Category Archives: Take My … Please!

Ditch my books? Oh, no!

By Susan Caba
The Resale Evangelista


A little free library on Grove Lane in Santa Barbara

Books. Among the people I know, books are the hardest possessions to get rid of when editing their possessions. Even using the phrase “get rid of” seems too harsh when it comes to books—sort of like murdering a friend.

Books hold memories beyond their own contents—memories of when, where and why you read them, how their content reflected your life at the time, what adventures they prompted and the disasters that may have ensued. Our most-loved books, or at least mine, have aged along with me, acquiring wrinkles, creases, rips and stains inflicted by a well-read life.

I have a small box of outdated tourist guides that are more potent mementos of my travels than the now long-forgotten souvenirs I lugged home from Greece (Greece on $5 A Day—now there’s a throwback to another era!), Brazil, Calcutta or Peru. No doubt their information is useless but merely riffling through their pages prompt images of folk dancing on the beach in Mykonos, shopping a flea market in Buenos Aires, or photographing a rickshaw driver in repose in Calcutta.

Some books evoke particular eras of my life. I can think of three examples that turn back the years each time I catch a glimpse of their covers: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook taught me to deal with a life issue, tie it in a package and tuck it under the eaves of my brain’s attic—not gone, not forgotten but no longer possessing the power to interrupt my dreams. I read The Women’s Room, by Marge Piercy, in college and know it influenced my feminist persona. I still long to wander the United States on the Blue Highways described by William Least Heat Moon, discovering “three-calendar” country diners, eavesdropping on insights of the local denizens.

I may be part of the last generation with an attachment to physical books; my son sells them back to Amazon as soon as he finishes reading them (sometimes he does regret this). I guess I’ll get used to it—after all, I’m probably among the last to have grown up with three channels on the television (not to mention the revolving dial and, later, the wired remote).

Still, some books don’t rate room on the bookshelf—some never even make it past the bedside table. In my case, those are the novels that, once read, go right back to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. But for those books that may be more difficult to part with, here are a half-dozen ideas for placing them in new homes:

  • Set up a Little Free Library. This charming “take one, leave one” book-sharing movement zoomed from a one-man tribute to his book-loving mother in 2009 to an international phenomenon, with more than 32,000 Little Free Libraries throughout the U.S. and countries from India to Italy. The idea is simple: Erect a book box on a stand curbside, place your adoptable books inside and invite passersby to take a book—free—and leave one, if they are so inclined. I once left an 24-inch plastic brontosaurus on top of the Little Library in my neighborhood, knowing it would find a good home. Building a Little Free Library is a great project for kids, too.
  • Donate to a school or college. This is a particularly good option if you have a topic-specific collection of books. The director of a Stanford University journalism fellowship program winnowed his extensive library by donating to a nearby community college. No need to aim for Harvard University or Berkeley. Nearby community colleges and high schools would probably welcome books related to their programs, such as journalism, design, construction or historic preservation. If you have children’s books, find an age-appropriate local school and see if any teachers want books for their classroom.borges-book-quote
  • Seek out collectors. If you have a narrowly focused collection—on history books, cook books, atlases or some other specialty—find others who collect on the same topic. You may have a rare book and not even know it. When I sold my house in St. Louis, I took a bunch of books to The Miriam Switching Post, one of my favorite non-profit shops. The great thing about the Miriam shop is they provide year-end, itemized lists of your donations for tax purposes. I was perusing my list when I noticed this item: Two books, value $460. What!? The titles were specified but the individual values were–one for $340 and the other for $120. I have no idea what these were and I for sure never spent that much on a book! Probably there were decorative books I picked up for a few dollars to use as platforms for a lamp. At any rate, someone at the Miriam Shop researched their value. At first, I was aggravated that I didn’t do that myself. Then I realized I never would have done that, would also never have found someone to buy them. The tax credit was great, though. If you think you have books like that, advertise on Craig’s List, check websites like The Book Collector or look at the ads in publications such as  First, The Book Collector’s Magazine. Be very, very careful with this option–I sense their are some among us who could be lured into a new collecting habit. You know who you are.
  • Sell them—in bulk, if possible.  If you have a lot of books with no particular pedigree, call local second-hand book sellers and see if they will buy the whole lot for a single price. If you are having a garage sale, books usually sell relatively well. Just don’t expect to get anything more than a pittance for most—and resolve to banish any that don’t sell to your local thrift shop. Remember, the idea is to get rid of the books. Price ‘em low, to encourage everyone to buy an armload.

    Prisoners prize dictionaries

    Dictionaries gather dust in thrift shops but are prized by prisoners

  • Give them to prisoners. The Prison Book Program is a grassroots organization founded in 1972 to send free books to prisoners. The website points out that most prisons don’t allow family or friends to send books to prisoners–they must come from a bookstore or publisher (the old hollow-out-the-book-to-hold-something-illicit problem). The Prison Book Program is affiliated with a bookstore and gets books from many different sources, to serve thousands of prisoners each year. The website includes links to local Books for Prisoners programs, to cut the cost of shipping. While the organization delivers books on many subjects and genres (see the list on their site), there is high demand for two types in particular: Basic legal information and dictionaries. They even have a special program to purchase dictionaries in bulk. (I’m so tempted to visit a thrift shop I know of that is over-stocked with dictionaries, I suppose because anyone with access to Spellcheck doesn’t need them.) Unfortunately but understandably, there are restrictions on some books–no books with a spiral cover, no writing in the margins, no children’s books, nothing with weapons on the cover, no chic-lit, romance or (obviously) true crime. No travel guides, either.
  • Goodwill, of course.


The Resale Evangelista is simplifying, clarifying and trying to live a more artful life. She’s saying Goodbye to All That Stuff (well, a lot of it) in the process.

Gone, all gone!


Animated video by

Yeah, it’s Independence Day for sure!

That’s it. I’m done. For the first time in almost three years, I do not have a storage locker.

By Susan Caba
The Resale Evangelista

As you may recall, at one time I had two storage lockers–the big one–10-feet by 15-feet–packed front-to-back, side-to-side, bottom-to-top, and a smaller “spillover” locker. I acquired those when I sold my house in St. Louis and spent a year or more house-sitting around the country. When I moved into a one-bedroom apartment here in Virginia, I put the excess stuff in a 10-by-10 storage unit.  Now that I’ve moved to a two-bedroom apartment, I’ve made room for everything.

Well, not exactly everything. I parted with several items I decided I could live without–things that had some meaning or history attached that suddenly seemed not all that important.

  • Four mid-century modern rattan and bamboo bar stools. I bought them just before I got divorced and haven’t had a home with a counter in the 15 years since. I kept imagining them in a Deco-inspired kitchen or, alternately, selling them. Neither came to pass. I hauled them to Goodwill.
  • Four pressed-back oak dining room chairs that belonged to a gaggle of grand-aunts on my mother’s side of the family. I used them with a solid oak clawfoot table that came from the same household. I foisted–uh, I mean, presented–the table, which extends to seat 12, to one of my brothers. I don’t see myself entertaining 12 people in the near future and besides, the chairs weren’t my style. I gave them to Habitat for Humanity’s ReSale store with just a twinge of familial guilt. Goodbye, chairs.
  • An eiderdown comforter I bought in Switzerland on a trip after high school, took to college with me and used on my son’s bed. It was fluffy enough to hide my college boyfriend when a girlfriend popped in at an inopportune moment. Now I never get cold enough to need a real eiderdown comforter–and have no need to hide a male friend, should one materialize.

As I found when I staged my St. Louis house for sale, getting rid of the first thing with emotional or financial value (as opposed to run-of-the-mill furnishings or detritus) seems nearly impossible. But it’s like diving off the high-board for the first time, or skiing a black diamond slope. After the first time, the subsequent dives, ski runs or  Salvation Army deposits get easier and easier.

Quick factoid: Self-storage facilities are a $33 billion business in the United States. There are 2.63 billion square feet of self-storage capacity, and almost one of every 10 Americans rent a storage unit. According to Alexander Harrison, an independent Virginia journalist who blogs about the industry at  The Storage Beat, about half those people are using their units as a substitute for attics, basements or garages.

I have to admit–the storage locker is empty, but there is still an excess of stuff. One wall of the second bedroom is lined with unpacked boxes, of what, I’m not yet sure. There is still too much artwork lurking at the back of closets, behind furniture and in a Chinese leather trunk. And the shower in the second bathroom is a temporary library, housing a half-dozen boxes of books, cleverly hidden behind a hanging panel of fabric.

Books, this is where real difficulty arises. I have a box marked “classics and favorites.” There is another labeled “design and art books,” as well as one of “current reading” (despite the fact the box hasn’t been unpacked in two years.) Another, small but hefty, contains travel guides from the past twenty or more years. Though probably the most useless, these are the hardest to discard–“Greece on $5 a Day” is the memento of a post-high-school trip to Greece, more lasting than the 20 boxes of slides I haven’t looked at in the ensuing 40 years. There are guides to India, Antarctica and Hong Kong before the British lease expired. Is it wrong to dedicate three-feet of shelf space to a chronicle of my travels?


My “good box” collection

On the bright side, I unloaded a cache of moving boxes that were too good to throw away. They, along with a couple cartons of bubble wrap and packing nerdels, were piling up in the storage unit. Then, as I wandered through Lowe’s one evening, in search of a desk top, I spied a young woman loading fresh boxes into her cart.

“Moving?” I inquired.

“Yes,” she replied, “the van is coming tomorrow and we’re nowhere near packed. I thought we had enough boxes, but we keep needing more.”

“I can help! I’ve got boxes! Free boxes! What’s your address?”

As an example of just how frantic moving can make you, she didn’t hesitate to give me her address and phone number despite my wild hair, paint-spotted clothing and out-of-the-blue offer.  I paid for my desk top, ran to the car and rushed to the storage locker–in a downpour, mind you. It didn’t take long to fill the Subaru with an assortment of boxes, both assembled and flattened, as well as the packing material. I was unloading them to their grateful recipients in about 15 minutes. They offered money but I assured them that accepting the boxes was more than enough payment. My only regret is that I’ve since unpacked 10 more boxes that are “too good to throw away,” and it seems unlikely I’ll have such good luck again in Lowe’s anytime soon.

As always, remember my advice: If you plan to move–or die–anytime soon, start getting rid of stuff  now! It takes longer than you think…

The Resale Evangelista is simplifying, clarifying and trying to live a more artful life.








Basements, oh yeah!

Keep or ditch? That is the question…

Art must go in declutteringBy Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

Everybody’s downsizing—or should be.

You know my motto: If you think you’re ever going to move—or die—start now. Several of my friends are, for various reasons, taking my advice and dealing with their clutter.

And most of them start with the basement. Oh, yeah, the basement.

Basements are repositories—make that dumping grounds—for items that “might be useful later,” that “should go into the next garage sale,” or once belonged to someone meaningful (possibly Great Aunt Tilly, who died eons ago, but you’re not quite sure) and therefore must be kept in perpetuity, no matter how ugly or unloved. The job is always daunting.

My neighbor Maryann never did a thing in the basement. That was her husband’s territory. Other than doing laundry, Maryann walked through on her way in from the driveway. What lurked in the far regions was, in her mind, not her problem.

Until, that is, she came home after a long weekend at work, walked in and found herself ducking under sleeping bags hanging from the rafters. “Just then, my eye began to twitch,” she recalls. “That was the moment I realized the basement was now mine!”

Maryann is one of those organized souls that I both pity and envy. Armed with a tape measure and an actual, drawn-on-paper floor plan, she commandeered her son, Joe, and got to work. It took a summer, but she no longer ducks under hanging sleeping bags on her way to the washer and dryer.

Sherman, on the other hand, is moving to a bigger house—Sherm, what are you thinking? Nonetheless, he’s purging, too. His reason? After his parents moved to a nursing home last year, he had to clear their long-time home of “stuff” that had accumulated through the decades.

“I don’t want my daughters to have to go through this exercise, so I’ve decided to get rid of stuff I haven’t unpacked in four moves over 10 years,” he said. “Besides, do I really still need a cassette player?”

And now we come to Lee and Terry. They’ve lived in their comfortable, four-bedroom suburban St. Paul home for 30-some years. Their kids are out of the house (but their stuff isn’t) and Lee and Terry are ready to move into something smaller. They want to sell their house.Lee's basement before

Before: 20 years’ accumulation

The problem? The basement, of course. Lee knows buyers will want to at least see the floor.

“Clear the Clutter” is a step-by-step guide to tackling your basement.

Where to begin?

Theoretically, you—like Maryann— will tackle the basement with a plan. The plan will detail specific areas for certain activities or objects. My reaction to this advice is “Uh-huh, right.”

I’ll tell you where not begin. Do not start by going through packed boxes or file cabinets. Those are snake pits of delay and despair. Once, when a California wildfire was literally burning up the hill toward my mother’s house, she started leafing through papers in her file cabinet, deciding what to save. I had to steer her out the door. This was no time to decide whether her kids’ third grade papers should be saved.

I would like to say you should just dispose of the file cabinets and any packed boxes that haven’t been opened for years, without ever looking inside. However, just as I was about to do that myself when I was moving, I opened a box in my garage. What did I find? My son’s baby book and a bunch of writing I thought was long gone.

So, move those boxes and, if you must, the file cabinets into a convenient corner. You can deal with the contents later. Besides, moving them out of the way should open space for processing other junk—I mean stuff.Lee's basement after

After Round 1: Four hours later

Note: There’s a difference between clutter and “stuff.” Clutter is an accumulation of broken, out-of-date, useless or unused, meaningless things. “Stuff,” on the other hand, is something useful that you actually use or which holds meaning beyond its function. There’s no question about clutter—it’s gotta go. Stuff? Well, maybe it stays—but it still has to be assessed with an eye to getting rid of it.

My approach, after moving packed boxes and trashing obvious debris, is to just dig in. That’s what Lee and Terry have been doing. (Should you work with your spouse? Oh boy, that can get complicated! I’ll leave it for another day.)

Join the challenge: 52 weeks to an organized home

I’ve been coaching Lee from afar on what to keep and what to jettison. For example, she came across a piece of art and emailed a photo.

“The dilemma,” she wrote, “it’s lovely and used to hang in my family home. But it’s been in the basement for 8 years. That should tell us something, right?”

Right. If you have to ask, you know it’s got to go.

Ditching something you actually like is very, very hard—the first time. After that, it gets easier. In fact, I got downright giddy. Of course, a deadline helps. The night before I closed the sale on my house, I left a 17-inch, nearly new television on my neighbor’s porch. (Off-loading useable items in good condition to friends is one strategy for guilt-free disposal. As in my case, it often works best under cover of dark.)

I asked Lee what items she found hardest to discard.

“The beautiful, cherry twin beds that I slept in as a child, that my daughter slept in when she was young, and that now sit in our basement…

“My grandmother’s sewing machine, the one she taught me to sew on, so high sentimental value for me, not so much for my kids—that was an “aha!” realization.”

“Sentimental things about the kids …How do you decide what’s the right thing to keep and what’s the right thing to remember—and then give away? And practical things, like toys that could have a useful second life when grandkids are around—like American Girl dolls and the PlaySkool Castle. How long do I hold on to these things? (Neither of Lee’s children are married, or even engaged.)”

She had no problem parting with Battleship and sundry other games, reference books made obsolete by time and Google, decorative baskets for storing magazines—complete with magazines from the last century, and bags of costume jewelry destined “for the garage sale.” In fact, anything destined for a garage sale went, instead, to Goodwill.

“If I don’t have it in the house, I won’t have a garage sale, which just saved me valuable time and hassle. Priceless.”


The Resale Evangelista is dedicated to simplifying, clarifying and creating a more artful life. Having cleared her own basement, she is now nagging friends to purge their stuff, too. 

The Evangelista would love it if you share your own basement or attic stories in the comments section–after all, doesn’t it feel good to know you’re not alone?

Mugged by my “stuff”

African mask purchased at Leland Little auctionThings accumulated when I wasn’t looking!

By Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

Readers, I backslid.

While I was busy living with less, a bunch of stuff sneaked up and mugged me. I never saw it coming.

Oh, there were clues. The mattress pad and down comforter, purchased early on and cut down to fit my bed in Chapel Hill. The little microwave I bought when I realized I needed one to reheat my coffee. The two small paintings by intellectually disabled artists that charmed me in Asheville.

Art—that was the first telling sign I was slipping. The microwave and mattress pad, the $1 coffee cups and wine glasses from the PTA Thrift store—those I could rationalize as “needs.” There  were no easy rationalizations for the paintings. I liked them, they were reasonably priced and I felt good spending the $25 for a worthy cause.

I didn’t realize how far I’d fallen until it was time to pack up and leave the Kellers’ house. Stuff had accumulated. African masks, for example. A bigger and better coffee maker. Six cans of tennis balls and a hopper to carry them. A small oriental rug. Not to mention the mahogany dressing table which I bought because I wasn’t sitting on my bidding hand at an auction. Besides, it’s for my son’s girlfriend—not that either one of them asked for it.

You’ll recall that, despite rigorously culling over a two-year period, I have a 10-by-15 storage unit in St. Louis that is loaded front-to-back, side-to-side and floor-to-ceiling with my belongings. I arrived in Chapel Hill with a moderate amount of stuff in the back of the Subaru. I’m leaving with suitcases bungie-corded to the roof.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Stuff, Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. It’s a well-written, research-grounded book about the motivations and emotions of hoarders. Whew! Glad I escaped that affliction!

I gotta tell you, though, some of the characteristics weren’t entirely unfamiliar.

We are attached to our things because of what they represent—opportunities, memories, and connections to significant people, places and events. Why else would I keep the musical mobile with panda bears that hung over my son’s crib, or the miniature buildings of a Greek fishing village my father brought back from a trip? Why would one friend treasure a tattered book of essays about our national parks she received as a child, or my former mother-in-law use her son’s baby bib—sixty years later—as a potholder every morning in her tea-making ritual?

“It wasn’t the objects themselves that she valued, but the connections they symbolized,” the authors wrote about one woman in Stuff.  “And it’s the same whether we collect celebrities’ clothing, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a deck chair off the Titanic or five tons of old newspapers.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.19.13 AMUh-oh. I have a piece of the Berlin Wall. My mother and youngest brother were there as it was being chipped into oblivion.

Jean-Paul Sartre said we learn who we are by observing what we own. Sartre wrote that “to have” is one of three basic forms of human experience, the others being “to do” and “to be.” William James said acquisitiveness is a human instinct, which contributes to our sense of self. “What is ‘me’ fuses with what is ‘mine’ and our ‘self’ consists, in part, of what we possess.”

Our stuff also represents our image of ourselves. Like the time I bought a cunning set of dishes thinking, “these will be just great for a luncheon.” Only after I paid for them did I remember I hadn’t ever had a luncheon. I don’t even like the word.

One woman described in Stuff had more than 300 cookbooks, kitchen counters hidden under cookware and gadgets, and a stove no longer visible under layers of kitchen accoutrements. “Much of her hoard allowed her to imagine various identities,” the authors said. “A great cook, a well-read and informed person, a responsible citizen. Her things represented dreams, not realities. Getting rid of the things meant losing the dreams.”

The anecdote reminded me of clearing the house of a woman who obviously intended to be a great cook—she had an unbelievable stash of baking equipment, mixing bowls, state-of-the-art equipment and serving paraphernalia. All of it was stored in the basement, unopened and unused.

Hoarders or not, it’s because we imbue objects with these layers of meaning that it’s so easy to acquire things and so difficult to get rid of them. Which brings me back to my 8-month house-sitting assignment in Chapel Hill.

It turns out that, lovely as my hosts’ home is, I needed my stuff around me. I brought a few photos of my son with me, but that was about it for personal mementos. My house in St. Louis—if I do say so myself—was an artful, art-filled environment. (Yes, maybe too art-filled!)

And so, reader, that’s how it happened—the African masks, the little Waterford pitcher I bought at Goodwill for $8 (and never used—it was one of those “irresistible bargains”),  the bird feeder, the framed picture of bathing beauties under a beach umbrella, the block-printed greeting cards, the bedskirts from the thrift shop (which I left behind), the frames for unframed children’s art and, oh yes, the DVDs for learning how to salsa dance (which I had to watch in slow motion and, even then, could barely see how the woman was moving her hips).

So, the Subaru is loaded again to the gills. But at least I gave away the lawnmower.

The ResaleEvangelista has culled her belongings, in order to create a simplified, more artful life.

If you’re new to the site, you might want to check out these earlier posts of mine about the joys and perils of house-sitting.


Secret stash in the back of my Subaru

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

“What’s that in the back of your car?”

Sounds like a casual question, but it wasn’t. My friend Jone Bosworth quizzed me with a raised eyebrow and a tart tone.

“Jumper cables,” I explained.

“No, that other thing–the big brown thing,” she pressed.

“Oh. Well, um…it’s a leather loveseat,” I said, in what I hoped was an off-hand manner.

“A loveseat!?! What are you doing with a loveseat? You’re supposed to be downsizing.” Clearly, I hadn’t nailed the off-hand thing.

You will recall that I am downsizing, simplifying and focusing my life. It says so, more or less, in the sub-title of this blog.

Is that a leather loveseat in your Suburu?And I have–I sold my house, disposed of many possessions and put the rest in a storage locker. Well, there was a little excess that I had to put in another, much smaller locker. And as soon as my brother Joe takes our great-grandmother’s dining room table, I can consolidate the two.

In the meantime, as I told Jone, there’s some room in the lockers. Hence, the loveseat.

“What? There’s room in the lockers? There’s room, so you’re filling it?” She wasn’t buying that rationale. I tried another.

“Well, my friend Fran was getting a new loveseat and chair, and she needed to get rid of this loveseat and she said she was going to give it to a charity that gives furniture to formerly homeless people who just got their first apartments, and the loveseat is really nice and Fran said I could have it, so I told her I would donate some cash to the homeless organization; besides, she wanted to get it out of her condo pretty quickly and the homeless place couldn’t pick it up for three weeks and I told her it would fit in the back of the Subaru–she didn’t believe me, but it did, so I took it.”

Jone stood there, hands on hips, eyebrow still raised. I am awed–and a little scared–of people who can raise one eyebrow.

“And it’s the right scale for whatever smaller place I end up in,” I added, meekly.

Still silence, still the eyebrow.

What can I say–I relapsed.

Jone, an executive coach, told me I have to work on breaking some habits of mind if my down-sizing and simplifying are going to be successful:

  • Just because something is free, and really nice, doesn’t mean I need it.
  • Just because that something fits easily into the back of the Subaru, doesn’t mean I should put it in there.
  • Just because the storage locker has room, doesn’t mean I should fill it.
  • Just because I want it, doesn’t mean I should have it.

Oh, okay, fine, I’ll work on changing my thought patterns.

In the meantime, it’s a really nice leather loveseat and it fits in the back of my car and there is room in the storage locker….

The Resale Evangelista is about simplifying life, cutting down on clutter, spending wisely and creating a focused, artful life.

If you are in the Washington D.C. area and have nice furniture you would like to donate, try The Wider Circle. The non-profit organization accepts furniture in good condition only, and redistributes it to families or individuals who need it. And if you have cash? Wider Circle accepts that, too.

For more information: Phone: 301-608-3504; Email:; Questions about donating furniture:

If you are in or around St. Louis, the Miriam School’s Switching Post accepts donations of furniture and household items in good shape and sells them at prices well below antique shops or commercial stores. It’s an open secret that interior designers shop at the Switching Post. The store is staffed by volunteers and all proceeds go to the Miriam School, in Webster Grove, for learning-disabled children. Last year, the store raised $100,000 for the school.

For more information: Phone: 314-646-7737; Website:

If you know of other non-profits who accept furniture, feel free to leave their contact information with your comments, or send them to me and I’ll add them.








Scenes from a move

My house is gone, sold, cleaned out

The Resale Evangelista

And oh, what hell it was! But I’ll get into all that later. Suffice to say for the moment that what I thought would take 4 days took 10.  I missed two flights and rescheduled four others. My arms and legs are bruised from packing and moving. And this was an operation that went relatively smoothly. The simplified life is not as easy as it might look.

For the moment, I’m just offering a few verbal snapshots of the experience–and repeating my advice: If you think you will ever move out of your current abode, begin sorting, packing and discarding now! Trust me–start now!

Telling Time, Bird by Bird

I’ve always enjoyed spring’s predawn cacophony of birdsong. The earliest chirps break out around 5 a.m., soon escalating into full-fledged orchestral tune-up. The first fingers of sunlight begin tracing shadows on the window shade by 5:30. Secure in the knowledge that another day is dawning, I turn over, pull the pillow over my head and sleep another hour or two.

Not this time, Missy. I closed on the house Tuesday morning, got my hair cut and had a quick lunch with a friend. The buyers were closing the following day. Needless to say, there were a few things left to pack and haul away. Luckily, I had realized Monday evening that I was a little behind and changed my departure from Tuesday at 6 p.m. to Wednesday at 6 p.m. Thank you, Southwest Airlines, for your no-change-fee policy. (Which I used again on Wednesday to reschedule for a Friday flight.)

Back to the birds. There I was, sorting through a few things (okay, a lot of things) when I heard the tell-tale predawn chirp. Nah, couldn’t be, could it? I checked the windows: Still dark, but with the unmistakable bruised-blue tint of approaching sunrise. The bird orchestra was soon in full-throated warm-up. I’ll say this about working through the night–deciding to get rid of things is a hell of a lot easier at 3 a.m. than it is during the day. That’s about when I decided to give my television to my son’s girlfriend, rather than pack it for storage. The impulse evaporated with the realization I’d still have to pack and transport the TV. Simple solution? Just walk the television (in the dark) over to the neighbor’s porch. Imagine their surprise in the morning!

Misery Loves Company

By Thursday, everything was at least out of the house and in the garage. But there were boxes, so many boxes. Boxes I hadn’t opened in 10 years. Why start now? I determined to save time by pitching without sorting. After all, what could be so important in boxes stored for so long in the garage or basement?

Well, my son’s baby book, which I found when I noticed his name on a folder in one of the boxes. A brand-new-with-tags Coach laptop bag, origin unknown. Four years of journal entries from the late Nineties, which I long ago gave up on finding. A copy of my parents’ original family trust, now the subject of sibling dispute. Several pieces of writing, the only other copies of which are locked on obsolete floppy disks. Pitching without sorting was no longer an option.

Enter my neighbors. Chris and Maryann (you may remember their sons, Joe and Matt, as models of my top hat) pulled me away from the garage on Wednesday for hamburgers and Matt’s special fries (crinkle-cut), and again on Thursday for chicken curry. Maryann wrapped the delicate kitchen things left on the shelves when I couldn’t stand touching another sheet of butcher paper. Jason and Christie said I could leave anything I couldn’t carry, and they would dispose of whatever it was, one way or another. Mike and Linda stood with me for two hours while I went through boxes. Mike took anything technical and all the foreign language dictionaries; Linda claimed odds and ends for a charity garage sale and even accepted the two under-the-bed drawers that would in no way fit into my rental SUV. And when it was dark and cold and I just wanted to leave a bunch of crap–er, stuff–on the lawn until the following morning, Mike helped me put it all in the garage.

Thanks, guys. I couldn’t have done it without you.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen? 

It was Friday. I had packed the last, most difficult load of my belongings into the rented SUV. A bed frame with slats, which I couldn’t–or wouldn’t–take the time to disassemble, therefore requiring that it be fitted diagonally into the SUV, stretching from the front seat, passenger window and protruding out from under the hatchback on the driver’s side. That necessitated tying the hatchback down with an extraneous piece of some sort of cable (of which I had many baskets that ended up at Goodwill). The load consisted of other bits of flotsam and jetsam, including the most problematic–several gallons of old paint. I hadn’t been able to locate a disposal center and was, therefore, planning to illegally dump the paint at my storage center.

My flight was to leave St. Louis at 6:05 p.m. I was heading for Public Storage at 4 p.m., thinking I might actually make the flight–which I had already rescheduled three times (thank you, again, Southwest, for your policy of not charging for changing flight schedules.)

Driving down Manchester Avenue, another driver started beeping his horn and, when I met his eyes, he gestured toward my tailgate. Shoot, I thought (no, that’s not exactly what I thought), maybe the bed frame is slipping. I pulled into a bus-stop lane, put the emergency flashers on and got out to check the tailgate. The bed frame was secure. But a can of cream-colored paint had tipped and was spilling over the bumper of the black rental vehicle. “Fudge,” I thought. No, that is definitely not an exact quote. I pulled the offending can of paint out of the car and dumped it in the public trash basket at the bus stop.

Since this was not my car, it wasn’t equipped with the wealth of rags and shammies normally available in the back of my Subaru. I headed–hyperventilating–for the nearest gas station, hoping for a hose or faucet. No such luck–there was only an air pump for tires.

I dashed inside and bought two bottles of water. No cleaning rags available. I poured the water on the paint and used the windshield cleaning wand stocked  by the gas pumps. This was not going to work or, at least, not quickly enough. I ran back inside and bought a gallon of windshield washer fluid and grabbed a big handful of paper towels. Thank God the paint was latex, and hadn’t spilled inside the car. I managed to swab off the paint before it dried, thus saving myself thousands of dollars in charges for repainting the vehicle. (I have to admit it: I also disposed of two or three more cans of paint at the gas station. What can I say, I was desperate.)

Maybe it’s my sporadic practice of Buddhism. After the paint spill, I realized I was going to again miss my flight. I think in my whole life–the child of a TWA pilot, so one who flew often–I have actually missed three flights. In the past, I would be cursing, sweating, racing to the airport. Now? Phhfft! There will be another flight tomorrow. (Thank you yet again, Southwest.)

Ending on a bright note

Here’s the best part. In pitching stuff–I did empty about 30 boxes, consolidating them into three or four–I tossed out a lot of film negatives and slides. Joe Musial, 15, retrieved many of them and asked if I minded if he kept them. Of course I didn’t–I sense a fellow dumpster diver in the making.

Over dinner, we looked at the negatives and slides. And you know what? Joey, who (along with his brother) is one of the two smartest kids that I know, said he had never seen a slide or negative. Isn’t that amazing? I once interviewed a man in Iowa who remembered seeing his first steam engine chugging across the prairie, spewing smoke. I felt like that old man, having witnessed a bygone era of technology.

We held the negatives up to the light over the dinner table and, without having my glasses, I was able to identify myself by the shape of my hair. Maryann explained that negatives reverse the dark and light areas of a photograph. I had developed some of the film myself; Joey was unfamiliar with that concept. And when Chris mentioned that, if you wanted to magnify a slide image, all you had to do was use a thumb and forefinger to swipe the picture, Joey–a computer jockey–didn’t get the joke. Made sense to him.

Lessons Learned

Did I learn any valuable lessons through this ordeal…I mean, experience? Not really, nothing that I didn’t already know about myself.

  • I am overly optimistic. I always assume a task will take much less time to accomplish than is realistic.
  • I live by deadlines, even when I miss them. Having a deadline at least gets me started.
  • My first instinct in a crisis is panic. I hyperventilated twice while moving–I’ve never hyperventilated previously in my life.
  • After the hysteria passes, I do what needs to be done. What choice do I have?
  • Friends are the best.

And for you all? I can’t say it often enough: Start getting rid of stuff now!










Dishes, dishes everywhere …

Luncheon dishes

How many sets of dishes is too many for a simple life?

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

I don’t cook much. I don’t entertain big crowds. I don’t cater.

But I have an active imagination. That’s the only rationale I can come up with for the fact that I own six sets of dishes. That I know of–there are some boxes in the garage that haven’t been unpacked for a long time.

Some part of my brain must envision me having large dinner parties. Because I keep buying dishes. They’re like potato chips, I can’t have just one set. I sold a set last year, and recently gave away another. And yet, I still have six.

Here’s an actual conversation I had with myself recently, as I was buying a set of delicate bone china for six–teacups and saucers, salt and pepper shakers, creamer, sugar bowl and six smallish plates.

Me, to myself: “These would be great for a luncheon or tea party, they’re so pretty and different.”

Myself, to me, after I paid for the dishes: “You haven’t had a luncheon in–you’ve never had a luncheon. You don’t even use the word!”

It’s the gatherings I miss

I used to have dinner parties, both before and after I was married. As a single woman in Des Moines, in my twenties, I didn’t hesitate to have 10 people over for dinner, though I didn’t have a dining room table. I had a group of 10 or 12 close friends. We had garden parties, cookouts and, about once a year, one couple from the south would make fried chicken and creamed corn.

When I left Des Moines, the 10 or 12 of us had a dinner party at Cynthia’s house that I’ll never forget. Not because it was grand or elaborate. It was warm and intimate. A few of us rotated in and out of the kitchen while the others talked, drank and played games in the living room. The peonies were blooming in the backyard, near where we were grilling.

We were family.

When I moved to Philadelphia, my roommate and I had people over for dinner–Doreen had pink LuRay plates. She loved pink, and we hunted down those pink dishes all over South Jersey!  After I married, my husband and I entertained often, first outside of Philadelphia and later in St. Louis. Some meals were more elaborate, others were very simple. Some were long-planned, others spontaneous.

We had friends, tDSCF1061oo, who had dinner parties. Penny and Warren Wood, Russell and Catherine Palmgren, Judge Garb and his wife, Joan. Thanksgivings at the Garbs’ Bucks County farmhouse, big fire burning in the library, Zeke arguing with Amit about the Constitution, wine flowing as freely as the conversation; the Palmgrens’ annual Boxing Day dinners, elegant and easy; too many meals at the Woods’ house to enumerate except to say they were usually memorable for unexpected interactions among guests, including heated political arguments and a near-divorce (not mine).

One Christmas, we attended a party in Bucks County in which everyone drank too much and talked and talked and talked. The next night, we went to a party in Chester, Pa., at which everyone drank too much and danced and danced and danced.

Here’s what I really miss: the camaraderie and community of a dinner party. Six or eight or twelve people sitting around the big oak table that–though it’s not my taste–I inherited from a great-grandmother. We’d drink copious amounts of wine, dig into salad, pass the lasagna or, more often than not, the coconut shrimp curry that is my ex-husband’s specialty, and laugh and argue.

Once, I remember, we had a British couple for dinner. Of the four of us, I was the only one criticizing the British occupation of India. Another time, we had a family of four for Thanksgiving dinner. Among other things, we served carrots with a little butter and brown sugar. “Mom,” gasped the 12-year-old son of our friends, “the carrots are drenched in butter.”

Kid, I thought, you don’t know drenched. I think my mother used a half-stick of butter on every bowl of broccoli or cauliflower or carrots she served us as kids. Max and I will still look at one another when a dish is particularly rich, roll our eyes and say, “Mom, the carrots are drenched in butter!”

Volunteer job feeds an addiction

DSCF2131After the divorce, life became more  harried, the kitchen in my house was horrid and I got out of the habit of having dinner parties. I packed up the blue and white Rosenthal china my mother bought in Europe and gave me as a wedding present. At the time, I believed I would soon be leaving St. Louis. I would unpack the china in California, where I would again have dinner parties.

Well, I didn’t move. Who could move a son right before middle school, when he’d have to make friends–yet again–at a new school. We stayed in St. Louis, in a house I first rented, then purchased. I still thought I would have dinner parties again. That was 13 years ago. I wasn’t hosting dinner parties, but I was buying dishes.

In part, I bought them as a side effect of volunteering at the Miriam Switching Post, a non-profit store on Big Bend Blvd. that, as they say, is an “on-going estate sale.” The dishes–and other furnishings–are donated by people who are down-sizing, closing out parents’ estates or simply redecorating. Proceeds support the Miriam School, for children with severe learning disabilities.

Inevitably, there are dishes. Everything from beautiful bone china to pottery to Fifties era plastic dishes in acidic colors. And they sell for a pittance of what they would cost new, or what contemporary china costs. As with so many things, I can’t understand why anyone would buy new dishes. Never mind going to antique stores, just go to Goodwill.

The dishes, no matter how beautiful or how inexpensive, rarely sold. I guess it’s because people want what they want. In other words, they don’t want to select from the china at a resale store. Maybe it doesn’t fit their vision of what their life will be. Maybe the dishes just aren’t in style, or are too small. Maybe they don’t entertain as we used to (now I’m sounding like an old codger!)

I had to quit working at the Miriam shop. It was becoming the most expensive volunteer job I’d ever had. And my cupboards were filling with dishes (among other things) I didn’t need.

Recently, I did again entertain the idea of entertaining. About a year ago, I invited several people for dinner, to hilarious effect. . All I can say is that people I thought would mesh beautifully–didn’t! Those of us reduced to observers chuckle still at the DSCF1157memory of two alpha male guests jousting like bull elephants. One claimed to invent juggling, the other professed a fanatic dedication to his vegetable garden and vegetarianism. In its own way, the dinner was memorable.

But I haven’t had another one since. I haven’t served lunch on the German painted china. It’s been a while since I used the funky, lime green and cream, Stangl dishes from the Fifties. My Rosenthal is still wrapped carefully in newspaper, then tucked into a sturdy box. I’m finally moving and, as I pack those excess dishes, I find myself chanting an old nursery rhyme:

Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon. The little boy laughed to see such a sight–and the dish ran away with the spoon.

Got that, dishes?

Finding replacement china

If you’re missing pieces of your china, or want to fill in with additional pieces, try China Finders, at 2125 Cherokee St. in St. Louis. You’ll be astounded at the variety of patterns and pieces stacked in what seem like endless shelves. Phone number is:314-776-5900.

Replacements Ltd. is another resource. The on-line company buys and sells hundreds of patterns of china and crystal, both obscure and common.


Beware the “good box”

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

I think a lot about boxes.

An unopened box is mysterious. Like a closed door in a novel, an unopened box is filled with promise and potential. The contents—good or bad—are unknown. Think about it. Unopened presents under the tree hold the magic of Christmas.

DSCF2095Afterwards, the boxes are just junk. Opened, their mystery vanishes. But the boxes linger.

That, my friends, is trouble.

Opened and empty boxes are dangerous. They are the leg-traps of household debris.  That’s the ugly secret about boxes. Their very emptiness holds potential. The promise of the empty box is that it will be there when you need to mail or pack something.

And those are the boxes I think about a lot.

Take a sturdy box that held a dozen bottles of wine. (I have to admit, I have way too many of these empty wine boxes. Unfortunately, they once held $3 bottles of red wine from Whole Foods. A friend, upon tasting said wine, noted that “It’s as good as a $7 bottle.”)  Anyway, an empty wine box, with its cardboard dividers, holds a dozen glasses, when the time comes to move.

Empty shoe boxes are particularly alluring. Good shoes come in well-made boxes in a slightly larger-than-standard size.  They stack easily, giving the impression of organization. Nike boxes for men’s size 12 sneakers are not only sturdy (and a pleasing orange), they’re constructed like drawers. How handy is that? I have several, since Max hit size 12 in sixth grade.

Who throws away a USPS one-weight/one-price-postage box? Never mind that they’re free at the post-office. The fruit boxes from Harry and David are perfect for Christmas ornaments. And they have a foam cushion inside, to protect the fruit and, later, the ornaments. (Don’t get me started on packing materials or gift bags—those are related topics I’ll deal with later.)

Ponder this: The richest woman in China made her fortune—billions—collecting tons of used cardboard from America and Europe, shipping it to China, recycling it into new boxes which were then used to ship manufactured goods to America. And then the cycle began again. She is said to be richer than Oprah Winfrey!

“Other people saw scrap paper [and boxes] as garbage, but I saw [them] as a forest of trees,” said Zhang Yin, chairman of the Nine Dragons Paper Co. Does that not say something about the excess of boxes?

Beware the “good box”

Then there is the generic “good box.” I have several, in various sizes, in a dark corner of the basement. I’m betting you do, too. I used to do house cleanouts for the Miriam Switching Post and I never saw a house that didn’t have empty boxes—sometimes dozens—tucked away someplace. In fact, some of the boxes now in my basement came from those basements.

The problem with these so-called “good boxes” is that they are rarely as perfect as they promise. Whatever object I am trying to pack is inevitably just a little bit too big for any of the boxes in the basement.

Here’s another variation on the “good box.” The moving box. Since I have been planning to move for about 10 years now, I have a lot of potential moving boxes. Some of them are flattened and easily stored. Either I bought them for a previous move and saved them, or friends who moved gave them to me. Then there are the insidious other good moving boxes. Here’s a note on such a box that I recently found in my basement:

“Sue—I got 2 of these boxes & thought you might use one for packing. (Look inside—pretty cool for fragile items!) Forgive me if you do not need it & have to ditch it!”

I will not reveal this friend’s name, but note that telling phrase—“forgive me.” It reeks of guilt, doesn’t it? I’ll write later about other diabolical strategies for passing stuff off to friends under the guise of doing them a favor.

More bad news about boxes

Some boxes are even worse than empty boxes. They, too, masquerade as “good boxes.” These boxes contain stuff.

They are the boxes under my bed, in my closets and on shelves in the basement. Some of the stuff they hold is good stuff, I think– there are many boxes that have been packed for so long, I forget what’s in them. The worst contain unknown or unsorted stuff. Things I intended to take to Goodwill or put in a garage sale. Unsold items from my occasional forays into selling collectibles. These are not good boxes.

I have a bad habit, especially with paperwork, of letting it pile up on the dining room table. Eventually, I sort and discard. When I do, I end up with considerably reduced piles that are in much better order, ready for me to take whatever actions are needed.

Inevitably, though, something occurs—someone coming to dinner or I plan to refinish the dining room floor, whatever—that forces me to sweep those tidy piles into a box and put the box under the bed, in a closet or in the laundry basket.

Sometimes—not always, but often enough—I forget where those boxes are. Sometimes I forget they exist. Sometimes I tear at my hair and run screaming around the house because I know an important piece of paper is somewhere to be found, but I don’t know where that somewhere is.  Sometimes I find the boxes months or even years later and all the stuff in them is outdated. This can be a strategy for getting rid of stuff, but it’s not one I highly recommend.

I came up with a creative way of making more space in Max’s bedroom, once he went to college. I took the bottom bunk out of his bedroom set, stapled fabric to the inside of the frame, so that it hides what is under the bed—which is now a greatly enlarged space. Yes, I used some of that space for the printer and a file cabinet, as I planned, to reduce visual clutter.

But when the time came to put the house on the market, I put a lot of stuff into boxes and put the boxes under the bed. Some of the boxes contain stuff that is sorted and labeled. There are quite a few that, well, that I just haven’t gotten around to sorting yet.

I should go to Max’s room right now and go through those boxes. Or I should deal immediately with the empty boxes in the basement. But you know, Christmas is coming. The house will need to be tidy and I’ll probably be sending some gifts…


365 Days of Letting Go: The Resale Evangelista is paring down possessions, one day at a time.  Today she deleted a bunch of obsolete photo files from her laptop.


There’s no magic in this old top hat

Susan Caba

The Resale Evangelista

Why do I have a top hat? A vintage, in-perfect-condition man’s silk top hat?

Because A. J. Brewington, one of my favorite shopkeepers, often displayed top hats and bowlers and derbies on hat stands amongst her wares. They were cool. Very Magritte.

I’m an opportunistic shopper.Joey Musial reluctantly models my top hat.

She who hesitates in the resale world risks disappointment. I do not often come across top hats, derbies or bowlers. So, when Rung, a regular stop on my circuit of St. Louis resale shops, came up with three or four vintage top hats—one of them collapsible—I wrote a $100 check with no qualms.

The hat is pristine, with a leather band inside the rim and, in gilt lettering, the words “Dobbs, Fifth Avenue, New York.” The former owner’s initials are also inscribed in gold: “ERMcC.”

Mr. McC  apparently had quite a social life. His wardrobe of top hats included another well-worn silk chapeau, as well as a collapsible version. (To my credit, I did not consider buying the collapsible version. Okay, I did consider it–the hat was pretty cool–but ultimately I resisted, because it was more expensive.)

Let’s take this opportunity to pass along some Wikipedia trivia about top hats:

  • George Dunnage, a Middlesex hatter, crafted the first silk top hat in England, in 1793. Until then, top hats were generally made of beaver.
  • A French magician was the first on record to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat, in 1814—though there is some dispute about this factoid.
  • The collapsible top hat was patented in 1812. The ability to flatten the hat, then snap it open against the owner’s palm, made them popular and convenient for wearing to the opera.
  • John F. Kennedy was the last U.S. president to wear a top hat during his inauguration (but not his speech).
My mother gave me–and I still have–a thick silk scarf that belonged to my father, the kind of thing men once wore with tuxedos and top hats. My father was a pilot, not a tuxedo-and-top-hat kind of guy. When, I still wonder, did he wear this scarf? Matt Musial, sporting current casual formal look of T-shirt and top hat.

History, that’s one of the charms of foraging for vintage treasure. Who was Mr. McC? Where did he live? What did his wife wear on those occasions he was wearing his top hat?

I once salvaged a scrapbook of family photographs from a trash heap in Philadelphia. The black and white snapshots were tiny, with scalloped edges tucked into triangular photo corners. Flipping through the pages, I wondered about the middle-aged woman who looked–from her posture and position in the pictures–like the prosperous, never-married aunt of her extended family. Judging from the photos, I surmised the family had a house at the Jersey shore.The scrapbook was discarded in the clean-out of a Center City rowhouse.

The mid-century photos required an expensive camera and the processing of film–they long predated the digital, disposal age. Why didn’t this carefully compiled record of family history make the cut of mementos to be saved? Who decided to throw it away? Or were all the family members dead, making the album no longer relevant to any living person?

But I digress. Family photos is a topic for another day. Let me get back to the question at hand. Why did I buy the top hat?

Shall we pretend a higher intention?

Shall we say my top hat is an ironic allusion to the one-time strength of the American economy, a reference to rich Uncle Pennybags of the Monopoly game, or Uncle Sam? Could we say the hat now in my dining room is a token of respect for Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill? Or that I had a child’s inordinate love for Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat?

I could natter on about the construction of top hats, the various shapes, the fact that Worshipful Masters (who or whatever they are) are the only Freemasons entitled to wear a top hat. But there’s no escaping this fact: My top hat was an impulsive waste of money.

And for that reason, it’s gotta go!

Progress report: Yesterday I took the Sony TV in the basement–non-digital, not-even-flat-screen–to Goodwill, along with a bag of clothing.

Breaking Up (w/stuff) Is Hard To Do

Susan Caba
The Resale Evangelista

The silk dress I wore when I first fell in love no longer hangs at the back of my closet. I remember wearing it while riding with my man in his Jeep, top down (the Jeep’s, not mine), feeling sexy. The man is long gone but the dress lingered past its wear date.

It was a memento of a self as I yearned to be—or maybe was, and didn’t recognize. As my mother said at her 50th high school reunion, looking at old photographs of herself and friends: “If only we knew then how hot we were!”

There are 50-some pieces of clothing in my closet. When I travel, I take the same 10 pieces–and wear only five of those. Time to bundle some to Goodwill and take the good stuff to the resale shop. Yes, even my falling-in-love dress. Time to make room for new love.

Neil Sedaka’s song keeps running through my head: “Think of all that we’ve been through, breaking up is hard to do.”  As true for symbols of memories, sometimes, as for the memories, themselves.

I’ve made sporadic progress over the past year. I put my house on the market last summer, necessitating some serious downsizing. (Unfortunately, the house didn’t sell.) The glass-fronted doctor’s cabinet sold fast on Craig’s List. So did the Karastan rug in the dining room; I really liked it but, realistically, am I going to haul a 10-x-12-foot rug to Ecuador?

The garage and basement are still littered with “projects.” An antique dresser I meant to paint and embellish with new hardware. The chaise longue my mother gave me for my 16th birthday, which I  used when I nursed my son. The back legs were broken years ago in a move and I never had them fixed. A cool wooden screen door I salvaged from a condemned house.

 A Chinaman tchotchke

A Chinaman tchotchke

Oh, I’ve had garage sales. And the little stuff goes. But there’s always something left, usually the things I most wanted to be gone. Like the Bowflex my son left behind, a rickety desk and a perfectly good mahogany cabinet with a broken door that I found on the street. None attracted buyers at a garage sale last summer.

I decided those left-overs had to go, no matter what. But I wasn’t sure how to get the big items to Goodwill. Just then, a battered white van pulled in to the driveway.  An old man got out and asked about the Bowflex, which I’d priced at $70.

“Take it, it’s yours,” I told the man, impulsively.
“Free?” he asked.
“Free,” I repeated, with only a split-second of regret about the money.
“Lamont,” he said to his son, packing up the Bowflex, “I’m going to be 60 years old, but I got me a gym and I’m going to be young again!”

They took the broken cabinet and rickety desk, too. Sometimes the universe smiles.