This story was originally published by Curbed before it joined New York Magazine. You can visit the Curbed archive at archive.curbed.com to read all stories published before October 2020.
We’re in a difficult moment for stuff. It’s become almost retro to admit you feel something for the buildup of quotidien objects that clutter your life. Thanks to the pop psychology of reality shows and self-help books, a moral hierarchy has emerged in relation to material possessions: It goes from hoarders, with their storage spaces crammed full of sadness, all the way up to minimalists, with their Buddhist non-attachment to anything that can’t be digitized. Most of us are between these two extremes, somehow with more stuff than we think we should have and also less than we find ourselves coveting. This is the true appeal of Marie Kondo’s lofty promises about tidying: “Out with the old” is a tacit permission slip for “in with the new.”
I’m not anti-Kondo, but you can put me down as a firm skeptic. I believe that the physical things you collect as you move through your life — even those that don’t make your stomach flip with joy — add up to something more than their individual utility or aesthetic appeal or heirloom potential. They aren’t just things, they’re your things. And if you remove yourself from the picture, the stuff you surround yourself with tells a story about you. It is a physical autobiography you write by living.
Which is why I love estate sales. The estate sale, unlike its close relative the yard sale, is not a selective culling of possessions. It’s a going-out-of-business event for one person’s life. “Full House Sale — 60 Years accumulation,” boasts a local listing on EstateSales.net. A yard sale gives you access to the items that someone has decided don’t spark joy or that have gathered dust too long in the bottom of a closet. A thrift store lets you pick through items that are divorced from context clues about the person who gave them up. When you walk through an estate sale, though, you’re perusing the stuff that was integral to a stranger’s daily life. The mugs they drank coffee from every morning in this kitchen. The chairs they pushed into the soft sand of the beach every summer. The books they read repeatedly, and the books they kept on these shelves because they always meant to read them but never got around to it. The framed prints that faded based on how the sun hit them every afternoon in this den.
To walk through an estate sale and finger the wares — as I’ve been doing regularly since I was a teenager — is to commune with the departed. If you’re paying attention, you can put together a story about who they were.
You often enter an estate sale through the garage. This makes sense, because a garage is a liminal space between the indoors and outdoors, the least personal place to start. You peruse tables of grimy tools. Boxes of holiday decorations. Some dusty camping equipment. Gardening implements. Maybe a few plants. But things get more interesting quickly. Through the back door that this home’s residents probably used every single day, you enter the kitchen to find the contents of the cupboards piled atop the counters where they prepared thousands of dinners. Deeper, into the living room and the bedroom, you can sometimes even see the imprint their butts made on the sofa or the bed. In the bathroom, the unused toothpaste they bought in bulk. All the while, you’re building a narrative of who this person was, until you exit through the garage again. The jewelry and silver is usually on a table near the checkout, removed from its longtime context on top of the dresser or in the dining room hutch. It’s okay to skip it: The most financially valuable things are usually the least interesting.
And then, depending on the sticker price, you can approach the till and purchase a piece of this person’s story to bring into your own home, where it will become a part of the quiet narrative you are writing just by living. The tiny green enamel pots that hold the plants that line your windowsill. The electric-blue casserole dish you use to serve your friends at your 37th birthday brunch. The thick cotton napkins you dab at the side of your mouth while slurping soup in front of the television.
Do these things spark joy? Is the mundane supposed to spark joy?
Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point.
I find many estate sales thanks to an email list I subscribed to years ago at the urging of my coworker Zak. The list is run by Cynthia Abernethy, the so-called estate-sale queen of the San Gabriel Valley, who oversees the emptying of about 40 houses per year in Pasadena and its surrounding wealthy enclaves northeast of Los Angeles. She got into the business when her mother, who was a real estate agent, found herself without many good estate-sale companies to refer her clients to.
“I try to avoid having too much stuff in my house myself. I don’t like clutter,” Cynthia told me when I called her up late last year. “I understand that our society is driven to spend money. And most all new items are junk, made in China, or bad quality. Anything new you buy is basically disposable. People are wise to go to estate sales and try to find something a little older, back when they still made quality things.”
I do like quality things. But I like snooping around strangers’ houses even more. Last year I went to a Cynthia sale in Pasadena with my friend Sarah. In typical fashion, we entered through the garage, which had boxes of Christmas stuff but also wrapping paper with menorahs and stars of David printed on it. An interfaith marriage, perhaps? The kitchen had the usual jumble of pans and glasses. The bedroom had three closets packed with menswear — extra-long and -large button-up shirts in every imaginable pattern. This guy had been tall and unafraid to wear extremely loud prints. And in another closet, boxes and boxes of shoes, each with a description written in Sharpie on the end. “Taupe loafers.” “Black oxfords.” A single sequined cocktail dress hung on one of the doors.
We didn’t see any other women’s clothing — maybe the wife had died years earlier? — but I scooped up most of the collection of men’s pocket squares in green and black geometric patterns and bright-red solid silks, all in impeccable condition.
Next to the bed was a box of items cleared from the nightstand. It included The Gay Pillow Book and embroidered matching webbed belts: one that said “Stanley Stanley Stanley” and one that said “Joe Joe Joe.” Aha! So our clothes horse — Joe or Stanley — was a gay man. In the bathroom, among the beard trimmer and jumble of prescription sunglasses on the countertop, sat a large, ancient bottle of lube.
“In my will, there will be express instructions for my nieces and nephews to remove auntie’s sexy trove before the estate sale,” Sarah texted me later, reflecting on this bathroom tableau.
We moved on, peering at what was very likely expensive crystal in the dining room cabinets and some framed theater posters on the walls. When we got to the den, which was ringed with bookshelves, we noticed an abundance of old-Hollywood biographies, art books, Methodist texts, and a book about closeted gay men that was stored — you can’t make this up — on a shelf in a closet. The bar had some incredible glassware. I pictured myself as a dinner guest of Joe and Stanley’s, enjoying a cocktail in this cozy room and having a spirited conversation about Katherine Hepburn.
Then, in a walkway between the dining room and living room, I noticed a large family portrait, probably from the ’80s, of a man, a woman, and their young son. It was on the floor, leaning against the wall. Another piece of his story clicked into place: He had been married to a woman and came out later in life. I wondered if the portrait was sitting there because he was estranged from the son and ex-wife. It seemed like the kind of thing you wouldn’t leave behind if your relationship was good.
Some houses have a pall of protracted illness or old age, a mood of slow deterioration. You swear sometimes that you can feel the loneliness of former inhabitants, and then you find a new-ish baby crib tucked away and realize this person had grandkids that came to visit regularly. Maybe they weren’t lonely at all. Maybe you’re just projecting. Usually, you never find out. Which is why estate sales are the perfect hobby for people who like to make up stories.
But on a bookcase in the hallway, I found the holy grail of estate-sale snooping, the thing you never find: a stack of booklets from the memorial service, which contained a full biography of the deceased. Joe had died of cancer after decades of working in college administration. He was married to a woman for 30 years — and often created gowns for her, as he was also a hobbyist fashion designer — until he came out and met the man who would be his partner for the rest of his life. Stanley had also been married to a woman and had children from that relationship. “They both have loving relationships with their former wives and children, which enrich their lives,” the memorial booklet explained in the present tense of the still-grieving.
I tucked one of the booklets into my bag and headed back through the garage to the checkout table with a set of rusty-red cloth napkins, the pocket squares, and an oversized button-up shirt in my arms. Sarah purchased an apron with the body of a naked man printed on it.
A few weeks later, I thought of Joe when I tied one of his silk squares around my neck. I decided to Google him. And I hit gold: Stanley had written a memoir titled My Two Wives and Three Husbands: A True Love Story. This allowed me to do something I’d never done after an estate sale: Fact-check the story I’d told myself about the people who once lived there. From Stanley’s book, I learned that he and Joe met when they were both approaching retirement age, after Stanley placed a personal ad in the Los Angeles Times: “Handsome silver fox seeks mature man for meaningful relationship. Theatre, tennis, travel.” They bought the Pasadena house — the one where the estate sale took place — after they’d been together a year. They were initially worried about how the neighbors would react to sharing their block with a gay couple, but they were welcomed right away. By Stanley’s account, they’d loved their home, their neighborhood, their life together.
Joe’s father had been a Methodist minister, which might explain the religious books on the shelves. And Joe had been 6 feet, 8 inches tall, which accounted for all those extra-long shirts in the closets. As for the single sequined cocktail dress? Stanley explained it in the book: “We were invited to a costume party at the home of a gay friend. To my astonishment, Joe announced that he wanted to go in a serious ‘drag’ outfit. ‘But, Joe!’ I sputtered, ‘in high heels you’ll be a giant woman!’” Undeterred, Joe bought a short-bobbed blonde wig, four-inch high heels (size 16), a brassiere (“with appropriate stuffing”), and pantyhose. After Stanley saw Joe’s long legs in those heels, he said, “Joe! You can’t hide those fantastic gams under a long evening gown. You need a short cocktail dress!” As a giant woman with great gams myself, I regret not trying it on.
One passage in Stanley’s book broke my heart: “Although Joe and I are both in good health, one never knows what tomorrow will bring… We appreciate each day in a way that younger couples rarely think about.”
Individually, the things you own are just things — usually, they’re not even the newest, most stylish, or even most functional things you could have. But what makes them special is that they’re yours. You’ve selected each item and used it every day alongside dozens of other objects. You’re the centrifuge holding all of this stuff together, the sun at the center of your universe of physical objects. You are what the Methodist books and the sequined cocktail dress and the pots and pans have in common. And when whatever magic you performed in this earthly life is over, your possessions are destined to become part of another human universe or to be sucked into the black hole of the landfill. I’d prefer the former.
Perhaps this is why the estate sale queen of the San Gabriel Valley is more than a saleswoman or a broker. Cynthia is a guard dog of these precious items that once made up a life. And so she is quick to pass judgment not just on the household goods and their resale value, but on her customers’ behavior while moving among these things. She includes in her weekly email, along with the sale’s location and noteworthy items, a roast of her customers who misbehaved at last weekend’s event. In a section she calls the “Hall of Shame,” Cynthia rages at anyone who dared to bring their children, ask for a discount, or do their business in the bathroom. In one memorable email from 2015, Cynthia writes about a guy who had the temerity to haggle with her over the price of some mini screwdrivers:
I tell him $4.00, he says “How about $3.00” this makes me turn to my trusty “I said NO pen”. For those of you who have not seen it, it’s a pen with a speaker at the top and a button you push and it says “No” about a dozen different ways. … I hit the button five times. He does not get it, so I have to spell out what is going to be happening if he does not fork over the $4.00 in about three seconds. So I boot him out without letting him buy anything. A customer says “hey did you see that guy giving you the finger?” No, all I see is the brake lights of a way cool mom van from the 90’s….Dork.
The tiniest transgression, like dropping a clump of houseplant dirt on the living room carpet, can provoke her ire, and often the column is not so much a lesson in etiquette as it is a window into her personal biases. “I was in the back yard when a guy from one of the ‘Machismo’ cultures comes up inquiring about a ladder that was in the garage,” she wrote in one recent email. (In some cases, when she knows the offender, she unsubscribes them from her list before she shames them on it. I can’t decide if that’s kind or if it’s essentially talking behind someone’s back.) “That hall of shame is a huge deterrent on doing stupid stuff,” she told me over the phone.
Pricing items is easy, Cynthia says. And the sales basically advertise themselves at this point, because her list has more than 4,000 subscribers. The hard part is dealing with the people, both the shoppers and her clients. The people who hire Cynthia to empty out their loved ones’ homes can have some unrealistic expectations about the process. “I tell them, your parents loved this stuff and now it made several hundred people happy with their purchases,” Cynthia says. “It’s a form of recycling. What made one person happy can move on and make hundreds of other people happy.”
Last year my parents, who were redoing their wills, mailed me a typed list of every item in their home they thought my siblings and I might want. Most of the list was family heirlooms: woodworking by my grandfather, quilts by my grandmother, cross-stitch and calligraphy by my mother. In other words, it was a list of items in my parents’ home that will never make their way into an estate sale.
So I found myself thinking about what will become of the non-heirlooms that have filled my parents’ lives for decades. I thought about the strangers who will walk through the rooms of their ranch-style house, scanning the Tupperware mixing bowls and soap dishes and remote-control caddies. I can’t quite picture the whole scene yet, but I know it will happen eventually. And when it does, I hope there is someone standing guard. And someone like me considering the merchandise, trying to figure out the story of how they lived, and taking a piece of that story home to become part of her own.