Pandemic decluttering

Andrea Burnett stands for a portrait in her office near Richmond, Calif, Sept 13, 2021. Burnett decluttered her office with the help of professional organiser, Liza Algar. The process inspired her to do the same at home. (Jason Henry/The New York Times)
Lizbeth Meredith never considered herself a hoarder. Perish the thought this minute.

But with the arrival of the coronavirus last year, Meredith, a fledgling podcaster who was about to retire from her job as a probation supervisor, began working from home, a three-bedroom town house in Anchorage, Alaska.

“I needed a space for my computer that would also work as a recording studio, a place where I could get things done and not have distractions,” said Meredith, 57, who finally settled on a large closet. But then she took a look inside: “Wow. It was amazing what I had stacked up.”

There, in the tottering piles, she found, among other things, a love letter from the first boy she kissed in junior high and lots of cute childhood photos of her two daughters, now in their 30s, but also many, many copies of the same cute photos. She excavated her daughters’ elementary school report cards — and also her own elementary school report cards.

“No one is going to ask me how I did in second grade,” Meredith said. “I had all these things I didn’t need.”

Those ancient science and social studies evaluations are now history, along with lots of clothing, toys, pieces of art, fancy silverware, kitchen chairs, portable grills, a bafflingly large number of hot dog skewers — Meredith does not even like hot dogs — and several ottomans. “I don’t need to put my feet up every time I sit down,” she said.

COVID-19 sent the nation into lockdown. Stuck within their own four walls, people began pondering such existential questions as, “Why do I have seven Pyrex loaf pans?” and, “What are the odds that I’ll ever get into those size 2 jeans again?” Like Meredith, they frequently found relief, if not necessarily answers, in a Swedish death cleanse — perhaps more to the point, in a bored-to-death cleanse.

But for many, decluttering was a practical necessity. Suddenly, home was no longer simply haven and shelter. It was also an office (sometimes multiple offices), a school, perhaps even a gym — requiring extra equipment and furniture, a rethinking and reapportioning of space. To accommodate those changes, something had to give, and a lot had to go.

Jodi RR Smith’s snug three-bedroom colonial in Boston was not really designed to hold two remote-learning college students and two working-from-home parents. But that was the situation her family faced last year when the pandemic hit.

“At dinner, a week after we got our kids from their college campuses, I said, ‘If we’re all going to be here, we have to figure out how to run our days and where we’re all going to be. We have to get rid of things in order to find work spaces,’” said Smith, an etiquette expert, who told her children to devote an hour each day to culling their possessions. Castoffs were put in the hall, some to be sold, some donated, some recycled.

Extraneous furniture was the first casualty, followed by sports equipment, to enable Smith’s husband, Douglas, a computer consultant, to carve out an office — really just a folding table and a chair — in an unfinished section of the basement. More items had to go when another corner of the basement became Zoom HQ for Smith. A partial list of the disappeared: sleds, a sticker collection, books, an unused beach umbrella, balloon animals, holiday ornaments, a full-sized American flag and a complete set of English china.

“We tend not to like to have a lot of stuff,” Smith said. “But some family members died unexpectedly in 2018, and we were getting boxes of things that we weren’t emotionally ready to deal with, so things got tucked away in the attic crawl space and in corners of the basement.”

As the pandemic took hold, “we were coming out of mourning,” Smith said. “And we could open those boxes and figure out what we wanted to keep and what we could get rid of.”

“The pandemic forced people to look at their stuff. They were overwhelmed by their stuff, and they took the opportunity to cleanse,” said Matt Paxton, a downsizing and decluttering expert whose Emmy-nominated PBS series “Legacy List with Matt Paxton” begins its third season in January.

“We saw this from young families to seniors who had been putting it off for years,” he said. “There’s been a big rush to simplify.”

It is a story told partly in tonnage. The amount of refuse (as distinct from recyclables) New York City’s Department of Sanitation collected from July through September 2020 was up roughly 9 percent from the same period in 2019. “We definitely saw a change in behavior. There were more bulky items in the residential curbside set-outs, people putting out more sofas and armoires,” said Edward Grayson, the city’s sanitation commissioner.

Consignment and not-for-profit thrift shops have, similarly, been on the front line of pandemic purges. “Everyone has been overloaded with incoming merchandise,” said Adele Meyer, executive director of NARTS: The Association of Resale Professionals. “This is an experience our industry hasn’t gone through before.”

Recessions tend to increase the number of customers, Meyer said, but “what the pandemic has brought out is a surge of suppliers.”

Salvation Army stores were closed for a dozen or so weeks at the height of the pandemic, but “people would still leave things in our drop boxes, and when the boxes were full, they would leave things outside at the back of our stores. We were getting double what we usually get,” said Van Wirth, administrator of business and operation for the Salvation Army’s adult rehabilitation center in northeast Ohio.

Jessica Duneman, director of retail operations at The Resale Shop, a St. Louis thrift store operated by the National Council of Jewish Women, saw much the same thing. “We had our regulars donating and strangers donating,” Duneman said. “People were looking for anywhere they could unload.” At one point, she said, there were 11 storage units in the store’s parking lot to handle the overflow — dishes, kitchen gadgets “and clothing galore.”

The quality of resale items jumped along with the quantity, allowing consignment shops, such as One More Time (clothing) and One More Time Etc (furniture) in Columbus, Ohio, to be more selective, said Chris Swanson, the store’s owner. It has been a similar story with donations to the Thrift Store in Rapid City, South Dakota. “They’re much better than what we usually see,” said Jeanni Gossard, the manager of the shop that benefits the Club for Boys, also in Rapid City. “During the pandemic, people had more time to pay attention to what they were giving us.”

Those who initially had modest decluttering plans — cleaning out a single closet, perhaps, or the junk drawer in the kitchen — soon became ensorcelled.

“I really got into it,” said Andrea Burnett, 58, a book publicist who lives with her family in a three-bedroom house in Richmond, California. “Because there was nothing else to do, I was watching ‘The Home Edit,’” Burnett said, referring to the Netflix series “Get Organized with the Home Edit.” “Everything streaming that I could watch on the topic became my declutter porn.”

“Do I need this?” became the question Burnett mentally asked herself about nearly everything in the house. Few objects could justify their presence. Clothing, appliances, china, lamps, furniture and art supplies were donated to the Humane Society and a local women’s shelter. “The only things that were safe,” Burnett said, “were the French press and my bed.”

For some, decluttering provided a nice little source of income in straitened times. When Lisa Wells was furloughed from her job as a publicist during the pandemic, she finally had time to take a long, hard look at the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband, Jonathan, in New York.

“I started at one end and made my way across,” she said. “There didn’t seem to be any end to the stuff I had squirreled away.”

There was plenty of stuff to donate — T-shirts and exercise clothes — and a Goodwill drop box located right in her building made it a breeze. But Wells, 59, also discovered that there was gold in the boxes stashed under the bed and on shelves, gold in the double-hung clothes.

She has sold purses and shoes, including a Longchamps bag and Ferragamo flats, on e-commerce sites such as Tradesy and Poshmark. Other lucrative items include a bracelet, a necklace, a tennis backpack that once belonged to her son, a Wedgewood teapot and a Limoges teapot. “It’s a great diversion,” Wells said. “I don’t have any hobbies, so this is my hobby. I’ve made a decent amount of money, and I have a little bit more space in my closets now.”

Remorse? Regrets? No and no, said Lisa Carnett, a special education teacher who began decluttering her three-bedroom town house when her school district went remote. “I realized I didn’t have as much space as I thought,” said Carnett, 27, who six months ago had a baby and became a stay-at-home parent and motherhood/lifestyle blogger at Lisacarnett.com.

“I started to get rid of memorabilia, and people in my family said, ‘Keep your gymnastic and cross-country trophies because your son will want to look at them someday,’” Carnett said. “And I thought, ‘When did I EVER look at my parents’ trophies?’”

Any items she thought she might regret giving away were duly photographed. She has 15 such snapshots on her iPhone, including a close-up of a Christmas stocking from her childhood. “That stocking was dirty and dingy, and I wouldn’t have ever given it to my son,” Carnett said. “So I threw it in the trash right after I took the photo. It felt great.”

Those who went full-on Marie Kondo during the pandemic say they have gained more than extra closet space. “I feel much calmer in my house,” Smith said. “Every little thing that you have takes some type of attention, and when you pare down to the things you really like and use, there are fewer things occupying your focus.”

Now, to offer just one example, she can easily find that novel she has been looking for because books are no longer three or four deep on her shelves.

For Carnett, clutter vigilance has become a lifestyle. “Before, every part of my house was filled with things. Now I have closets that don’t have anything in them, and I want to keep them empty as long as possible.”

Others are taking a little break. Although Wells recently got clearance from her 23-year-old son to get rid of his childhood possessions — “He told me, ‘Mom, go for it.’” — she is feeling a tad sentimental.

“I still have a big ‘Build-A-Bear’ collection that is overwhelming me,” she said. “Maybe I’ll do something about it this winter.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company