11.02.2014

too much stuff

wooden message blocks via the Goodwill Outlet

As I write this, I'm sitting with my tabby cat on a shared vintage floor pillow woven with real fur strips and wool (and she very obviously doesn't have a problem with dead-animal fur because she sits on this thing as much as she can, now that the sofa is gone), using my former entryway trunk for a table. Empty used boxes and huge bags of preowned packing paper line the walls. Half of the stuff visible in my recent apartment tour posts is by now already gone: either moved to my new place, sold off, or soon-to-be-sold.

Life's a work in progress, right? But that includes our changing mindsets and philosophies. Sometimes as the years tick along, priorities change. As much as I've enjoyed collecting all this pretty stuff, I am now facing having to offload much of it. I'll essentially be moving a one-bedroom apartment into one bedroom since my friend currently has a two-bedroom apartment full of his own stuff. I'm just lucky he's being flexible and agreeable and willing to sell off some of his own less-than-loved belongings. (It helps that he's a vintage reseller used to turnover.)

The problem with owning stuff, even thrifty, somewhat sophisticated vintage stuff, is that it accumulates almost as fast as the dust bunnies under my former chocolate mohair sofa where the vacuum head didn't reach. Shopping in thrift stores and buying secondhand things that mostly were made in the USA way back in the day when America still made things doesn't remove me from the consumerist loop. Even living in a modest 500 square feet, I was still buying stuff I didn't need to fill space I didn't use to fit a certain standard aesthetic, i.e., because otherwise the place would "look funny."

In the developed world, it's so easy to acquire things. That's what drives American consumer culture, the bulk of our GDP. It's much harder getting rid of those things. Faced with that workload, I initially felt overwhelmed—depressed, even—by all I owned that needed to be sold, though it became easier when taken piece by piece, one Craigslist posting at a time.

Once I'd made the decision to share housing again with the goal of saving to own my own small (or tiny) home outright, I began looking at all the stuff in this apartment through that lens. It's like when a kaleidoscope pattern shifts with just one turn or click. So much had been bought (thriftily, yes) just to fill space rather than because it was actually used or needed, despite in-denial protestations to the contrary. Did I really need seven large vintage mirrors? Did I need a whole queen-sized bed for just one petite person? Did I actually require a dining table if I ate most meals on the coffee table and never had more than one friend over at a time, despite daydreams of hosting dinner parties? Did I need a vintage secretary hutch if I always did my writing feet-up on the sofa? Did I need the armchair I never sat in? Did I need a whole long closet full of clothes and shoes? Obviously, no.

Suddenly, every time I walked past something I owned that I didn't really love, I'd pick it up and set it in a large basket that had become the get-rid-of pile, which quickly morphed into two piles, and then three. At the same time, I began posting bigger items—furniture and furnishings like lamps, pictures, and mirrors—on Craigslist, figuring if they sold, that would be one less thing to move. I have nothing against donating to charity shops or using consignment stores for resale. I have a small bag headed for Goodwill myself. But in the past, all that stuff would have just been donated to Goodwill. Then years later I learned (lightbulb!) I could take the better quality stuff to a local consignment resale shop, with hopes to recoup a fraction of the cost.

But this time (bigger lightbulb!), I'm selling my unwanted stuff myself piece by piece for a profit, even though it takes more time. Why? Because I can. Because I have time. Because I have a better grasp now of what secondhand things are actually worth. Because I want the money more than I want the stuff. This should be the price, anyway, for buying things we don't really love or change our minds about later: finding a good home for something in the hands of someone who wants and will use it. Though I've always culled my possessions regularly, doing it larger-scale feels almost reckless, certainly counter-culture, and somehow more freeing—this time especially since I don't intend to replace the stuff I'm getting rid of (with a couple of notable exceptions). That is downsizing.

And you know what? This process has actually been making me feel happier. Each Craigslist buyer has come to my building really wanting whatever it's been that I'm selling: a big funky lamp, a vase, a chair, a mirror, a coffee table. The transactions have involved meeting new people face-to-face, even for just a bare minute, and shown me that most people are basically decent—despite how flaky some people on Craigslist can be—and that the ones who communicate well and show up when scheduled are more or less like me, and we're all just trying to make life a little nicer for ourselves and our families.

Another large benefit of collecting and selling in the secondhand market is that older things tend to hold or even increase their value compared to cheaply made newer things (think IKEA products). So far, I've made a modest profit on everything I've sold. As my reseller friend Jeff said the other day, "You've already become a vintage reseller without even trying." Who knew? Now I've got a new side gig.

What's funny in all this is that I could easily have chosen a studio apartment in this building and saved myself $135 a month in the last fifteen months (i.e., $2,015), if it weren't for my dining table. When I think back on it now, having a big housing decision (studio versus one-bedroom) like that hinge on one piece of furniture seems more than a little silly, though it wasn't just the dining table but what the dining table represented—dinner parties with friends—and the fact that I would gain two walls of windows instead of one wall and thus double the light, which for me was huge. But was it worth $2,015? These are the kind of questions more of us should be asking ourselves: Is it (whatever I'm spending my life doing) worth it?

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