Monday, August 02, 2010

It’s delightful, it’s delirious, it’s de-cluttering

When everyone else in America was out doing nice summer Sunday afternoon type things like watching baseball, grilling tofu hotdogs, and looking at pictures of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, I spent a good part of the day decluttering the visible aspects (and a few hidden pockets) of our bedroom.

Not that it was all that terrible, but when you live in tight quarters with little storage space, and you read magazines and books, stuff does have a nasty habit of building up.

While I haven’t opened that Fibber McGee closet – the one with the ironing basket that’s had unplumbed depths for the last decade or so – I did get at the books, magazines, and assorted piles of papers. (You know, I always wanted to have an armchair in my bedroom, and now that I do, it serves more or less as my personal book repository.)

So, there’s bag of books going to my sister’s at the Cape, from whence it goes to their library.  Some of the books I was junking didn’t make it to the library pile. I really didn’t think anyone in Wellfleet would want to read Carly Fiorina’s autobiography (don’t ask: it was free), so I pulled the cover off and threw the pages into recycle.

There’s a grab-bag full of junk that I put out in the trash, but in an open shopping bag, hoping that it will turn into another woman’s treasure.

I have some loot for the Art Room at St. Francis House, including the old art-project materials my nieces have outgrown, along with a bunch of costume jewelry (mostly from my mother – I did pull out a few things, but am I really going to wear that Christmas pin with the bells on it?).

Some things I couldn’t bring myself to part with: my father’s tie clips, and the dog tags of a pup who’s been dead nearly thirty years.

Dog tags aside, I’m not a big hoarder – I say this while sitting in my little office, where, on the book case over my shoulder, a Fabian Bachrach photo of Cardinal Cushing (inscribed “Albert” – that would be the father of the tie clips - “With appIMG00022-20100801-1844[1]reciation and grateful blessings, Richard Cardinal Cushing”) staring at my back. And on the bookshelf, there’s a heavy aluminum double-runner ice skate (without the red straps), looks to be about a kid size 2-3, manufactured by Globe-Union, Inc. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when we still manufactured things like double-runner ice skates in the good old USofA.  Man, my father was a saint to take us skating when we were still in double-runners, which felt off about every two shuffles on the ice, when what he really wanted to do was speed-skate backwards.

And now that I’m looking around, I spy with my little eye, a pair of nice water colors given to my mother by her friend Ann as an engagement present. And the steer horns that hung in my grandfather’s saloon. And an empty salt-water taffy box from the late LeHage’s of Nantasket Beach (Oh, so good!).

But, no, while I’m a keeper-of-sentimental-objects, I am by no means a hoarder.

I am, however, horrifically fascinated by those who are, so I was more than interested in an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal on a company that cleans out houses, for estates, for down-sizers, and, yes, for hoarders. (Not that the hoarders do the hiring – it tends to be family members who whistle in the intervention squad with the dumpsters.)

Clutter Cleaner of  Virginia was founded by Matt Paxton. It started out as a general purpose cleaner-outer, but now mostly specializes in hard cases. (And has been featured on A&E’s reality show, “Hoarders.”)

Although he intended to focus on senior relocation with Clutter Cleaner, his first client was a hoarder. "We didn't know what hoarding was at that point," Mr. Paxton says. "We just knew there was stuff stacked taller than us and we couldn't get around." He charged $700 for the three-day job… Today, more cognizant of the work involved, Mr. Paxton estimates he'd charge $7,000 or $8,000, his average fee.

As he took on more hoarding clients, Mr. Paxton quickly noticed that the messier the job, the less likely his competitors were to take it. "I realized this was where we needed to go," he says.

Smart thinking, that.  Messier work = fewer competitors = higher prices. (Wonder where I could find me some messy marketing jobs.)

Dealing with hoarders sounds like it means playing about 1/3 junkman and 2/3’s shrink. It’s just not all that easy when you’re helping someone sort through 10 tons of trash combined with family heirlooms.

A friend of mine helped her sister clean out her in-laws’ home a few years ago. While the in-laws weren’t hoarder-hoarders – they didn’t have to tunnel around their house, which was spic-and-span clean – Mrs. L had hung on to an awful lot of odd-ball stuff.

Sometimes the odd-ball nature was not the objects themselves, but the numbers. 

Realistically, who needs a dozen electric frying pans? Is someone going to use ten Pyrex coffee pots?  How about twenty Lady Buxton wallets, all in their original plastic packages?

The crowning event of this cleanout was when my friend opened a drawer filled with the cut off hems of dozens of Mrs. L’s polyester pantsuits, held together by kilt pins.

By the time all this was going on, both of the in-laws had moved into a nursing home, so they weren’t there to witness the cleanout, and all of the WTF’s that attended it.

But for Matt Paxton, the packrats are often there as witnesses.

I’ve watched the show “Hoarders” a couple of times, but – like so many reality shows – it’s pretty painful viewing.  I’ve seen people defend hanging on to broken plastic hangers. (As long as I keep it to double-runner skates, I think I’m okay.)

Clutter Cleaner is still small (with annual revenues around $500K), but Paxton’s thinking of franchising.  That might not be so easy. Paxton sounds particularly adept at the psychological aspects of his trade, and I suspect that’s not something that is easily package-able for franchising.

Not that I doubt that there’s a lot of business potential here. It’s just that I do wonder about there being so much hoarding going on.

I know that hoarding is nothing new – the Collyer  Brothers were famous in the 1940’s for their house of horrors – but the fact that people can make a living out of straightening out the lives of hoarders makes me wonder whether this is just a weird by-product of our stuffed-to-the-gills, citizen-as-consumer, society.

Maybe hoarders are nothing more than consumers who held on, as opposed to the rest of us who just tossed out the old and marched on to the new.

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?


valerie said...

My favorite aunt Lib, although no hoarder, did have disposal pockets of impossibility -- most of which attached to family related material. She lived independently (and I do mean "independently") got a little sick, and quickly moved along at 87. My cousins and I cleaned out her home and discovered many surprising saves. But the clear winner was the top of the wedding cake from her parents' nuptials. Do the math.

Tie Clips said...

Glad to hear that you couldnt part with the tie clip. I wouldn't be able to part with an item that my father owned.

Matt Paxton said...

I like your blog. Someone told me to follow it after the article came out in the WSJ. We definitely are looking for growth, but not over quality. You are right on about our biggest challenge being able to teach people how to handle the psychological part of the job, the physical cleaning part is easy. that's why we are taking our time teaching our process.

Thanks for taking the time to write about our business. Let me know if you ever want to get in a real hoarding house. You'll love your job more than you can imagine.

-Matt Paxton
Owner, Clutter Cleaner