We buy far too much stuff we don’t need
Several of the auction-house staff had warned us in hushed conversations that it was a hoarder’s house. They could barely get through the door or walk through the house to prepare it for an estate sale because there was so much stuff.
The house had been ravaged by time and a lack of a dust cloth, soap and water, rendering it smelly and musty – a deterioration that had seeped into the old-style wallpaper, crown molding and vintage furniture.
By the time the auction day arrived, the staffers had cleared out much of the stuff and turned on a window air conditioner in the front room, which was more parlor than a living room. In a cabinet, they had not disturbed old copies of faded books whose titles were hard to read in the dim light (the house had too few windows) or removed some paintings from the walls.
In a glass buffet in the small dining room, I spotted a chocolate cake on a dinner plate. I just had to check it out. It was wrapped in plastic and very hard. I turned it on the bottom and saw a label, realizing that it was not real. It was a chocolate cake candle made in China.
In this house, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it were a real cake that had been forgotten.
Outside, the auction staff had placed most of the owner’s knickknacks on tables in an alley along the side of the house. The alleyway belonged to a church that had asked for a donation to use it, one auction staffer mentioned. About a half-dozen tables were lined up against the wall of the red-brick rowhouse, and on the other side, thin tree branches had been clipped and the grass hoed to make room for more tables.
The tables bore an array of items: gold-leaf Roman table-top statues, Made in Japan Geisha dolls, a Swiss army knife, ceramic busts, an electrified Telechron cathedral clock that was flaked in dust, a souvenir chick pincushion with hatpins, a small Steiff bunny, framed original and reproduction paintings, framed mirrors, empty frames, framed family photographs, ceramic religious figures. On the porch were more framed paintings.
What stood out, though, were the lamps. Lots and lots of them – table lamps, brass floor lamps, lily pad lamps, glass lamp globes, lamp shades. There were even more inside the house.
None of the auction staff knew whether someone in the house fixed lamps for a living or hobby, used all 50 or so of them to light up the rooms or just kept them for no good reason. There were no tools for repairing them, so they must have just been hoarded.
This estate sale – and others like it – reminded me of how much we spend on stuff we don’t need or use. I’ve often seen that emotional drive to buy stuff, especially at flea markets. The items that sell quickly at flea markets are the small knickknacks acquired in box lots at auction or taken from a table in our homes. Those 50-cent to $1 items are readily snapped up, and they’ll likely end up on another table collecting dust with the buyer bragging about how little he or she paid for it.
We need to just stop buying and get rid of what we have, I said to a woman standing next to me near a table at the estate auction. We’d just buy more, she answered matter of factly. Not me. After having gone to auctions for years, I’ve cleared my house of all the stuff I don’t need. I used to buy willy-nilly; now, I only buy something I really want, and I don’t do that often.
The woman acknowledged that she wasn’t there yet, and wondered what her family would do with all her stuff once she’s gone. They’ll do what most families do with that burden we leave behind – put the stuff out on the curb with the garbage, give it to charity, or sell it in an estate sale or at a flea market.
Most families, I’m sure, opt for just throwing it out after taking what they want. They do what we don’t have the willpower to do. They don’t need most of it because they have their own superfluous stuff.
I was at an auction once where the contents of a house had been placed on several tables and on the ground. As one man and his wife walked up, he surveyed the tables and told her that his stuff would be laid out like this once he’s gone. It was a sobering but very true observation. I don’t recall what she answered, but I’m sure she agreed with him.
So, why do we keep buying stuff we know we don’t need?