then, but Nottingham Central Library turned out to be my mum’s friend, although she forgets the name of the artist now – was purchased for 25p then sold at Sotheby’s for several hundred pounds. A child’s vintage pine bed was successfully lifted into the back of a Ford Mondeo estate, unassisted, using all the strength in her five foot one frame. The chair mania got out of control, had to be reined in. She learned, as I have after her, that not every great cheap vintage chair has to come home with you. There were missteps too: the strange, fascinating, possibly Victorian woven object which my mum’s best friend Jane informed her was actually just an ancient dog chew, the futuristic, rounded 1950s bathroom cabinet that she only realised was made of Asbestos halfway through a sanding job. She and Jane – or Miss Needham, as I am still inclined to think of her, since she was once my schoolteacher – began to do little sales together and fairs and markets: fabrics, mirrors, art, vintage handbags, all very beautifully presented, all at great prices. Some of the fairs would begin at 6am, which meant setting up in the dark. This was problematic, on the day that my mum decided to use our old tent, which didn’t reveal itself to have been torn to shreds by The Dog Shed’s numerous hungry mice until the sun came up. Not so many people came to the stall that day.

“We never made any proper money from it,” my mum remembers. “It was all for fun.” Like my own car booting, there was nothing that would justify the amount of travel expenses or time involved, if you thought about it solely in mercenary terms, but my mum and Miss Needham were not thinking about it in even slightly mercenary terms. If I looked at what I’ve got at car boots this year – even the half century-old designer mushroom lamps, even the most beautiful and psychedelic fabric, even the £1 records that are worth £25 – then looked at the amount I’ve spent on fuel getting there, I could not “justify” it as worthwhile to anyone with a cold hard head for figures. But the bargains certainly feel worthwhile, especially in this world where fuel, and almost everything else, has become so ludicrously expensive. At a car boot sale, you feel like you’ve temporarily stepped outside that world, outside a society that’s been screwed over by big businesses and politicians and techno capitalist greed.

Around the turn of the last Millennium, my mum and I did a stall together – not at a car boot, this time, but at a flea market in Arnold, a sprawling suburb of Nottingham. My mum was selling her usual eclectic selection of knick-knacks, but in truth I was there for only one reason: I had a pile of band t-shirts I was no longer planning to wear, probably two dozen or more, and thought it would be a good way to get rid of them. My mum had her doubts about whether anyone would be interested, especially at two or three quid a pop (“You don’t want to rip people off!”), but within about five minutes, a gang of salivating punk and indie kids had grabbed the lot. I’ve returned to that day a few times in my mind recently. I wonder how much of what I sold has survived until now. Is someone somewhere still wearing the Posies t-shirt I bought at Rock City in 1993, or the Dinosaur Jr one I got in Hockley the year before, or the – by then almost see through – Replacements one I bought in Leicester the year after? Did any end up on eBay, for £100, as so many from that era have? I wonder which records I spent my £50 profit on, at the stall nextdoor-but-one, and which ones I calamitously overlooked. I feel like I can still feel some of the feelings I felt that day: warm Nottinghamshire feelings, mixed with feelings that my life was starting to amount to something (I’d fairly recently got a job at a newspaper in London), warm family feelings. I’d like to go back and chat to that version of my mum, who was just a couple of years older than I am now, and, much like me now, a clean, tidy workaholic battling natural maximalist tendencies. I’d like to learn a bit more from her about the flea market and car boot universe than I was open to doing at the time. I distinctly remember that at the start of the Arnold flea market there was a loud whistle, or perhaps even a gunshot, and after that nearly everyone who had been queuing ran towards the stalls, wild-eyed. Some people shoved strangers as they ran and at least one person was sent sprawling onto the concrete. A lot of wet tongue was in evidence. It was an absurd thing to see fully mature adults doing, I thought, as someone who believed he was a fully mature adult. I don’t think my mum ran on that occasion, but I feel sure she did, on others. Me? Of course I didn’t. But, if I could return right now to that fairly ordinary day in the place I come from, I would. I’d run as fast as my legs would carry me.

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11 thoughts on “The Other Place: Life At The Car Boot

  1. What a lovely piece.We dont have many car boot sales up here,or perhaps I’m not aware of them,since I’ve never been particularily tempted even tho’ I love second hand & junk shops.However on a slightly different note ,my neighbour who has sold up & is moving into care,has been putting items out on the kerb for people to take if they want to.I’ve been fascinated by what she’s put out,a result of a long life,& the fact that everything has gone even an old tyre & finally her sign saying” help yourself”

  2. Hi, Tom,
    As ever – I love being taken to the places that you write about. Your descriptions are so vivid, and delightful. I stay clear of car boots, purely so that I don’t bring home yet more dog-eared books that will lurk under my bed in that pile that needed to be saved even if I don’t read them. The Japanese term for that is tsundoku (because of course there’s a word for that…).

    One minor, minor thing which is a bit of a bete noir for me, and I keep seeing it at the moment! You say: “The chair mania got out of control, had to be reigned in.” It should be “reined in”, as a term used to keep your horse under control when he’s going off on one (which can be anything from being scared of a paper bag, to they’ve seen food and want it NOW!). Reigning is to do with monarchs, who have never been reined in in the past (divine right of Kings, and all that). Sorry – words are a passion, and I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it.

    Feel free to delete this comment!

  3. Had a car boot obsession from the 90s to about 2006 but have had to keep away as the stuff piled up around me, though lots of it is (probably) still in the loft. It can be quite obsessive and I’ve picked up some good stuff over the years. Favourite buys have been a Michael Jackson 50p cd promo remix that sold for £170 on ebay, an XTC cd single Wrapped in Grey with press release that then was withdrawn and sold for £130 etc. Have bought some good etchings too over the years. A favourite memory is the incongruous sight of a sparkly Miriam Margolyes selling a collection of vases amidst the rough diamonds at the Vauxhall Sunday car boot. The element of the unknown and exciting find is always there and your blog means I’ve got the urge to go back now. I bought a CD called Miramar by Jamie and the Magic Torch Song for 50p because I liked the cover, and which turned out to be really quite brilliant, then got into a nice correspondence with Jamie who was then based in Germany and bought all the rest of his albums from his website. I agree – magic, alchemy, wonder – but not genetics – though tbh none of my interests seem to be inherited…

  4. In my life, we call it junk shopping. My neighbor Debbie was particularly adept at finding bargains for her catering business. We would go into the wealthiest areas on garbage day and peruse the curb lots for treasures.
    One yard sale contained 2 extraordinary prints by a Chinese artist price at $100 each, then sold through Sotheby’s for $24,000 each! I actually touched them in regret that I didn’t have the cash to purchase!
    Debbie was the junk shopping Queen and I was the Princess-in-training!

  5. Tom, always entirely love your writing, I have no need to go to car boot sales, even if they had them here in the States. Having had to deal with a couple of houses after deaths, my relatives, and becoming for a time, as a very dear friend once phrased it, “The Keeper of the Sacred Shit”, it has made me become , mm, a bit less is more. I also worked , intermittently, for 10 yrs in the absolutely enchantingly magic world of her antique store, the initial desire is to take home SOO much wonderful stuff, I do still have a few, very few of the wonderful things. Incidentally we had all manner of LPs, but knowing little of them, no idea what may have become of them, some that would no doubt had you salivating. Having moved from a family home, to a much, much smaller place , over 10 yrs ago, the one thing I still grieve, the loss of all the books I had to leave behind, if I had it to do over, would FIND a way, the old house was filled with overflowing book cases from my early reading of everything I could get my hands on that seemed to have any value as a teen , to on up into my 60’s. Ah well, ther are always bargain stores with a lot of books for only 50 cnts to a $1.00. Thank you again, so very, very much

  6. I have many t shirts I need to sell as I won’t be wearing them again although not sure if anyone would buy them as they are of obscure local bands. T

  7. Well this was another fantastic read from the pen of TC. Recycled gems & the thrill of finding them … who else could write such an eloquent (& lengthy) piece on the thrill of the clutter case and yet earn so little from it? The creativity paradox is a bummer.
    * refrigerated * resistant * haemorrhaging * sustainability *

  8. *… thrill of the clutter chase* – oh the irony …

    From she who sought to proof-read your fab car-booting piece …

  9. I love this!
    When I was learning to be a History teacher in Devon, we had to study the Great Fire of Crediton, The heat from the fire was so fierce that it melted the apples on the trees.

  10. Lovely piece. I go to a few local community markets or occasional ‘swap meets’, which are a mix of 2nd hand household items, bric-a-brak, handmade clothing, art, plants, plastic junk, tools, jewellery, rusty car parts, and food. I rarely leave empty handed but I have to restrain myself cos I only have a small home and don’t like dusting. Now I can’t stop singing Rock On tho, thanks for the ear worm. 😄

  11. Makes me want to fly to England just for the boot sales and delve into the history of hobbies, decor and fashion. But mostly I want to find something antique no matter the material value. I couldn’t help using Brian Cox’s voice while reading your article and not sure how, but someday you and the great astronomer need to collaborate. Plus, there may be science fiction memorabilia out there in the boot sales and to me that is a big draw!

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