Literary Prizes

Value Village by Jonathan Poh

Jonathan Poh has won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Value Village.

2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize winner

Jonathan Poh is a writer, editor and communications specialist living in Burnaby, B.C. (Jillian Chong)

Jonathan Poh has won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Value Village.

He will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and his work has been published on CBC Books

You can read Value Village below.

It's the smell.

I'd recognize it anywhere: musty opening, heart of stale cigarette smoke, perfume and — is it gasoline? Base notes of sweat and body odour. An unmistakable second-hand smell. 

I'm shuffling sideways between the racks of clothing like they're booby-trapped, doing my best to make sure the smell doesn't rub off on me, doesn't get onto my clothes. I realize I'm overreacting, but I can't help it. My wife, who possesses an unflinching gaze from which nothing escapes, flashes me a look. We're at a pop-up shop in the basement of a building on West Cordova Street in Gastown, where a Japanese collector named Hayato is displaying his treasure trove of vintage clothing. Woolrich plaid flannel shirts from the '50s. Old Patagonia fleeces that have presumably seen summits, or least the faces of mountains with names like Kilimanjaro. Barbour jackets with beautiful patina. 

Though I know I should be more respectful, the smell of any thrift store makes me wrinkle my nose, scrunch my face up like a five-year-old being forced to eat vegetables. Makes me locate the exit so I can get the hell out. 

"I need some air," I say. Outside, on the sidewalk, I breathe a sigh of relief, although now I'm suddenly aware it stinks like piss and vehicle exhaust. I sniff the sleeve of my jacket. Thank God, I think to myself, I hate that smell. 

Jonathan Poh reads the story that won the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize.

The first time I inhaled the smell of a thrift store was in 1992, though I don't remember loathing it at first. That was the year my family immigrated to this country from Singapore. The year we attempted, piece by agonizing piece, to reassemble our lives in the suburb of Maple Ridge, 40 minutes east of Vancouver. 

Back then, there were as many thrift stores in town as there were malls: a Value Village on 207th Street and a Salvation Army on Lougheed Highway. One afternoon, about six months into our new life in Canada, my father steered his dinky red Ford Fiesta into the large, empty parking lot of a strip mall. He parked the car and — as if revealing the real reason for dragging us to this strange land — pointed proudly to a big, red sign that announced in big, white letters: VALUE VILLAGE. 

Though I know I should be more respectful, the smell of any thrift store makes me wrinkle my nose, scrunch my face up like a five-year-old being forced to eat vegetables.

Value Village looked and smelled the way I imagined the '50s did from photographs: slightly smoky and faded and sepia-toned. This vast, funky-smelling cavern of fluorescence — of cowboy boots and yellowed jigsaw puzzle boxes and artificial flowers in chipped vases — was, in some ways, my first peek into the excesses and idiosyncrasies of Western living. As I peered at the unidentifiable bits and bobs on shelves and racks of mismatched garments, it occurred to me that I was in a museum devoted, quite possibly, to an alien species. Uninterested in clothes then or the dusty figurines in the toy section, I walked out with a Hardy Boys novel. Beside me, my mother pushed a shopping cart into the parking lot, radiant with exhilaration. "So cheap!" she chirped, with obvious glee.

Value Village became as much a part of our family's orbit as Safeway or Zellers or Chinese buffet restaurants, one of many indications that our lives were no longer the same. No one felt this more keenly than my father. In Vancouver, he was unable to find work in the library profession and so begrudgingly took on a series of part-time jobs at businesses run by other immigrants: at a doughnut shop owned by a Polish woman, as a dishwasher at a Cantonese restaurant, delivering pizza for the East Indian franchisee of a local Domino's. In the evenings, he came home smelling of grease and regret — though, sometimes, he also brought us doughnuts.

To distract ourselves from the fact we had few friends, no extended family nearby and little money, we delved more deeply into the frugal pleasures of thrifting. My parents spent the following summer adopting a new pastime: a socially accepted form of voyeurism I would come to know as garage sale shopping. During the week, my mother combed through the local newspapers and with typical fastidiousness, circled all the garage sale ads with a red marker. On Saturdays, armed with her list of addresses, we packed into the car and trawled the surrounding neighbourhoods, windows down, in the white-hot summer weather. We mapped out the geography of our adopted hometown in this way: by stalking strangers' driveways and rifling through their unwanted belongings.

In the beginning, thrifting was simply a quaint, mostly harmless hobby that seemed to make my parents happy. It had the added benefit of enabling my siblings and me to acquire non-essentials, such as toys, without straining our shoestring budget. I was still blissfully unaware of the pain that children could inflict, that "Value Village" could be weaponized as an insult, that simply being could be cause for a beating.

We mapped out the geography of our adopted hometown in this way: by stalking strangers' driveways and rifling through their unwanted belongings.

But one afternoon, at the base of the big yellow slide at the playground near my home, a boy I'd never seen sucker punched me so hard I ended up flat on my back in the sawdust. I blinked in astonishment under the warm glare of the sun, too stunned to cry, the sweet smell of wood chips in my nostrils and the metallic taste of blood sharp on my tongue. As I lay there — my lower lip starting to swell — the boy stood over me and said something I had never heard before. Words like alliterative bombs sounding in my ears: "You're a Chinese chink!" 

I would suffer other indignities in childhood. In Grade 2, my teacher placed me in special ed because I was "too quiet" which, to her, also meant "slow." But nothing quite compared to the constant, performative pressure that reached its peak every September, when the school year started and my peers arrived to class in a procession of new Air Jordans ($150), Levi's Red Tab denim ($40), Adidas tearaway track pants ($40) and reversible Nike bomber jackets ($80). By contrast, my Payless sneakers ($19) were expected to last till my toes poked out of their shabby, synthetic uppers.

In theory, my parents could have afforded to help me better assimilate at school, if only superficially. By the time I was old enough to care about my appearance, my father had found a full-time job at a public library. My mother had started giving piano lessons to pouty-faced children in our home. They'd bought a house. But the lifestyle of frugality they'd adopted, by necessity, during our early years in Canada had grown long, invisible tentacles over time, forming a vice-like grip on their purse strings and coercing them into a mindset of constant lack. Buying me sneakers so I could "be like Mike" was nowhere on their list of priorities.

As a kid, I understood this in the mysterious way kids tend to understand unexplained adult things. By Grade 4, I'd internalized the reality that, if I wanted to look cool, I would need to start thrifting more strategically. That meant scrutinizing the racks for acceptable brand name logos: Swoosh (Nike), three stripes or trefoil (Adidas), leaping cat (Puma), "C" mark (Champion) or double diamond (Umbro). I held those logos close to me, like symbols of my salvation.

Of all the thrifted things in my wardrobe, the undisputed holy grail was a Puma track jacket I scored at Value Village in the summer of 1996. I wrested it one evening from between a worn leather jacket and a Cowichan cardigan and held it up to the fluorescent lighting. I considered, with admiration, the logo taping that ran down each sleeve, the black-and-white colour-blocked design, the large leaping cat logo on its left breast. It was $10. I walked it proudly to the cash register. 

Jonathan Poh in 1996 wearing a Puma track jacket that he bought from Value Village. (Submitted by Jonathan Poh)

Emboldened by my new jacket, I was brimming with confidence when I entered Grade 6. Dennis, the best cross-country runner in our class, must have noticed because one afternoon, he approached my desk and stood there, staring, until I looked up. I tried not to piss myself. Once, in second grade, he used his speedy legs to jump-kick me so hard I felt my soul leave my body. I later learned that his other favourite sports were soccer and tormenting coloured kids like me. The fallen leaves, where I hit the ground that day, smelled musky and sweet.

"Cool jacket," Dennis said. He had almost artificially blue eyes and the blonde, nearly platinum hair he'd inherited — along with his racism — from his mother. He and another boy had been on their way to use the pencil sharpener at the front of the classroom.

I wasn't sure what to say. The room, likewise, fell silent.

"Yeah, cool jacket," parroted the other boy, Timothy. Who, I realize now, wore the same Michael Jordan T-shirt to school at least three times a week. 

"Um, thanks," I said. "It's new."

I didn't register then, as I basked in the glow of their validation, that I had overlooked something important. That, in my excitement at unearthing this gem, I had failed to inspect the front zipper, which was missing paint in places, exposing the metal hardware beneath. That the back of the collar, too, was slightly frayed and there was a tiny hole near the front right pocket from a cigarette burn. I just didn't expect it would be my best friend, Jordan, who would expose me.

"Where'd you get that — Value Village?" he asked, much too loudly. He pointed to the mottled zipper of my jacket. To its many minute imperfections. And then he pressed his nose to my sleeve — inhaling deeply — and confirmed his suspicion.

I don't know if anything I could have said that day would have spared me from the embarrassment or the thundering, soul-crushing laughter that would resound, like a never-ending echo, over the next two decades of my life. From that moment, I was known in class as "Value Village": the kid who bought his clothes from a thrift store, who tried to pass them off as new. The kid whose immigrant parents had jobs, but still picked pennies from the school parking lot and bought their kids knock-off sneakers. The next year, to my great relief, my parents sold our house and we moved across town, closer to the high school I would enrol in that fall. 

From that moment, I was known in class as 'Value Village': the kid who bought his clothes from a thrift store, who tried to pass them off as new.

I thought about Value Village (and that jacket) one evening, in 2012, from the 16th storey of an office building in Hong Kong, where I'd accepted a job writing about — what else? — clothing and sneakers. As I stared out at the steadily darkening mountains behind the city, the sky looked enormous, endless, eternal. Earlier that day, my application for a work visa had been rejected and I had no choice but to return to Vancouver. I wondered if this was some hilarious joke God was playing on me, setting me unknowingly on the trajectory of one, big invisible circle that was bringing me back to where it all started. I wondered, at that moment, if you can really run away from something you carry inside you.

The night I return from the pop-up shop in Gastown, I remember to do the laundry. We've started using an organic detergent that smells like geranium blossoms and vanilla. But as soon as I start loading the washer, my curiosity gets the better of me.

I take my iPhone from my pocket and Google "What's the thrift store smell?" The top result, a New York Times study conducted by Procter & Gamble, confirms my suspicions: body soils (skin, sweat, oils), car exhaust, gasoline, food, perfume and dry-cleaning solvents. 

My next query, naturally, is "How do you get rid of the thrift store smell?" Here is what I find: machine or hand-washing is ideal. Avoid dry cleaning. Do not dry the garment on high heat, which can amplify bad smells. The same P&G study includes this helpful reminder: "Particularly smelly clothes may need more than one washing."

Read the other finalists:

About Jonathan Poh

Jonathan Poh is a writer, editor and communications specialist living in Burnaby, B.C. He is a former editor of the men's fashion and streetwear publication Hypebeast, where he remains a contributor, and holds a BA in English from Simon Fraser University. His next writing project is an exploration of sneaker and streetwear culture, faith, identity and race, a journey that has taken him around the globe in search of belonging. Value Village is his first work of personal nonfiction.

About the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize is currently open for submissions. The 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January. The 2021 CBC Poetry Prize will open in April.

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