Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Great California Garage Sale

It's a pretty sorry situation when a state has to resort to a garage sale to help balance a budget that suffers from a 26 billion dollar deficit. But that's what California did this weekend at the Great California Garage Sale. The government gathered up all of its clutter, plunked it down in a huge warehouse in Sacramento and opened the doors to the gleeful public. There were even items listed for sale on eBay.

It turned out to be a good idea.

Literally thousands of typical garage sale bargains like office furniture, computers, electronics, jewelry and an antique piano, plus some less common finds like surplus prison uniforms and dental chairs, brought about 1.6 million dollars to the state's coffers. Almost 600 state-owned vehicles were auctioned on-line; some had visors that had been autographed by our famous governator in order to boost their value.

I'm not a big fan of garage sales because the time and energy involved don't often pay off in a substantial way, but that's just my personal preference. If you're excited about having a garage sale to unclutter your home and raise some cash, it could be a perfectly fine choice for you.

However you choose to let go of things you don't need or want, the important thing is to let go. (If you or someone you know has a serious problem doing that and the resulting clutter is out of control, there is help at the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation website.)

The classic example of the inability to let go is the oft-cited story of the Collyer brothers whose hoarding ultimately led to their deaths in the late 1940s. A new novel about the brothers and their plight has just been published. Written by E.L. Doctorow, author of numerous fine books including World's Fair and Ragtime, Homer & Langley (which I have not yet read) sounds like a generous, humanizing story of the brothers' lives. On, Doctorow said:

"I was a teenager when the Collyer brothers were found dead in their Fifth Avenue brownstone. Instantly, they were folklore. . . I didn’t know at the time that I would someday write about them, but even then I felt there was some secret to the Collyers--there was something about them still to be discovered under the piles of things in their house--the bales of newspapers and the accumulated detritus of their lives. Was it only that they were junk-collecting eccentrics? You see that every day in the streets of New York. They had opted out--that was the primary fact. Coming from a well-to-do family, with every advantage, they had locked the door and closed the shutters and absented themselves from the life around them. . . I felt as if writing [the book] was an act of breaking and entering just to see what may have been going on in that house, which really meant getting inside two very interesting minds."

And yet, however interesting their minds may have been, their hermit-like existence in a home literally packed to the rafters is incomprehensible to most of us. Excerpts from a 2005 column by William Bryk in the New York Sun give more details about how they lived:

"At 8:53 a.m. on March 21, 1947, police headquarters received a pseudonymous call reporting a dead man in the [Collyer brothers'] mansion. After failing to force the front doors, the police unhinged them to find a solid wall of boxes. The basement stairs to the first floor were similarly blocked. After forcing a first-floor window, they saw rooms and stairwells jammed with ceiling-high, rat-infested stacks of boxes, paper, and furniture. . . By the end of the second day [of clearing the house], according to the Times, the first floor hallway alone had yielded 19 tons of debris. . .

"Amidst hundreds of tons of garbage, they found family oil portraits; hope chests jammed with unused piece goods, silks, wool, damask, and brocade; a half-dozen toy trains; 14 upright and grand pianos; chandeliers; tapestries; 13 ornate mantel clocks; 13 Oriental rugs; five violins; two organs, and Langley's certificate of merit for punctuality and good conduct from Public School 69 for the week ending April 19, 1895. . .

"By April 3, the Herald Tribune reported that the movers, in clearing only two first-floor rooms, had removed 51 tons of stuff. Another 52 tons later, on April 8, they found Langley's body. Police told the Sun that his clothing may have snagged a tripwire, releasing a booby trap that had buried him alive in paper."

Homer, an invalid, had died of starvation because his brother wasn't there to care for him.

This appalling, cautionary tale may be enough to scare many people into a minimalist lifestyle, but there's an alternative. If you truly have a passion for collecting -- not hoarding everything, but selectively acquiring certain items you love -- take heart from the story of Lester Glassner, who passed away a few weeks ago at the age of seventy. His obituary explains:

"The one-time picture editor, designer and art librarian for CBS Records had a massive collection of vintage movie memorabilia, dime-store merchandise and other pop-culture artifacts numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

"For more than three decades, Glassner's large and diverse collection filled his four-story 19th century brownstone home on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

'There are hats . . . mechanical toys . . . World War II propaganda posters . . . antique Seven Dwarfs of various types. . . . a huge collection of antique postcards of all types. And autographed photos of famous people.' [his sister said]

"That's not to mention chalk, ceramic and porcelain figurines, rare celluloid toys, Halloween masks, clothes, antique sleighs, dolls, 78-revolutions-per-minute records, art glass, movie posters, movie stills, lobby cards and a host of other items. Glassner's collection of movie stills alone numbers more than 250,000 photos, many of them rare.

"Louis Pappas, a friend and fellow collector . . . said, '[Glassner’s home] was almost like a museum, really, the whole place. I'd say it was one of the major collections in the world.'

"Before he died, Glassner made plans to donate more than 2,500 [18th and 19th century] books to the library at Buffalo State College. 'He also has a large collection of art, photography, architecture, fashion, painting and sculpture books, and those will go into the general collection,' [a library spokesperson] said."

Clearly, this was a man who loved his possessions. He displayed and cared for them for his own enjoyment and to share with others. Massive as the collections were, he kept them well-organized. In this photo of him as a young man, you can see how happy he is showing off some of his toys. There was even a book published in 1981 entitled, Dime Store Days, in which his collection was featured. He’s a perfect example of a collector.

The majority of people are not hoarders like the Collyer brothers, nor passionate collectors like Lester Glassner. However, most of us could take a cue from the state of California: if we have excess stuff taking up storage space or, worse, space in our homes, we might want to think of parting with it in a way that generates some cash to pay down debt or help out with living expenses. Unfortunately, unlike Arnold, autographing our junk won't increase its value.

© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob

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