The Year of Purchasing and Purging

The pandemic spurred people to buy. It also compelled them to shed their belongings and their old identities.


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For more than 13 years, the molds that Roland Mesnier used to fashion frozen desserts for heads of state, celebrities and the first family of the United States sat in his basement.

After Mr. Mesnier retired as the White House pastry chef in 2004, he began taking his roughly 300 dessert molds to his home in Fairfax, Va., where he stacked them neatly away and put them out of his mind.

Then the pandemic struck. With no end in sight to the lockdown, Mr. Mesnier began to contemplate the future of the molds he had lovingly collected through five administrations, starting with President Jimmy Carter’s.

“I am kind of a sentimental man, don’t get me wrong,” he said in a recent interview. “They were my babies.”

But keeping them, Mr. Mesnier said, felt a bit pointless.

“I’m not that happy to let them go, but what am I going to do with them?” he said.

In September, the molds will be auctioned off, including a delicate one shaped like a dove that Mr. Mesnier said he had used to make an ice cream dessert for the 1993 lunch President Bill Clinton hosted to negotiate the Oslo Accord between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Mesnier is one of many clients who were spurred by the pandemic to rethink belongings that once felt impossible to sell, said Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein, owner and chief executive of the Potomack Company in Alexandria, Va. The number of clients who want to auction items increased 25 percent in 2020 and 2021, compared with 2019 levels.

“The pandemic just put the normal purge cycle on steroids for people,” Ms. Wainstein said.

The months spent in lockdown compelled people to reconsider their careers, where they live, and whether they should remain married. The time at home also caused them to scrutinize what was in their homes, especially after months of stocking up too eagerly on electronics, toilet paper and even suits.

In May and June of last year, 1-800-Got-Junk reported a 10 percent increase in the number of customers who the company said were using the service to declutter compared with the same time period in 2019.

Recently, a person called to get rid of half of a Porsche that had been converted into a grill, according to the company.


Items left at a Goodwill location in Westbrook, Maine.Credit…Heather Steeves/Goodwill Northern New England, via Associated Press

In May, Goodwill asked people to stop using its donation centers for waste disposal after the organization was overwhelmed by cartons and bags of broken toasters, old batteries and dolls with missing limbs.

According to Robert J. Foster, a professor of anthropology and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, many piles of clutter can be directly attributed to the human need for artistic expression. People want to create art that reflects how they see the world and themselves, but in our modern society, most people do not have jobs that allow for self-expression, Professor Foster said.

“We’re not all artists or artisans of some kind, so that work in a consumer society gets done by buying,” he said.

The pandemic increased our need for self-expression and, in turn, our spending habits, Professor Foster said.

Later, it forced people to re-examine how their belongings reflected their identities, said Andrew R. Jones, a professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno.

“If they can’t show off their possessions, do those possessions have any other value than to be shown off?” he said. “The pandemic may represent an opportunity for some people to reinvent themselves — to form a new identity.”

Jess Tran, a marketing consultant and vintage clothing dealer in Brooklyn, said she had gotten carried away acquiring new tchotchkes while she was in isolation.

She found a shrink-wrapped VHS copy of “Dirty Dancing” on the street and decided it had to be hers. She bought an outdoor lounge chair and spent the weeks leading up to the presidential election redoing her entire living room to fit the new piece.


Jess Tran, a marketing consultant who got carried away acquiring new tchotchkes while she was in isolation, is now purging her Brooklyn apartment.Credit…Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

“It was a direct stress response,” Ms. Tran, 28, said. Then she became determined to own an antique mirror she had found on an auction site.

She had planned to spend no more than $300, but she got swept away when another bidder began competing with her. She bid $900 and won. After fees and shipping, the purchase came out to $1,400.

“This mirror became a manifestation of this person I wanted to be,” Ms. Tran said.

She kept the mirror and the lounge chair, but she gave the VHS tape away, as well as many pieces of clothing that she said no longer reflected whom she had become.

“I don’t want to continue to be the same person I was prepandemic,” she said. “I was, like, running around like a chicken with its head cut off, seeking validation from people I didn’t care about, going to places I didn’t care about.”

Scott Roewer, a professional organizer who founded the Organizing Agency in Washington, said business was “extremely dead” last year.

But his organization began getting more calls in May and June from people wanting him to come into their homes and reassess everything they had bought during the pandemic: high-heeled shoes, designer handbags, cocktail dresses that had never been worn.

One client “was kind of living this fantasy,” Mr. Roewer said. She had bought $1,000 outfits that still had the tags on them a year later. Another client — an “impeccably dressed” lawyer in a high-end law firm who decided to start his own, more casual law firm — traded in tailored suits for baseball hats and sweats.

Mr. Roewer uses neighborhood email lists as well as platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook Marketplace to help clients declutter. He also encourages clients to pay a $25 appraisal fee to auction houses and sites that might be interested in selling their belongings.

Mr. Roewer said the vast quantities of stuff he has seen people accumulate “tears me up a little.”

“The amount of waste is obscene,” he said. “If we could all just buy a little less and repair something when it’s broken instead of replacing it, we would have a lot less trash.”

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