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The Second-Hand Story: Urban Gleaners in Portland OR

November 17, 2011

  • Christina Cooke, M.F.A
    Christina Cooke, M.F.A

Earlier this fall guest faculty Christina Cooke taught Exploring Life Stories: The Art of the Interview for the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark. A former newspaper reporter who teaches news writing and nonfiction at Portland State University, Christina loves nothing more than finding and telling stories. 

Her project, The Second-Hand Society, a thesis for the nonfiction writing M.F.A. program at Portland State, tells the stories of people in Portland, Oregon who make use of objects others discard.

In conducting research, Cooke spent time in repair shops watching craftsmen hammer and polish broken typewriters, vacuum cleaners and shoes back to life. She followed book scouts, clothes pickers and liquidators as they gathered merchandise to resell and spent hours at nonprofits that collect and redistribute unwanted electronics and building supplies. She watched junk artists and fashion designers assemble found objects into display pieces, accompanied Dumpster divers and “freegans” along their regular collection routes and visited the homeless encampment by the airport to see how an entire community of people survives on nothing but reclaimed materials.

Though their motivations vary, the people Cooke talked to operate in the margins, sorting through mounds of detritus in less-than-savory locales to find books, shirts, pieces of fruit worth saving. The work is slightly rebellious, challenging the traditional conception of things as “broken” or “unwanted” and asserting that forward movement and new-new-new is not always optimal. By examining the motivations and practices of the people who make use of our discards, as well as the contradictions they run up against, Cooke develops an understanding of the reality that’s possible when we think differently about waste.

Read “Peddlers of Scrap: A liquidator, book scout and clothes picker dig through the rubble for saleable treasure,” an excerpt of Christina’s thesis, here

Christina Cooke’s writing has been published in The OregonianWillamette Week, the Greensboro News and RecordSalt MagazineClamor MagazinePort City Life and  Patagonia Black Sheep. For more information, please visit her website,, to learn more or view writing clips.


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