Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to stop hoarding and start green stockpiling

One recovering shopaholic makes peace with the new minimalism

One of my favorite tasks when I wrote for a newspaper was to profile collectors in California’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills. We featured folks who collected nativity sets, plaid lunchboxes, antique kitchenware, and so on.

Collectors have a peculiar mindset. They lock onto a category, then hunt and gather with ferocity. They know the stories behind each of their finds.

The question that nipped at my ankles was, “When is it collecting and when is it hoarding? Where is the line?”

I asked one collector, “When do you know you’ve collected enough?”
“When the space you’ve dedicated to it is full,” he said simply.

For some, that space is expandable. That’s probably why storage rental is ubiquitous in the United States. For others, the space never reaches capacity, because it’s an emotional void.

U.K. blogger creativevoyage noted,
"…once people are doing what they love they need less money because they need fewer ‘treats’ to get through their horrible jobs.”

 Is this hitting close to home? Oh, all right. I’ll be the bad example here. Geez, chicken.

Here’s my story, sad but true.

In the early ‘90s, having acquired a house to fill, I amassed clothes, shoes, purses, tchotchkes and kitsch to hang on walls or arrange on surfaces. I call it overcompensation for a childhood clad entirely in hand-me-downs. Raise your hand if you were the youngest of six. Sympathy clucks all around. Mini me owned exactly one doll (beheaded by brutes my parents swore were my brothers) and two stuffed toys—Dopey and Mugsy—memorable in their scarcity.

“Shopping is right next to happiness on the spectrum of emotions, I guess…”

Many items ended up cohabiting in our garage for decades. I eventually exhumed these finds as ambiance setters and statement pieces in my office, where most people didn’t know what to make of them. Taken together, the knickknacks proclaimed, “Here works a woman who, unlike you, never asks, ‘What is it for?’ She is fascinated by non-functional objects. She has no intention of ever finding a practical application for any of them. They are all loved for themselves.” The merchandising stopped just short of commanding the viewer to embrace the eccentric and kiss her ring.

Part of me still likes to think that had I worked within a markedly different company culture, the statement might have been interpreted as, “You have entered a safe zone for creative thinkers.” I call it overcompensation for a career spent trying to fit square pegs in round holes.

When the new minimalism took hold, I declared myself a conscientious objector. I understood how the purging of possessions might seem a logical response to the crappy state of the economy. But all it does is feed the delusion that conscience-stricken, privileged people, by choosing to have less, somehow level the playing field between them and those summarily stricken from the payroll.

I can attest to this, because one morning I was the first kind of stricken, and by that afternoon, I was the second kind. And we had fun, fun, fun till her daddy took the T-bird away.

Purgers have a choice. They are not choosing to be poor, merely divested of their clutter. The masses of nouveau poor do not, generally speaking, receive gainful employment from one’s tidied up closet, with the exception of the relative few who work for the charities that resell these purged items. To my knowledge, a purging by one household has yet to avert a foreclosure next door.

However, something good has come out of the nation’s urge to purge. Most unexpectedly, I have found my great love of acquisition for its own sake replaced by a more consuming passion: upcycling. Global handmade marketplace’s credo, “reuse, repurpose, recycle” has inspired many avid collectors, including me, to redirect their energies.

Upcyling is the new collecting

I still shop, but now each trip is a thoughtful acquisition-for-mergers endeavor. Of late, I have been merging the collar of a serviceable shirt with the plain neckline of another; the crinoline of a child’s outgrown outfit with the scalloped hemline of a shrug. A lace scarf has fused with the sleeve of a handsewn ballgown. The embroidery on a pair of jeans is affianced to the bodice of a fall frock.

Resulting from these mergers are morphed apparel with renewed purpose. The target market is the mindful consumer unmoved by mall mentality. Where purgers and mergers intersect, crisis gives way to opportunity.

Upcyclers aren’t hoarding, we’re building inventory for our small businesses. Mission-driven collecting seems to have dissolved the retail therapist bent in me. In the transition, I may have upcycled myself.

We do it not just because it’s healthy for the environment and our pocketbooks, but because it’s challenging. It’s creative. It’s collaborative, in that inspiration on what to do with tarnished silver spoons (make garden markers!) in turn inspires ideas on rescuing shrunken wool sweaters (make felted flower brooches!) Who else is going to find uses for the piles and piles of stuff that the new minimalists evict? Might as well be us, and we might as well generate some income out of upcycling as much of it as we can.

Our reputation is as shiny as a ketchup-burnished penny. Upcycling is the new collecting. The new minimalism isn’t so objectionable to me now—as long as it’s practiced by someone else.

Purge away, America. We await your discards with relish.

What sort of things have you rid yourself of lately?
What have you happened upon and triumphantly taken home to transform?


  1. I am a recovering packrat. Yes, recovering! Selling on eBay for 12 years and having an Etsy shop for my unloved "destash" craft supplies has helped!

  2. Prairie, recovery is a lifelong process, isn't it? ; )
    How did we packrats ever survive without etsy and eBay?

  3. I come from a family of "Don't throw that away, it might be useful for something someday..." people. We never were much for shopping, but we do indulge in dumpster diving and accepting the cast-offs of other families. I've spent the last five years attempting to use up three generations of fabric scraps and old clothing, but people keep giving me more! It feeds the creative machine tho...

    1. Pink, I find that word spreads quickly and people want to give me their clothing. I am touched by their generosity and stressed about storage space all at once. And of course there's the pressure of their expectation: "I can't wait to see what you'll come up with!" I don't have the heart to say that they're in the queue, and the queue is looooong.

  4. It may be 2012, but what truth still resonates in your statement: "But all [the new minimalism] does is feed the delusion that conscience-stricken, privileged people, by choosing to have less, somehow level the playing field between them and those summarily stricken from the payroll." Your theme struck me most because my Etsy store in the works (for years. . .procrastination is a close cousin) is named Recycle Responder!

    1. RR, come on in, the water's fine! Open your shop already. Join the Upcycler's team. Come back and post a link to your shop, Facebook page, blog, and everything else.