Patricia Marx on "Getting Rid of Almost Everything"

The last two years have been good for at least one pastime: confronting every single possession in your house. After you've done the Marie Kondo drill, where does unwanted stuff go?

Illustration: The New Yorker

Patricia Marx' "A Guide to Getting Rid of Almost Everything" (The New Yorker, February 28, 2022) serves up a Dagwood-sized reality sandwich. Marx' march through her purge is not as open-handed and felicitous as Ann Patchett's experience in the same magazine, ("How to Practice"), but it is, I'll bet, more common.

Marx tried to sell, among other possessions, several rolls of Trump toilet paper and "clothes that looked better on my couch than on me". She assesses the performance of eBay and Craigslist; local consignment shops; garage-sale sites. She consults experts for how to market her items. Ultimately, she says, "You'd probably make more money babysitting." And then there are the no-shows, the hagglers, and the fact that a number of online sites may be selling your data.

Wan sales results led Marx to "take it, it's free" sites like my favourite, Freecycle, and physical outlets like Goodwill. She discovered organizations who take donations of specific goods like old mascara wands (in case you have a few dozen sitting around), bras, art supplies, wedding dresses.

Some sources are NYC-centric, but others, like Facebook Marketplace—which has a Free Stuff section—are accessible to all. 

The psychological distance between Ann Patchett and Patricia Marx is antipodean. Patchett, a Buddhist, has so little attachment disorder that she gifts lovely antiques without a pang, but they do go to friends and colleagues. Marx, contrary to that surname, is a low-key capitalist who initially tries to turn a buck from old handbags and heels, but ends up dragging a sofa to the street.

If you are lucky, you pass on your possessions to persons who need them, or are least amused (Donald Trump toilet paper?) But too often we offload our stuff on someone who still believes more is more, just perpetuating accumulation. I held a garage sale where two sisters fought over my vacuum cleaner; one hissed at the other, "You already have three."  

Though not a Patchett purist, I prefer giving. For about twenty-five years, I stored a hand-loomed hat made by a British knitwear designer, Maggie White. I tried to wear it one chilly day a few months ago.  Because it carried the memory of a painfully-ended relationship, I still did not enjoy it. A friend dropped by and mentioned that she had bought the same hat in the '90s, but hers was faded. 

She happily accepted mine; the pleasure that gave me far outweighed any sum it might have fetched.


LauraH said…
After some experiences selling my unwanted stuff, I am a convert to the just-give-it-away school. As Patricia Marx found out, selling is just not financially worth the time and effort.

Sometimes I make the effort to find the perfect place to donate special items, a recorder and accessories went to an organization that provided used musical instruments to kids. Some special clothing went to a costume rental shop and a design program at a local college. And many books went to university book sales. I didn't mind putting in the time on those so that they could go to a good home. The more ordinary items go to a box at the curb on a sunny weekend ....I've never had to bring anything back into the house:-)
Mardel said…
I too am a convert to the just give it away clan. My experience with selling is that is far more work than one gets back, and there is the joy in giving. I much prefer giving things away, which makes my heart sing, and this is a far greater benefit than any financial renumeration. When I have seriously downsized and had to resort to donations, that was also preferable to spend time finding places that a could actually use my stuff (as opposed to just selling it or shipping it off somewhere. As an added bonus, if managed well, and one does not accumulate "stuff" just for the sake of having it, donations occasionally result in a greater benefit at tax time than I would have ever seen in profits. Even small donations can add up, if one has enough to make it worth itemizing (in the US?) and a major move and downsizing can easily accomplish that.

One thing I learned is that I am not ultimately attached to the things themselves. That did surprise me. But there are various reasons to continue downsizing, and I would much prefer that things find a home where they are needed or appreciated.
In my housing co-op, we usually rely on the curb, as we get good foot traffic, between pedestrians on the sidewalks and cyclists on the cycle path, walking up to Jean-Talon Market or down to the small but useful Canadian Tire outlet. I did have a friend take four almost-new jeans (at least two sizes too large, after I was ill) to Le Chaînon, a charity for women in crisis that gives them first to women housed in its residence, if not, to their charity shop.

Even neighbours who do organise "garage" sales (few have actual garages) often seem to be doing so to chat and meet people; selling items just a fringe benefit.
Jane in London said…
I definitely would not have the energy or the patience to try to sell stuff online. Since I am fortunate enough to be in a position to give away things that I no longer need or want, that is what I usually do. I haven't wanted to get rid of any valuable art or furniture, but if I did then I would probably go down the auction route rather than attempting to wrangle online buyers. And I'm very, very resistant to the idea of having strangers coming into my house to view items.

Occasionally, I've offered things round on our neighbourhood WhatsApp group and enjoyed passing things on to neighbours who will enjoy them and give them a new life!

Most of my unwanted things go to charity shops, and I am always really careful to make sure everything is clean. Any of us who has ever volunteered to sort items donated to charity will know how welcome that is and I've sometimes been surprised by people who, absolutely scrupulous in other respects, seem not to think about the condition of their charity donations.

I've also had very good experiences with my local Freecycle group. So far, everything has gone the same day - I tend to put the stuff on the website early on Saturday morning, since people usually want to collect at some point over the weekend.

I was delighted to find that the Alzheimer's Society here in the UK takes old or broken costume and other jewellery, and even provides a freepost envelope to send it in. I've got rid of lots of nice but non-precious bits and bobs that I knew I would never wear again, and felt very happy that they were going to help this important cause.

My most difficult experience ever was trying to responsibly offload a clutch of old-fashioned mercury thermometers, which had been hanging around in drawers about the house. Not something you would *ever* want to throw away in your rubbish, obviously, but in the right hands the metal can easily be recycled.

I thought it would be a simple matter of taking them to my local chemist (pharmacist) and just handing them over for safe disposal. But no! Eventually, two years later and after exhausting all possible avenues, a new local government "hazardous waste" service became available to residents in my area. Oh, joy! I arranged collection and, very happily, waved them goodbye...

Jane in London
Another thing to get rid of:

For some reason Walm*rde has been spamming me; I have never shopped there in my life. I know that people in smaller places may not have the choice. Spam isn't just annoying, it is also wasteful and expensive.

The site I've shared (French and English) is valid only in Canada, but I'm sure there are similar sites in other countries.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: An organization that provides instruments ot kids, that one makes my heart swell!

Mardel: We too have tax credits for qualifying charities and institutions. Some are surprisingly choosy, and you do not get a chariable donation receipt for places like Goodwill.

lagatta: It's especially satisfying when one can donate to an organization one respects. The curb is a pretty good strategy though I have seen picked over goods strewn about, whether by persons or animals I don't know.

Jane in London: I sold a couple of pieces of good jewellery on eBay, and fortunately it worked out really well. I made way more than the auction house estimate. (By the time I would have paid the seller's premium and the cost for photography for their catalog, plus paid tax on my profit, I was shocked how little would stick to me.) Currently I have a problem like your mercury one: six cans of metallic aluminum-colour spray paint. Habitat for Humanity does not accept this, and if I used the curb the graffiti "artists" would jump on it. I have to wait for a specialized disposal day, but even then am wary about setting it out in the garbage. Quite a few people go through garbage.

lagatta: Yes, spam is annoying! It's a different category of "too muchness" as it is an intrusion, not a voluntary act.

Tom said…
It's been difficult to donate of late! The New Orleans Library book sale had a "DO DONATIONS" banner up. the Food Bank Thrift has similar messages. Goodwill is, I'm sorry to say, a sketchy organization and I will not donate there.

LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES to the rescue. With some embarrassment (figuring that no one would want, e.g. Donald Howard's book on Chaucer) I put a bunch of 1970s-80s academic books in a LFL. To my amazement, they were all gone in a few days. Every now and then I find a book I want to read (Henry Green). And every now and then, I have a chat with someone who is taking one of my donated books!

Many more books to go.
Duchesse said…
Eva: I am guessing there is a typo in the second sentence? A delightful difference, just one letter.

Here, donors do not get a tax receipt for donated goods to Goodwill or similar. The local one amalgamated with a smaller local charity with a very good retraining program. I donate to them, and to the store lagatta mentioned. We do not have LFL but we do have little sidewalk book hutches sprinkled about the neighbourhoods, which people fill with free books. (At first I thought they might be for rabbits.)
Eve said…
I had to declutter the home of a pack-rat (never disposed of any possession...... I went through DECADES of stuff) and Renaissance was my go-to drop-point. I gave them about 25 bags of laundered, usable clothes(the worn items went into the trash), about 20 boxes of assorted items, books, electronics, cookware, etc., all usable. Moldy or smelly books went into the recycling bin. Renaissance also recycles electronics. They will distribute useable items to organizations, recycle, and sell items in their thrift store, all the while employing "unemployable" persons. All good for me !
Unknown said…
I loved the Ann Patchett essay. Being in the throes of yet another cleaning and downsizing, I am in full giveaway mode. But I do think it's important to listen to our heart; if something ( like Ann's typewriter) really needs to stay with us, we need to allow that -- and listen to it tell us why.
Eve, you earn a medal! I've been involved in such missions, but we were a team. Also worked at the local housing association, involved (not hands on) dealing with a fellow whose wee urban balcony was so packed with stuff that the fire brigade intervened

This included an artificial Christmas tree...

It is a delicate issue due to the obvious health and safely issues, but at the same time, often due to a health problem that requires tact and patience, while not threatening the neighbours.
Laura J said…
Don’t forget places like SPCA who will take old towels. It’s a real project just to give away stuff!
Lynn said…
I am stuck with a storage locker full of parents' folk art from around the world. No one wants it, and I cannot bear to trash it. Some of it is museum quality, but museums are full or will only take one or two pieces. I was lucky and one did take 50 Mexican masks and a few other pieces, but otherwise I just do not know what to do.
Wendy said…
This was a timely post for me. My husband and I are downsizing and the discard pile is enormous. Curbside is not a great option as we live in a semi-rural area. It’s a fifteen mile drive to donate at the nearest thrift store. I’ve had some success on FB Marketplace, but we’re going to try a garage sale this weekend. I will share that there’s a company, online only, called For Days that sells a large mailing bag with prepaid postage for returning stained or otherwise unusable clothing/fabric for recycling. It costs $20 but the bag holds a lot and I believe it earns you some store credit, too. I’m slowly filling mine as I sort. My goal is to keep as much of this discard pile as possible out of the landfill and, of course, to avoid accumulating so much again!
Duchesse said…
Lynn: I will assume you mean that no one whom you know wants it. That happens even for significant and fine possessions. A few ideas: some consignment stores take paintings and art objects. I donated several large bags of jewellery to an art auction held by a church. They used the donated services of an appraiser to determine reserve price; all proceeds to church’s food support and shelter initiatives. Maybe crazy idea and I do not have time to research this, but there are likely online interest groups for folk art collectors, or visit fairs where they buy and ask if a dealer or collector is interested. I have regularly seen folk art in auctions, too.

I too learned that “ museum quality” does not mean a museum wants it! Nor do many antique dealers. A friend has a high end store and I’ve been in there when a person per hour comes in trying to sell furniture or silver. She politely turns away 90 percent.

Wendy: Thank you for the info on For Days. Many of us probably know 1-800-GOTJUNK who say they recycle everything they can.

Runcarla said…
I can’t put my hand on it, but there is a hospital(?) or charitable foundation (cancer?) that solicits art for auction with the proceeds going to support the charity. It is advertised in Canadian Home decor magazines.

When a local collector passed away, he left his art collection to the town theatre for a fundraising auction.
Susan said…
This is so timely. We are getting rid of everything we don't love or don't use. Some, I give to friends if they are interested. Everything else we donate to a thrift shop which runs a shelter for women and their children who are escaping domestic abuse.
Duchesse said…
Runcarla: It's a business model; there are auctioneers whose business is running charity auctions (of course they charge a fee plus take a percentage. Search "We run your charity auction" and you will find them.

Susan: When a thrift supports a charity we like (such as Montréal's Le Chaînon Welfare Association), that's pretty much all one needs for donating everyday items like clothing and housewares. Though some thrifts have an "upscale" rack or counter, they are not really equipped to deal with something like Lynn's parent's folk art, precious jewellery or silver. Apparently thrifts in some areas are stuffed with sets of fine china, few persons want to store formal place settings for 12 these days.

The problem territory seems to be "too good for a thrift/not appealing to a museum." This is the province of the flea market stall, not the cheap flea markets selling bongs, but the ones that have fine things... but those and the tiny shops tucked into corners of big cities are ever harder to find, When I cam in Paris I occasionally find one, a tiny space stuffed with vintage precious jewellery, clocks, some objets, maybe small pieces of furniture. Once, they seemed to be on every other block. No longer, and they are fascinating to browse,

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