Too much stuff: We collect it all our lives, and then what?
THE PALE YELLOW chair sliding down the scratched steel bed of the Goodwill tractor trailer lands with a thud atop the fractured remains of a cheap particleboard desk at Seattle’s South Transfer Station, an ignominious end for an object that, at one time, probably sparked joy for its owner.
Despite its perch atop a mound of garbage, it’s easy to imagine that this overstuffed chair was once the prized centerpiece of someone’s living room. Maybe kids jumped on it and cats napped on it, staining its arms. Maybe it enjoyed a second life in someone’s first apartment.
Even now, the chair exudes potential. With some imagination and a sturdy sewing machine, it could come to life again. But it’s too late for that.
In a few minutes, a bulldozer will crush it and push its broken remains into a pit, where it will be crammed into a container, loaded onto a trailer and driven, along with millions of other discards, to its final resting place: a dump in Oregon.
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“Most of the stuff that comes in is totally reusable,’’ says Anthony Grant, a supervisor at the transfer station who has a front-row view of the detritus of our acquisitive lives. Grant has seen the contents of homes end up in a pile on the wet concrete floor. Lots of antiques, he says, and stuff from the 1960s.
For a while, transfer staff would yank items from the trash piles and set them aside for re-use by whoever was willing to haul it away. But then bureaucracy interfered — the usual stifling concerns about liability — and everything became trash again.
After decades of accumulating stuff, it seems we’re now obsessed with managing it and getting rid of it.
Last year, we spent about $7.7 billion on stuff to organize our stuff, and another $24 billion to store it. When those options maxed out, we bought books from tidying gurus like Marie Kondo offering tips on how to part with it.
Kondo notes that the closets and drawers of an average client contain 160 shirts, sweaters and other tops. Purging is suddenly virtuous.
“Thank your stuff,’’ she advises. “It’s been working hard for you.”
For many of us — especially baby boomers — stuff has become a burden too heavy to carry alone. Parents die or become ill, and suddenly there’s a whole other household of stuff to deal with. China, books, shoes, papers, old television consoles, mink coats and dusty felt hats from the Disneyland trip 40 years ago.
So we hire junk removal companies to clear out basements and attics. We hold garage sales and engage liquidators to sell off what they can. We rent dumpsters and haul our stuff to charities to sell for a good cause, creating an endless churn of stuff looking for new homes until we run out of options and simply throw it away.
MERLIN COFFEY is sitting in the corner of his dining room, parked on an antique French chair in front of a table stacked with china and silver serving sets. Around him, strangers pick through three floors worth of his belongings — thousands of items, nearly all of it acquired by his late wife, Mary Jane, who died in 2013 after 92 magnificent years on earth.
“She never threw anything away,’’ he says, without a hint of resentment or exasperation. Collecting was Mary Jane’s passion, and he indulged it, even when that passion filled every nook and cranny of their West Seattle home.
Mary Jane grew up on a sugar plantation in Hawaii, the daughter of the superintendent. She didn’t own much as a child and made up for it as an adult. For a time, she ran an antiques business in a storefront next to the restaurant the couple owned in Burien. But as her husband notes wryly, she did far more buying than selling.
Coffey grew up in Cowiche, “a wide spot in the road in Yakima County,” where his parents were migrant workers. Aside from tools and model planes, Coffey doesn’t collect much, and doesn’t feel particularly attached to the stuff that has shared his space for 56 years.
“I like a lot of it because she did,’’ he says.
The couple’s three sons, their children and their children’s children have already taken what they wanted, which wasn’t much, he says. That left Coffey, a spry 93-year-old former engineer, to dispose of the rest.
“We should have started five years ago, doing little by little,’’ he says of the paring down. “It’s essentially a situation you don’t plan on. You just gradually get old.”
Six months ago, he started boxing things but eventually gave up and hired Alyssa Stevens of Fruit Cocktail Collectibles in Seattle to sell the rest. Stevens, an appraiser who has been running estate sales for 15 years, went room by room through Coffey’s house, pricing items and taking photos of things to sell online. The process took a month and a half.
Today is the second go-round for the sale, and despite the blustery weather, there’s a steady flow of customers, drawn in by scores of photos Stevens posted.
Linda Gause of SeaTac spends about 20 minutes looking over Mary Jane’s collection of cookie jars perched on kitchen shelves. Gause has about 300 cookie jars at home — they even have their own room. She looks pained as she struggles to resist the urge to buy one more and walks into the kitchen to touch them a few times before deciding she can’t bring herself to drop another $100 to add to her collection, and leaves without one.
Coffey has been present for most of the sale days and admits that he’s had to check himself as people leave with treasures his wife had brought home, some from other people’s estate sales.
“You see it go, and think, ‘Maybe I can use that,’ ” he says. “(But) when you boil it down, I won’t be using much of anything.”
At his son’s urging, Coffey rented an apartment on Queen Anne. He moved some furniture and dishes into it. He also brought along a few Italian plates and a painting of Mary, Queen of Scots he said he wouldn’t part with “for money, love or nothing.”
“It’s a really good painting,’’ he says. “Very well done.”
The rest? He’s going to donate it to charity, he says. Mary Jane was his passion. Everything else is just stuff.
EXCEPT WHEN it isn’t.
Turns out that guilt and sentimentality — powerful feelings attached to the things we own — are reasons we hang onto stuff.
How do you get rid of Grandpa’s lucky football hat or the cranberry-colored glass dish your great-grandmother used to rest her powder-puff? How do you dispose of a library your mother spent a lifetime building, or discard the hulking kitchen table from your childhood home, even though it doesn’t fit in your apartment? The vintage toy collection inspires happy memories of childhood. The carved coconut reminds us of our honeymoon in Hawaii.
Buying things also gives us an emotional boost, yet behavioral studies show that the things we own bring us diminishing pleasure over time, and sometimes very quickly.
“The positive emotions associated with acquisition are short-lived,’’ according to a 2013 article in the Journal of Consumer Research by Marsha Richins, a distinguished marketing professor at the University of Missouri.
Richins found that “materialists” — people who buy more than other consumers — are willing to go into debt to buy things they can’t afford because they believe their lives will be transformed by the purchases.
“Although materialists still experience positive emotions after making a purchase, these emotions are less intense than before they actually acquire a product,’’ she noted.
We also tend to overvalue our stuff, ignoring the fact that collections of Beanie Babies, Precious Moments figurines and Thomas Kinkade paintings are worth pennies compared to what we paid for them.
Still, there are people who love their stuff and have no intention of parting with it until they’re departed. With 8,000 Americans turning 65 each day, more and more of us are going to be confronting our stuff. Because, let’s face it, either we get rid of it or someone else will.
GARY FOY plucks a pine cone from a plastic blue donation bin at the Goodwill store on Dearborn Avenue in South Seattle. He brings it up to eye level and becomes as excited as if he had just opened a Christmas present.
“I’ll get four or five of these, put ’em in a bag and sell it for a dollar,’’ he says, setting it aside and going on to the next item, a cartoonish metal dog sculpture.
“Yard art!” he says. “This is killer. I’m going to do $12 to $14 ’cause he’s cool.”
Foy has been pricing items for Goodwill for 10 years. He’s seen one of just about everything, he says, and items will often repeat. Usually, it’s driven by life phases: the kid who outgrew Pokeman, or Magic the Gathering cards, or the woman who said she liked dogs and ended up with a collection of dog figurines from friends who ran out of gift ideas.
Lately, there have been lots of electronic drum sets. There used to be a lot of old console televisions, but now flat-screen TVs are coming in as people get new ones. Household goods are a staple, as are clothing and furniture.
“People buy new stuff, and they only have a little bit of space,’’ Foy says.
Some stuff is rejected, but if Foy thinks it has value and is in good enough condition to sell, he’ll stick a price tag on it.
Seattle Goodwill runs 24 retail stores from Bellingham to Burien, and uses some of the revenue to fund job training and education. In 2012, the year of the charity’s most recent available tax return, Seattle Goodwill sold $93 million worth of stuff. That makes it the Big Kahuna in town: Salvation Army sold $9.3 million in donated goods through its Northwest stores, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul sold $4.6 million in clothing and household goods in the Seattle area, tax records show.
“We put 100,000 items on the floor every day,’’ says Katherine Bourey, a Goodwill spokeswoman. “Some people come two, three, four times a week because they never know what’s going to be here.”
Although Goodwill sells some new merchandise, almost all of the goods it sells are donated by people such as Meg McDonald, 46, who just pulled up at the Dearborn donation site in a U-Haul truck. She parks between the orange cones, climbs down from the truck bed as Goodwill employees lift the back door, and starts unloading furniture: a bunk-bed frame, an end table, two couches, a chair . . .
It’s from a rental house. “I bring stuff here all the time,’’ she says. “In fact, I was here earlier buying stuff.”
ON A BUSY day, Goodwill employees will unload at least a car a minute, says Brent Frerichs, director of business development and strategies for the nonprofit in Seattle.
The furniture is shrink-wrapped in plastic and transported across the parking lot to storage until it’s ready to be sold. Other items are put into trailers painted with the phrase, “Someone’s going to love your stuff.”
Most of the donations come in around Christmas and the summer, when people tend to purge, but the stores operate year-round.
Occasionally, someone will bring over the contents of an entire house.
“It’s not a rare occurrence,’’ Frerichs says. “People are downsizing or moving into an apartment or retirement home. That’s the time when people are editing and sorting. We get a lot of people moving out of early childhood, so we get strollers . . . They’re moving onto the next stage of their lives. Styles evolve and families grow older.”
Sometimes they’ll donate something they bought at Goodwill: “It’s almost a joke that they’re renting it,’’ Frerichs says.
Donations are sorted — clothing by size and color — and put on the shop floor. What doesn’t make the cut is parted out to vendors, who buy everything from the wire inside Christmas lights to single shoes.
Items that don’t sell in four weeks get discounted for five days, and then moved out to one of Goodwill’s two clearance outlets, in Seattle and Everett. Regulars at the outlets sometimes wear surgical masks and wield mechanical claws so they don’t have to touch the clothing and bedding heaped into 10-foot-long bins.
People pick their way down rows, filling what look like canvas laundry hampers on wheels with blankets, sweaters and coats, dishware and boots. Mornings are for the hard-core shoppers, many of them involved in resale. The afternoons tend to attract younger people looking for cheap threads a la Macklemore, who filmed his “Thrift Shop” video in the Seattle outlet.
Macklemore scored a leopard mink coat for 99 cents, but could have just as easily walked away with a hutch or a couch for the same price.
Furniture at the clearance outlets is mostly on its last legs, and it’s only a matter of time before some of it will meet the fate of the pale yellow chair that ended up as trash at the Seattle transfer station.
The people throwing their stuff away might feel relieved, finally getting it out of the house. Whatever joy it once sparked is long gone, and the most pleasurable aspect of owning stuff — the moment just before you bought it — is but a distant memory.
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