We are forever recycling the past with our possessions. They surround us in our homes. Many represent a special memory.
For me there are so many but the most important are the Chinoiserie lamps and black lacquer bar we bought in San Francisco on our honeymoon, the thousands of vinyl records my late husband accumulated over his 68 years, the first painting we purchased from a local St. Louis art gallery, the early 20th-century Gramophone my husband found for sale at a farmhouse, the sheet music our two sons used to learn their various instruments, the carefully framed newspaper and magazine articles about our kids’ accomplishments, and the Steinway baby grand piano we bought from a neighbor whose daughter had been an accompanist with the St. Louis Symphony.
Now that I am moving to a place that is not much larger than my current dining and living rooms combined (815 square feet), I know I must let go of most of the possessions my family and I accumulated through the years. Since I purchased my parents’ almost 2,700-square- foot condo four years ago, I merged my furnishings with theirs. And the belongings consumed the space like honeysuckle.
As I start to sift through the items carefully in deciding what to take, there are many I hadn’t remembered. While cleaning out a closet, I find long-winded love letters from my late husband when he was in the Army. I open a chest and discover silver and my mother’s fine china. Another locked cabinet has close to 70 silver plated and sterling silver plates, trays, ice buckets, goblets, serving pieces and more, some are my mother’s pieces, and many are wedding presents from more than 50 years ago. Who has time to polish silver these days? Who even entertains and uses the silver?
Paring down becomes a juggling act—do I sell, keep, give away or donate? Most choices I make are by committee with my two sisters who live in New York City. Here technology helps. We do our negotiating through a series of Facetime “meetings” and countless photos that I text. It is a six-month-long project that taps into a profusion of emotions: sadness, anger and laughter as we recall how each piece was collected, try to think about a price and sentimental value, and then decide what to do with it.
The process of cleaning up starts with my one sister who comes to St. Louis. We throw out what we can, tackle the closets first, drawer by drawer, shelf by shelf, then room by room and attempt to clean out a storage bin in the basement.
After trimming down to the “good stuff,” it becomes a conundrum of what to do with what we want to keep but cannot. Initially, we call in an auction house to determine which items are valuable and how much they might sell for at auction. It gives us a baseline to make our decisions of what to keep, sell, give away and for how much.
Each category of stuff becomes a research project. I call my kids and a few of my husband’s relatives to see if they want anything and then I contact multiple antique toy dealers, baseball card collectors, record experts, silver and coin shops, jewelers, music stores, resale shops, fabric stores, wine experts, the local art museum to ask if they want some of the more precious antiques. I also call car places to find out the value of my car, body shops to arrange to have some scrapes and a mirror fixed, a fitness equipment retailer asking if it would be interested in buying back the treadmill I bought three years ago (it did), schools where I can donate books, papers, pens, manila folders and envelopes, libraries and universities that might want to have extras of some of the business books Barbara and I have written, and on and on…
I also find a stash of other books Barbara and I wrote years ago, some out of print. She eagerly asks for extra copies of our Kitchen Bible.
Next, it’s time to interview estate salespeople to help sell what I cannot take with me. I interview four and one woman is heads above the others in the type of merchandise she works with. She seems to know the provenance of everything that is valuable. With her staff of three, she arrives on a Monday and for two days transforms my condo into a pop-up store with each piece researched, priced and placed to look appealing.
And the sale begins. A condo estate sale is vastly different from the one I had when leaving my single-family home. Then, people lined up around the block to enter my home, grab and buy what they wanted. When done this way, almost all the items, especially the smaller ones, sold quickly.
Because of my building’s rules about security, I am allowed only three days to have the sale. Day one is a private sale to friends and neighbors, and a two-day public sale follows where every interested person must make an appointment. I find that in having an estate sale by appointment there is less traffic and thus fewer items sell. Some of the bigger pieces and good furniture sell first with many smaller items left behind. Surprisingly, my four-poster bed with footstool sells, and I learn it’s being shipped to Hawaii. I ask if I can go with it or at least visit it in the dead of winter.
Other items that sell quickly are a small three-drawer burled wood chest that I used as a nightstand, the Chinoiserie items including a bar, lamps, various plates and bowls, vases, the Chippendale bench and two side chairs, a round glass, bronze and gilded centerpiece, an iron table with onyx top that had been my grandmother’s, large jardinières, sconces, chandeliers, several paintings, bowls, glass pieces, and many several variations of really good “brown” furniture. However, left behind is my gigantic Kittinger dining room table and 12 chairs, sideboard, and some ornate ormolu candlesticks and mantel clock encrusted with gold that looks like they are out of a Gustav Klimt painting. I am told that many people today don’t have dining rooms and if they do, they aren’t usually large enough to house a table that seats a dozen or more.
My brown and white fluted Dansk Flamestone dishes do not sell and are graciously taken by my daughter who lives in Los Angeles. Another trip to my favorite shipping place. As the sale winds down, I finally start to see empty space in the condo, which seems unsettling after being surrounded for so many years by so much stuff.
In the meantime, I hire a mover – I interview four--and settle on a local independent fine arts mover who does interstate moves. He has one small truck, does the driving, and his one team packs, loads and unpacks at the destination. As a bonus, the mover asks if I will trade my 2009 black four-wheel Honda CRV with only 45,000 miles that I plan to sell for the move. I say, “Yes, yes, yes.” I can’t wait not to have a car, pay car insurance or buy gas!
Once the estate sale ends officially, people still call to see if they can look and purchase what is left. Soon, a charity comes and carts away most of what remains leaving only a few items behind, much like leftovers at a big holiday meal. Two days later, a junk man is supposed to scoop up the rest for free. He never shows up so in a pinch, I call 1-800-Got-Junk. They arrive within the hour and clean out the place. It ends up costing $200, an additional expense for which I did not budget.
Now, I clean up, finish some work while I still have Wi-Fi, make address changes, pack anything that isn’t perishable (all breakables will be packed by the movers), figure out what I need to pack in a suitcase to last a week and then I will be off. My excitement mounts for my new life to begin.
Note: I have arrived in NYC and cannot wait to embrace my new life. I am settling comfortably into my new apartment, building and neighborhood. Stay tuned.
- Start months in advance if you are downsizing after living in your home for years. I start six months before the move. Start pitching what you can. Start small. Perhaps, set a goal of one closet each weekend. It will lessen the burden when, and if, you downsize, and your heirs will be eternally grateful. Some of my friends, including Barbara, say my downsizing has inspired them to start the process as well and now.
- Don’t overwhelm yourself with the amount of stuff. Break it down, drawer by drawer, closet by closet and room by room. If you can get someone to help you discard all the old papers, magazines, countless shoes you never wear, and so forth, it helps. My sisters came in to assist with this process. This is intense. We find it prudent to take intermittent breaks for coffee, a walk, lunch, dinner or simply to relax with a much-needed glass of wine.
- To get my condo ready to sell, it must look uncluttered. My one sister suggests that I rent a public storage unit to hold excess stuff. I hire College Hunks to schlep the items over to the storage space and when the condo sells, I use the same College Hunks to bring everything back.
- I must sell my husband’s 5,000 vinyl record collection which I kept in storage for six years. When the albums are moved back to my condo, my youngest son and his girlfriend come in town. They arrange for a record expert to fly in at the same time from Oregon and all three of them go through the records. The record expert ships 1,000 records to himself to sell in his independent record store and online. The rest are sold to a local vintage record store.
- My one sister creates a Google doc of which items among the hundreds of things accumulated I will take to NYC. That way both sisters can add to it and delete something that won’t fit in my new place. Once the apartment is available, they go in and measure. On my end, I measure stuff and add that to the document. It becomes an efficient way to figure what will fit and to track of what I am taking for me, for my two sisters and two sons and to keep it separate from what I am selling.
- I begin to pack the unperishable items in cartons that I purchase at a big box store. In my case, I pack for five people. So, I begin to organize everything by person assigning each a colored sticker. I hire a high school student who I found through our neighborhood website. He lives a block away, walks over and helps me organize and carry things. We number and label each carton with a color and keep a corresponding list. The stuff that is not for sale, such as several paintings, I cover in sheets and blankets and put in closets until the move.
- Because the move is from St. Louis to NYC, the movers will come a few days earlier than I will arrive in NYC. My two sisters offer to handle the move on their end. I need a place to stay in St. Louis once the condo is empty. There is a guest suite in my condo building that is available for four nights. It may seem like a much-needed vacation, or so I hope.
- Per my one sister’s suggestion, in case I’ll be too tired to unpack the first day, I create two boxes and mark them “first night items.” They contain sheets, towels, quilts, paper plates, cups and plastic “silverware.” I also pack my suitcase with enough clothing et al for one week.
Estate Sales Tips
- Interview at least three people. Find out their rules and what percentage they receive. I find it varies from 30 percent to 33 percent of the gross sales.
- Determine how they work; how many people are on staff so you know that people will be there watching during the sale to make sure buyers don’t slip items into their purses or pockets.
- Sign a contract. Get everything in writing. Verbal agreements are meant to be broken.
- Set the hours of the sale and number of days. If in a condo building, work within the rules.
- Determine how you’ll be paid and how many days after the sale ends, you’ll receive the money.
- When the estate sales people are in your space setting up, give them the rules about use of the bathrooms, refrigerator, where they can eat and put their stuff and so forth.
- Ask how they mark or designate items you don’t want sold. Everything you leave out is subject to be sold. I learned the hard way when I went out on my screened porch to water my plants one morning and they were gone. Someone bought them. Who knew?
- Set deadlines when items must be picked up by the buyers, by the place where you are donating things and then if stuff is life over, by a junk man. You can always take the leftovers yourself, if manageable and you have a big enough car to do so, to a Goodwill or Salvation Army drop off.
- In the process, you’ll have great stories to tell. Here’s one of my favorites. I met and befriended a buyer. He bought several items including my four-poster bed, which he shipped to Hawaii where he lives. I met him when he came to the condo to arrange for shipping. He noticed a bouquet of flowers on a table with a balloon that said, “Happy Birthday.” He left and came back 20 minutes later, rang the bell and handed me birthday cake from a local bakery. He also gave me his card, told me to call him any time I’m in Maui, promised VIP treatment and a chance to visit the items he purchased from me.
- There were lessons learned. For example: People don’t necessarily mean what they say they’re going to do. “I’ll be back tomorrow to buy this or that” (they never show up) or “Can I be the first person to get into your estate sale?” (they never came even after I sent multiple emails) or “Can I get in early to see your apartment because I am sure it’s exactly what I want?” (My real estate person said “No.” This person did come once the apartment was officially on the market and of course didn’t buy it.)
- Final lesson to jot down for the future and others: If you sell anything on your own, get paid in cash not by check. I learned the hard way.
For the future
- Buy cautiously. You don’t want to have to go through this process again, or at least on the same scale.