What I Learned From Shopping at Estate Sales

I walked into to the estate sale at 9am on Saturday and immediately knew that this was this right sort of house for me.

The very modest two bedroom house was on a cul-de-sac in one of those modest suburbs that erupted around New York City after World War II. The wall to wall grey rugs were bunched up and thread bare. There was one of those automatic stair-chairs and unopened bags of Depends in the corner. And the house was packed to the brim with stuff – a grand piano that dominated the living room, shelves and shelves of book, artwork and prints spread out over the piano for sale, and little china cups every where.

Together, all that stuff was a horror show. There was just too much of all of it, and it was covered in dust. The guy who ran the sale told me that there was even more, but the basement had gotten flood last year and all that stuff down there were just dumped in a dumpster.

It was so sad that I almost walked out of the house. The house reeked of depression and OCD. The other people at the sale were Asberger’s types looking for yet another volume of Plato’s Republic or very poor people picking up a casserole pan for a $1. I was there looking for pretty, but not terribly valuable books.

I’ve been working on one writing project or another continuously for months. Even when I had a short break for a vacation or while waiting for an editor, there was always an article on the back burner using up brain space. I have some vague plans for my next projects, but I decided to really take a couple of weeks off before starting them. I’m very burned out.

So, I decided to lean into my sporadic hobby of selling books on the Internet. I don’t do it very often. Every few months, if I have spare time between articles or while waiting for interview subjects to return my emails, I post stuff on the Internet. It’s very, very low brain work. Time consuming, but it’s nothing like brain-hurtie job of wrangling ideas into palatable words.

I’ve learned a lot from this hobby. Not just that the Modern Library series is very collectable, and that homeschoolers love old children’s biographies. I’ve learned a lot about growing old.

Walking into that house on Saturday, I made a silent promise to myself. I will not go out like this — surrounded by “treasures” which confine movement and fill the air with moldy and musty smells. When I went into the house, the junk had already been cleared out by the estate sale people and the previous day’s buyers. It was probably even worse a few weeks ago.

When I hit 70, I’m going to start selling and giving away all my stuff. I’m already going through my basement and getting rid of crap. I want a nearly empty house by the time that I’m too old to do anything about it.

There were “treasures” in the house — books when dusted off and grouped with similar items that will easily sell to young home decorators. I picked up a stack of Modern Library books and some boxed sets of Heritage Series books. I’ll decide later, if I’ll sell the boxed books for $20 a pop or as a lot for $150. I can’t help buying this stuff, because it’s like finding $100 bills on the ground. Curated, the books are valuable. In that house, they were dumpster fodder.

But I don’t want my last years weighed down by crap, and have already stopped accumulating. I rarely buy a new dish or pan anymore, except to replace something that is broken. I only buy ebooks. All our photographs are online (though some should be made into neat little books). We’re gotten rid of all the kids old toys, except for the wooden Thomas train sets, because there are still too many memories there.

I want to check out with dignity. I don’t want to burden my children with getting rid of our stuff. I want to fill my later years with family and experiences, not dusty books.

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12 thoughts on “What I Learned From Shopping at Estate Sales

  1. It was very hard to clean out my folks house. So much stuff. For the two years before, my siblings and I were kind of running the house in succession and we would joke that whatever it was, there was one in the house already.

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  2. In cleaning out my mother’s house I found a small box of papers from when I was attending college (invoices, FAFSA). I was glad I looked carefully- in those days they used my SS number as a student and it was on everything. If hadn’t checked the papers would not have gone to the shred pile.

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    1. I suspect that in the modern age the odds that a small box of papers from an estate (which would probably be thrown away or at most recycled) would be the source of a SS number hack are pretty low. Much more likely is that they are harvested from your bank, the government, credit checking services, . . . .

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  3. Who else has encountered the viral story about the embroidered quilt that is being group-finished (and the quilt museum has already accepted to display)? The story made me happy. And, I like that Laura is finding old books and uniting them with someone who wants them. The illustrations with red ink are pretty.

    I still buy books (though they are a lot more likely to be discarded after I’ve finished reading them). I am a declutterer in theory more than practice (though I am also thwarted by the people I live with). I suspect, though, that decluttering is not something one can start at 70. I know some people who are really good at it. The key is that they have to be willing to get rid of things that might be treasures.

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    1. bj said,

      “(though I am also thwarted by the people I live with).”

      Yeah, that is the major flaw in the Marie Kondo method–other people. On the bright side, I have found that my kids get more willing to discard as they get older.

      “I still buy books (though they are a lot more likely to be discarded after I’ve finished reading them).”

      I have given at least several decluttering books the heave-ho…

      “I suspect, though, that decluttering is not something one can start at 70.”

      Yeah.

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  4. And I just made another $180 selling 1930’s engineering textbooks. Who knew? I bought a huge lot at an auction for $3. It was my first time doing an auction, and it was an experiment. I’ve already made over $200 from that purchase.

    I’m seriously thinking about making this a full time job.

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    1. Laura said,

      “And I just made another $180 selling 1930’s engineering textbooks. Who knew? I bought a huge lot at an auction for $3. It was my first time doing an auction, and it was an experiment. I’ve already made over $200 from that purchase.”

      Very nice!

      “I’m seriously thinking about making this a full time job.”

      It’s probably more fun part-time.

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  5. There’s a house in the family that it would kind of be a blessing if it burned down…

    Laura wrote, “When I hit 70, I’m going to start selling and giving away all my stuff. I’m already going through my basement and getting rid of crap. I want a nearly empty house by the time that I’m too old to do anything about it.”

    My grandpa died a year ago at nearly 97. Over the previous decade, he’d done the following:

    –replanted a small orchard with new apple trees
    –renovated the late-1950s kitchen
    –dealt with various projects around the house
    –gotten new yard equipment (grandpa said “I don’t want to leave junk!)
    –sent me some paintings/reproductions.

    When I visited this past summer, my grandma (94 and a lifelong minimalist) was making plans to paint the exterior of the house and fix the driveway and fretting about needing to tidy up the garage.

    “But I don’t want my last years weighed down by crap, and have already stopped accumulating.”

    I believe dave s. has mentioned that a lot of stuff can be fobbed off on adult kids as they move out! I have some Star Trek glasses that are definitely moving out with the big kids!

    “All our photographs are online (though some should be made into neat little books).”

    We do a photobook every Christmas as our gift to the adults in the extended family. We start with 1,000 photographs and winnow them down to about 100 for the book.

    “We’re gotten rid of all the kids old toys, except for the wooden Thomas train sets, because there are still too many memories there.”

    We had a big graduate/departmental potluck this weekend and I had literally 10 kids (0-7) in our playroom. I was realizing afterward that (while our youngest is growing out of a lot of this stuff) there is a lot of point to holding on to at least some little kid toys for small visitors.

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  6. “We’re gotten rid of all the kids old toys, except for the wooden Thomas train sets, because there are still too many memories there”

    I have too many toys that I still associate with memories, though I also continue to be shocked at the sheer volume of children’s stuff we accumulated (most of which was my fault). My kids weren’t big toy players (no lego building, thomas, . . .). They tended to play a fair amount of pretend games and short attention spans for things. But I’ll remember one memory, and want to keep the thing (which I disapprove of, even as I do it).

    One thing that holds me up is the idea that I *should* connect things with people who would enjoy them. When it happens it is so delightful (our extensive collection of fairy books were gifted to a young woman who is now a 3rd grade teacher, where they will find love). But, I am completely unwilling to invest any energy, so I just keep stuff in closets hoping someone will magically take things off my hands.

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  7. bj said,

    “(most of which was my fault).”

    When my two older kids were little, I believed sincerely that all I had to do was buy the right toy, and it would entertain them indefinitely. This was not the case, but I bought toy after toy looking for that perfect toy.

    “One thing that holds me up is the idea that I *should* connect things with people who would enjoy them. When it happens it is so delightful (our extensive collection of fairy books were gifted to a young woman who is now a 3rd grade teacher, where they will find love). But, I am completely unwilling to invest any energy, so I just keep stuff in closets hoping someone will magically take things off my hands.”

    We own a lot of oddly specific stuff, and I guess I have similar tendencies. I actually packed up and mailed a box of Russian language books to my old graduate department because I couldn’t find anybody locally who would want them…

    We have a lot of bottlenecks in our pipeline and a lot of stuff, but here are some things we do:

    –list stuff for free on Craigslist, put out on curb on Saturday morning, POOF–gone!
    –put out a table near the main entrance clearly labeled FREE BOOKS or FREE STUFF when we have a potluck and make sure to point it out to guests as they are leaving
    –keep a give away basket near our entry and also a Goodwill box elsewhere
    –use class group texts to offer free uniforms/etc.
    –offer boy clothes to my friend who has two younger boys (basically all of my son’s coats go to her kids)
    –query housecleaners (our senior housecleaner has 30 grandkids at last count) if they need anything.
    –Goodwill when efforts have been made to place but failed.

    It’s kind of slow, but things do progress slowly out of our house with minimal regret. I just did a Goodwill run this morning with clothes and books. I’m thinking I should give away our phonics collection to the public school the kids volunteer at when our youngest is done with it, and I’m going to have several ukuleles (!) to place once my oldest finishes high school and is done leading Ukulele Club. A larger (and more fraught) category is baby stuff. I’ve penciled in next summer (turning 45!) to give or throw away that stuff, although I may hold onto maternity tops a bit longer, as it’s so hard to find maternity clothes that aren’t terrible.

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    1. Before Christmas is a good time to attempt giveaways of kid stuff.

      I’m thinking that (unless she really, really wants to keep it) that our 7-year-old’s unused, unloved marble run should probably go on Craigslist at some point in the next few weeks.

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