Nobody Wants Your Stuff

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A load of toxic waste.

I reached a low point, last week, in the sad task of emptying my mom’s house when I got bounced out of the Goodwill donation center like a drunk who had sidled up to the bar one too many times. The manager who, during my previous visits, viewed me with a mixture of crankiness and suspicion came out and said to me, “Unless it’s saleable, we don’t want it. We’re about to shut down donations.” From his furrowed brow and hard stare I knew that he was speaking, not generally, but to me personally. I had strained the good will of the Goodwill and now had to recognize that I had a tchotchke problem in need of the intervention of a higher power.

That higher power came in the form of an independent thrift store down the road that was happy to take my rejected Goodwill load. A local rock club took all the lapidary supplies. But, later in the week, the Salvation Army rejected a perfectly good couch and chair. Sadly, a lot of my mom’s belongings will be sent to the landfill. The reason? There’s just too much stuff in this world and nobody wants more.

I had intended to write about dealing with the loss of a loved one and what to do with their belongings but I was out-scooped by Richard Eisenberg’s blog post “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff.” Eisenberg says everything I was going to say. He notes that we live in an Ikea and Target era and nobody wants old stuff unless it’s mid-century modern. The antique market has cratered and in the words of the furniture dealer who is staging my mom’s house (with mid-century modern goods), “It’s never coming back.” It just so happens that my mom had a lot of mid-century modern furniture that will find a new home. But there’s still going to be a huge dumpster full of lesser furniture and other miscellaneous items heading to the landfill later this week.

Eisenberg’s blog post prompted a huge response and he did a followup post, “What You Said About ‘Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff’” that has some further suggestions and a bit of push-back. My experience with my mom’s belongings affirms what Eisenberg said in the first post. The only thing I’d add is that the experience has made my Marie Kondo fervency even stronger. The professional organizing mafia’s strategy, that would have us buy more storage boxes and closet gadgets, is misguided (read more about this in a New York Times article “Marie Kondo and the Ruthless War on Stuff“). I think Kondo is right to say that we all need to downsize and buy fewer things in the first place.

In addition to Kondo’s war on stuff I think we need to revive a commitment to craftsmanship and beauty. I’ve spent many evenings in the past month reading Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Magazine, that documents the unsuccessful turn of the last century war on cheap industrial goods. My Kondo/Morris/Stickley mashup has inspired a few new house rules:

  • Think long and hard before bringing anything new into the house.
  • When you do get something make sure it’s of high quality and take care of it.
  • Should you find me or Kelly at an Ikea, know that we are on a bender and call the police.
  • Before buying something ask what will happen to this object when it’s no longer needed. Does it have long lasting value or is it just another landfill destined item?
  • Remember always the words of William Morris, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

At least being bounced from the Goodwill and facing couch rejection at the hands of the Salvation Army puts me in esteemed company. When moving out of an apartment in New York, W.H. Auden had the Salvation Army drop by to pick up a couch. The workers first noted the sorry state of his couch: it was held up on one end with a brick and had a cigarette burn and a large stain. Auden explained that he had accidentally lit the couch on fire and the only thing he had to put out the fire was a shaker full of martinis.

You can bet that I won’t be “Kondoizing” my cocktail shaker. Especially now, when contemplating the sheer amount of stuff in this word, I’ve deemed it both beautiful and useful.

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18 Comments

  1. I saw this immediately after paying for my 3 storage units, which cost more than my total rent when I was an undergrad. And I wasn’t living in debt then!

  2. We are doing the same thing with my parent’s house, after my father’s passing in May. My parents bought the house in 1954 and going through it has been difficult, both emotionally and physically. We have an ‘estate sale’ scheduled for August, but that is really going to be a glorified garage sale because my parents did not own anything of real value. Except the 1950s Westwood stove, which is staying with the house. Fortunately the local Goodwill does not recognize me – yet – and the estate sale leftovers have already been spoken for by a local Christian men’s group.

    My kids were hoping to find more treasures and mementos, but my mom went on a cleaning rampage before she died a few years ago. Many of the things they cherished, especially from summers at Camp Grandma, are already gone. Much of what is left is older and junkier than they remember, or not transportable to where they are living now. But it is still hard to say goodbye to the house and all the memories, knowing that very soon we will walk out of that house for the very last time.

    Like many of the comments in Eisenberg’s posts, I think the desirability of your inheritance depends on where you live. My parents are in the San Gabriel Valley, so hopefully most of the stuff will go to loving homes. I feel your pain. And like you, we are going through our own home to lighten the load of stuff accumulated over the decades.

  3. Have you tried 1-800-got-junk or similar service? Sorry if I missed a post where you mention them. They claim ‘responsible disposal’, finding new homes for stuff that still works, recycling stuff that doesn’t when possible, and only the remainder going into landfill. I do not know how hard they try to keep things out of the landfill but the claim is so far enough to ease my conscience and allow me to let go of still useful things that we do not need.

    I still shun the Kondo and all her works.

  4. We ae members of our local Facebook “Buy Nothing” page. Many communities have them. I have been truly amazed at the things people have given/taken: half-empty bottles of window cleaner, leftover pet medication, used (but clean) mattresses, & tons of furniture just to name a few.

  5. I’m sorry you’re dealing with such a sad clean out.

    Some alternatives to unwelcoming thrift stores and landfills:

    Suggest freecycle and the free section of craigslist instead of donation the charity shops/thrift stores;
    post(disappointing) garage sale we advertised everything free and everything! found a new home.

    I’ve seen a man with holey sweatpants (no undies), another whose feet were wrapped in rags. Homeless shelters accept various donations.

    Donate stuff to food pantries that also have clothes & household goods distribution. I was thinking they might not accept used but clean pyjamas, socks, undies, but lady said they need it all.

    Towels, sheets, newspapers are needed in animal shelters.

  6. I went through a very bad experience when my grabby, lying sister convinced my mother to disinherit the rest of us. It upset me to see the person who would not value any of my mother’s things, who only wanted to have it all her own, now got it all. No one got childhood toys, mementoes, old pictures or anything from my mother. I was so upset that I sold my childhood mementoes that were worth much more to collectors for just a bit so my things would be valued. Now, I want all those things I sold. But, it is too late. It hurts me to hear of your mother’s things not being valued. I do have furniture that people will want…lol. Also, is the one piece of Mediterranean furniture I still have making a comeback? I love this broken down sofa that is seven feet long!

  7. The municipal landfills in my area will take household hazardous waste. If it’s still of value, it will go into a reuse shed where it is free to the public. If it is not usuable, it is disposed of as hazardous waste in accordance to EPA regulations. During the summer, they will have collection events at businesses such as home improvement stores. They will often be subsidized by a company as part of the their fine for violating EPA rules. These events are often referred to as ABOP events: antifreeze, batteries, oil and paint. The EPA web page will often list HHW recyclers or where you can take your HHW for proper disposal. Look under your EPA region or, if your EPA compliance is conducted at the state level, look at your state web page. https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa.

  8. My general recommendations/observations (which overlap with yours):
    1) Goodwill and Salvation Army have now become the donation equivalent of the big box stores. Not only do they flat out refuse many things, but they also flat out trash things or ship clothes en masse to poor countries around the globe once they don’t sell here (yes, to be worn and/or recycled, but often in sweatshop conditions and a huge energy footprint). Do seek out the wee independent ones – our local one even has volunteers who will take the clothes home and wash/press them (if they aren’t already), and do minor mending etc. to make them all more saleable. Right on down to undies. Also try women’s shelters and churches, who often also accept unopened toiletries/personal hygiene items. At least in L.A., there is also a place that specifically takes in personal medical supplies such as crutches, walkers and such for distribution to those who can’t afford them (often useful when decluttering the house of an elderly or sick person who needed them in their final years)
    2) You didn’t pingback to your post/s about the Habitat for Humanity ReStores, but they’ve been great for the excess misc building supplies like boxes of screws, wall hooks, curtain rods etc.
    3)If you don’t have an official “freecycle” in your area and/or don’t want to deal with joining one, I’ve found our local neighborhood listserves have stunt doubled quite well (eg my posting of free Kondoed heat lamp bulbs from a long ago decommissioned bathroom heater ended up with a lady with a new pet lizard, and even my IKEA castoffs have found homes that way).
    4) As someone posted above, having a “free” sale. We did a massive clothing swap at my kids’ school, with the leftovers being taken by the groundskeeper to an orphanage in Mexico. Or if it’s just one item and your neighborhood is tolerant of it, I have been amazed at what will go by just putting it at the curb with a sign on it saying “free”. In the latter manner, we have seen slightly-in-need-of-repair chairs, couches, a cast iron tub and rusty pipes, a rusty dryer, a solid wood, but slightly warped top table, a plastic children’s playhouse, and a used, but clean mattress boxspring (our last! per your fourth rule above 😉 #sandbed) all get picked up in a matter of hours. In two cases, I had even already called the bulky trash pickup, only to have to cancel because the item was culled by a picker.
    And while I have managed to re-home a surprising number of things, large and small, I couldn’t agree more with your mashup list. It starts with acquiring better in the first place (I didn’t say “buying”, because woe betide the “but I can’t resist it because it’s free”, or “it would help my friend or family member to take it off their hands” etc etc – they question there is whether you still would have taken it home if you had to pay good money for it).
    And @PracticalParsimony – boo hiss on all the greed, avarice, and general pandora’s box of nasties that comes out of the woodwork when a loved one is dying or has died regarding the stuff. Seen that *way* too many times, and it’s brewing again with at least two beloved elders of mine who are nearing their time.

  9. Hi, I’ve seen ads where people just say FREE stuff and people come running to get it, some people still love getting stuff no matter what it is. An ad might even be free in some places.

  10. You’ve really touched a nerve.
    My brother-in-law died suddenly last summer. Never married, no kids, house full of crap. My husband is now in the position of clearing out the house, located 5 hours away from us, and he is under orders from me not to bring a single thing home, because we have plenty already. He has failed. Unfortunately, the husband is cut from the same cloth as his brother, plus he is under the false impression that old = valuable. It’s been a long, long, nine months so far with more yet to come.

  11. I am sorry you have had to go through this. From my own experience it is not just the physical and administrative labor of handling so much muchness of STUFF, but also the mental and emotional labor because so much of it brings up memories and promopts trails of thoughts, and ever last thing down to a box of old furniture protectors requires a decision!! P.S. In reading the book by Julie Hall, THE BOOMER BURDEN, and following her blog http://www.theestatelady.com/blog/ , both of which have so many excellent suggestions from a voice of wisdom, I found more peace of mind about this process than I ever would have expected. OK, back to Kondoing…

    • Oh, you’ve stated it perfectly. It isn’t just the work involved, it’s the emotional “baggage” that comes with it. Plus, I’m donating as much as I can, but to get the tax deduction, everything has to be listed on the receipt. My Dad died in January, and I’m clearing the house by myself, but I sense that people can’t figure out what’s taking so long. I guess a lot of folks would just chuck it all in a dumpster and be done with it, but I can’t do bring myself to do that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found a precious old photo or other memento stuck between two bank statements or other “no brainer” junk.

      I’ve found that our local “Thrifty Shopper”, run by the Rescue Mission, seems more than happy to take just about everything.

    • Kathy P.,
      Great point. In my neighborhood there’s been several times the adult kids came in and just dumpster-ed all of it without even going through it. But then one family found out after that the mom had stashed cash in all of her tins and they didn’t even bother to look inside of things. My stepsister got to clean out my step-grandma’s house and threw everything away, her excuse was there was mouse stuff in some places so she threw everything away furniture included and all those pictures of our dad growing up. I’m glad you’re taking time to find and discover the precious. I will do the same for my mom.

  12. A wonderful post, essay, whatever, that should be widely read, it would be great if people could share it on social media ( I don’t do social media or I would do it myself). I agree with just about every suggestion given by your other readers; I’m in the “antique” business and have been for about 35 years and have a lot of firsthand experience. The “free” pile out in front of the house with an ad on craigslist or nextdoor is amazingly effective! I would say forget about goodwill, it isn’t just you, my friend, they hardly take anything around here.

    Oh, and here’s one more thing— there are actually landfills where employees manage to cull out anything decent and have a little resale area or a free area. So just because it goes to the landfill doesn’t necessarily mean it will be buried.

    Keep up the excellent articles! Love your blog and recommend it to all my friends.

  13. I have a family of 5 and a small house. My motto is an extension of William Morris: “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Preferably BOTH.”

  14. I have so many memories and emotions stirred up by this post. First, on the practical side, why hasn’t someone established a re-cycle service for all that upholstered furniture that almost every thrift store scorns? When my dad, who lived with my daughter and me, died at 91, we dismantled his hideous sofa bed, leaned the metal framework on the side of a garage in our apt. complex and waited for some resourceful person to take it to a metal recycler. We did toss the fabric, but I imagine something could be done with it. Then we tore apart the perfectly fine wooden frame and re-cycled the wood. I can only think that many people don’t understand that there are usable materials hiding behind that dreadful polyester upholstery.
    On the sad side, I hate to see the trend that all possessions are “stuff” and minimalism is the only way to live. I know that some people need a very minimalist environment because their brains are wired that way, but I also feel very strongly that the products of people’s hands and hearts are to be treasured. One example: my mother had a collection (which implies she thought carefully about what she valued enough to collect) of what is often called Devon Mottoware, or Torquay pottery.
    I’m being forced to “downsize”(no reason termination of tenancy so the apt.mgmt.can re-model my crappy apt. and raise the rent), but I’ll take Mom’s lovely little pottery pieces with me to live in a cardboard box, if that’s how it works out (probably not). She also gave me a book recording the history of the potteries, and the opening inscription touches me: “When the dust of the workshop is still, the dust of the workman at rest, May some generous heart find a will; to seek and to cherish his best.”
    You might enjoy researching this a little bit–the cups, pitchers, teapots, etc. all were hand-painted and included wonderful little “mottoes”; on a candle holder: “Many are called but few get up;” ” Be happy while you’re living, For you’re a long time dead;” and “always help a lame dog over a stile.” It always cheers me up to read these inscriptions and think of the very real humans (men and women) who both labored in the potteries, and knew the truth of most of the mottoes.

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