Tammy Smith travels between clients in the Valley and those in Crozet and Charlottesville. She’s the owner of Tammy’s Cleaning and has had an intimate knowledge of their homes and garages for more than thirty years. She has stories: homes where closet doors can’t open because they’re blocked by discarded clothing; families who have given up cooking rather than clear space on their counters, sinks and stoves. She’s worked for people who can’t sit down for a meal because the table has layers of mail and magazines, for people unable to bathe because the bathtub is full of dirty clothes, and for folks shopping online only to add to the pile of unopened bags of clothing, cosmetics, shoes and other new products already filling their homes.
“And vanities,” she said: “There are houses where I don’t see how people can even brush their teeth because there are so many products in the way.”
To protect the privacy of her clients, Smith doesn’t want to be more specific. She tries to be understanding and work with them, dusting under piles and then putting them back, but knows some of her families need more help than she can give: “To my mind, if you keep buying things when you already have rooms filled with unopened bags and boxes of new stuff, you have a problem,” she said. These are extreme examples, she said, but many of her clients do own more things than they have room for, making cleaning very hard.
Over-consumption is not a new trend: we should have known something was up in the ’60s when the first self-storage units appeared in Texas; or in the ’70s when the container store opened in California, or in the ’80s, when the Home Shopping Network hit the airways.
Julie Marazita of Crozet’s Focus Organizing LLC, pointed out that there have been movements against clutter as well: Martha Stewart started promoting a spare, serene environment in the ’70s and “Real Simple” magazine began publishing in 2000. Later, there were sensational shows about hoarders and, more recently, the best-selling book by Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the Netflix series that followed. Both hit a nerve for millions, prompting massive de-cluttering.
However, “If this a national trend, my clients aren’t part of it,” Smith said.
Others in the Crozet area did take notice of the organizing guru. “Right around January (when the Netflix program began) people were dropping off tons of stuff,” said Deborah Ferreira, manager of the Green Olive Tree, Crozet’s venerable thrift shop. Ferreira said donors often mentioned the series as the impetus for their own surge of de-cluttering. Meanwhile donations have leveled off in recent months. Volunteer Andy Livaccari said some of the donors seem desperate: “I’ve been through bags where it looks as though someone just emptied out a drawer, trash, paper clips and all.” Dropping off unusable, broken or worn-out objects is not helpful to the shop, he said, but they try very hard to find a place for everything.
In urban areas, especially places where space is expensive, there’s a “minimalist” movement, where people choose to live with as few possessions as possible, sometimes as a reaction to overconsumption. There’s an environmental and economic angle to the movement, as well as a certain aesthetic. Marazita said she thinks people like to look at photos of near-empty cupboards on social media, but she doesn’t come across this in real life.
Long-time Crozet interior designer Sheilah Michaels confirmed this: “I don’t think this trend has hit the South,” she said. “People are concerned with their heritage here and don’t want to discard everything.” Michaels said she encourages people to use quality items that can be repaired or altered. “We can slipcover furniture and chairs, re-size drapes, cover pillows,” she said. “There’s no need for people to always be buying new furniture.”
Another area professional, Anya Shepelavey, of Abundance Organizing, said she has no requests for help in creating a minimalist environment: “We usually have enough space here.” But she is well-acquainted with the tsunami of excess goods now flooding the secondhand market after the Tidying Up phenomenon. She noted the March move of Charlottesville’s Goodwill Store into a 15,000 square-foot facility. “I think they’re overwhelmed,” she said.
Sometimes clutter is not a result of too much shopping: Marazita comes across families who lack logical systems, daily routines that keep their homes in order. She said that courses offered by the National Association of Productivity and Organization Professionals (NAPO) train organizers to understand that not it’s not easy for everyone to arrange their homes so they work efficiently.
And things change, she said: “My mother had everything arranged so it was easy for her to cook, but recently she noticed that it was hard for her when my father joined her in the kitchen, so we rearranged things.” As a professional organizer, Marazita said she also examines barriers to productivity. “Often, an organized home and increased productivity overlap,” she said. For example, she was determined not to be the only one in her home who could find things like batteries or screwdrivers, so she worked with her husband and two sons to make sure they knew there was a home for everything, and that items were returned there after use. “This is great for anyone who is tired of hearing, ‘Mom, Mom!’ whenever anyone needs anything.”
Most of Marazita’s clients at present are people moving here or changing homes within the area who are unsure how to efficiently empty their home or set up a new one.
If you have excess furniture, where to put it? Older people earnestly trying to downsize from an appropriate amount of possessions are finding themselves without many options. “This is so hard for people getting ready to move here or any retirement community,” said Beth Barber, the marketing director for The Lodge at Old Trail. “Much of what they own once belonged to someone they loved, or has loving memories from their child-raising years.” In the past, the solution was to pass them on to children or grandchildren just starting out, but today’s family heirlooms are more likely to become homeless.
It’s a national––maybe an international—phenomenon. Barber said: “An auctioneer told me that millennials just don’t want their parents’ ‘brown furniture.’” Also unwanted are items that need the loving care of a full-time housekeeper, like brass or silver that needs polishing, linens that need pressing or crystal that needs to be hand-washed.
It’s true, said Patty Roberts of Crozet Antiques. “I have to tell people that I just can’t take any furniture or household goods, although I do try to give them some resources for selling theirs.” Roberts said she finds many young buyers to be very discerning, though: “They may not want a dining room set or upholstered furniture, but they’ll spot a perfect storage piece or whimsical table and add it to their more modern rooms.” She has a specialty in clocks, and notes the graphic art work of old clock faces fits well with almost any style. People are looking for nostalgia, she said, and something unusual with good workmanship expresses that better than a room full of heavy, mass-produced pieces.
Professional organizers also help with downsizing, and Barber said she often refers potential residents. Abundance Organizing works with Lodge clients, and one of the founders, Sara Bereika, talked about her path to this fairly new profession. Bereika embraced logical systems and organization from a young age, but even with a natural predisposition for order and clarity, the certification requires rigorous training. “And even this is not enough,” Bereika said. “Your own skills don’t mean much if you can’t work compassionately and tactfully with people who may be making a challenging transition.” She observed that people downsizing are often doing so because of a painful circumstance, such as the death of a spouse, or the loss of independence.
Marazita agrees that understanding and compassion are important parts of the job, whether it be de-cluttering or downsizing: “Professional Organizers who are members of NAPO adhere to a code of ethics,” she said. “No one should be embarrassed by their disorganization or their clutter.” Professional organizers also keep clients’ names and specifics confidential.
Shepelavey, who works with Bereika, says she likes the team approach for downsizing used by her colleagues at Abundance. “We’ll make an initial phone consultation, then come up with a plan,” she said. If it’s someone moving to a smaller place, they’ll help clients decide what to keep, arrange for family to select mementos, pack up the appropriate belongings for the move, and select remaining items for online auction. Since they’re working as a team, the team leader can make sure someone is there to address the concerns of the clients as well as the nuts and bolts of the move.
Shepelavey said her team works hard to find homes for furniture, employing a hauler to take pieces either to a consignment store or a donation site. She notes this requires a lot of advance planning and on-site supervision by the organizing team, both to acquaint the consignment store with the nature of the furniture, and to make sure the pick-up goes smoothly. When her team organizes online auctions, they’re on site when the buyers pick up their purchases on the day scheduled.
For those without a great deal to sell, she recommends Cannon’s Online Auctions in Richmond (www.cannonsauctions.com) or advertising on Craigslist, Letgo, Facebook, Nextdoor, or having a real-life yard sale.
In the case of de-cluttering, the best system is the one that works in each individual circumstance. Bereika notes that if someone truly has a hoarding disorder, professional organizers make sure a counselor is involved. Most cases are not so drastic. Bereika noted that people are increasingly busy, often having both parents and children who need care. She said she’s found that with never-ending exposure to advertising, shopping has come to be a form of recreation for those who are bored, lonely, or feel isolated. And sometimes, she said, the chaos that results leads to bickering among family members. “It’s even more important in today’s world to have one place where you can find peace,” she said.
Robert Hodge, the host of White Hall Meditation, agrees that outward calm helps with inner contentment. He also has something to say about consumption as a hobby: “The cycle of endless wanting is something we all need to guard against. It’s like there’s a chronic sense of dissatisfaction always in the background. Letting go of that is a step towards a more peaceful state.”