Downsizing by Half
Our pre-Paris decluttering and downsizing project
When we move to Paris this summer, we’ll each be allowed to take a certain number of pounds of goods with us that will arrive the same week that we do. Those pounds will add up fast, and will consist almost entirely of clothes, shoes, starter essentials like toothbrushes and (for me) lipstick (obviously!), as well as laptops and other small electronics. A separate shipment will contain furniture, but it will take about a month to arrive, so we’ll be living out of a furniture “starter kit” for our first month in Paris. (If you’re imagining shiny new items from the ever-practical Ikea for the starter kit, think again. It’s more like old stuff from your Uncle Harry’s attic that wasn’t that great when he bought it in the seventies and hasn’t improved with age).
Cutting our possessions by (at least) half
In 2009, we moved from a 1200 square foot house in San Francisco to a much bigger house on the Peninsula. Somehow, in the intervening years, our stuff has expanded to take up the whole house, as stuff does. In Paris, we’ll be downsizing again, probably to a flat about the same size as the house we moved from, or smaller. That means that about half of our furniture can’t go with us. Books will have to stay behind too.
I suppose the obvious quick fix would be storage, but there’s really nothing quick about storage. You have to find and rent the place, organize your things, move them, and then move everything back at a later date. I’ve always been opposed to the idea of long-term storage. It just seems like a lot of trouble and expense, unless you’re sitting on a lot of fancy antiques and family heirlooms you can’t part with (we’re not).
Ever since we decided to move, I’ve been slowly chipping away at the stuff. I’ve sold books, donated a few dozen items of clothing, given some of my son’s favorite old toys to my nephew, sold a couple of items of furniture, donated the fryer we used exactly once (I can’t imagine what possessed me to buy a fryer), the crock pot I used only a handful of times, a couple of coffee makers, and some other dishes and kitchenware. But beginning January 1, I’m in it for real. I’ve joined the Apartment Therapy January Cure, as I do every year, although in the past I’ve never made it all the way through January. The January Cure is more than a decluttering project; it’s also a home improvement and healthier living project, which involves doing all the little things you’ve let slide, like patching the paint on your kid’s bedroom wall, fixing the loose board on the stairs, and reviving your dead plants.
I’ve also just purchased Soulful Simplicity: How Living With Less Can Lead to So Much More, by Courtney Carver. I read Carver’s Simple Ways to Be More With Less some time ago, and I find her blog, Be More With Less, super inspiring, so I was excited when I discovered she had a new book out. (“But decluttering is about getting rid of things, not acquiring things!” you say. That’s why I purchased Carver’s book for my iPad. I prefer physical books, but at this moment in my life, I’ll have to buy physical books only as gifts until the move, after which I very much look forward to exploring Paris bookstores and starting my new collection there!
This brings me to my initial three-pronged downsizing project, which begins with…
Paris Declutter Part 1: Books
My husband and I are both readers, and I make a living as a writer, so we have a lot of books. They fill every bookshelf and are piled in corners of the house, on the floor, on my bedside table, pretty much everywhere. Two storage rooms downstairs are partially given over to books. My office has a wall of built-in shelves, and we have built-in shelving in the living room too, not to mention a wide fireplace mantle in the family room that is home to about a hundred books. There are books in plastic bins in the unfinished area under the house. We don’t do that thing they recommend in design magazines, whereby your bookshelves “breathe” and have white space and are home to small, exquisite objects. Our bookshelves are jam packed. I LOVE my books. I return to them often. When I don’t know what to read, I just browse my shelves. My father-in-law also loves browsing our shelves and always finds something to take home with him to read. But we can’t possibly keep all our books. Something has to give.
I’ve been slowly chipping away at the piles during the past couple of months. Last week, for example, I filled a box with books and took them to Green Apple Books, where I was happy to receive $39 of store credit (which will make a nice gift for someone). I’ve also sold some of my books online, but from here on out I’m going the bulk sales way to my favorite bookstores. I’ll keep any book that was personally inscribed to one of us, and a few of my son’s first books, plus my husband’s collection of Willard and His Bowling Trophies. In our last move, I kept all of the books written by my friends, but that is no longer a viable option. So many well-lived books will be sold to local bookstores or donated to the library.
That just leaves us with the matter of my own books. I have a couple of copies of most of the translated editions of all of my books, as well as extra copies of US editions that I have in stock to take to events. I also have copies of books published by my literary micro press, Fiction Attic. This category — my books and Fiction Attic titles — adds up to a few hundred books. I can’t take them with me, and I can’t store them, which means I’ll be having some sort of big sale soon.
Paris Declutter Part 2: Saying Goodbye to Clothes, Shoes, and Bags
I confess, I have a sentimental attachment to my clothes. I still have the lime green dress I wore to my nieces’ christening at their church in Noe Valley (one is in graduate school, and one has already finished graduate school), the dress I was wearing when I met my husband 23 years ago, a dress I wore while backpacking through Europe in the 90s (can you see I have a thing for dresses?). My clothes remind me of my life with the people I love. I know, of course, that the clothes don’t hold the memories. In my defense, for many of the momentous things in my younger life, like my travels through China and my first year dating my husband, there are very few photos, because it was pre-digital, so those dresses are like my mental snapshot. Time to let them go!
We’ve also kept many of my son’s baby clothes and baby shoes, his first baseball jersey, those sorts of things. I’ll whittle these down and keep a few. Every time I see them, they bring me joy, and there’s no reason to dispose of sentimental items that take up very little space compared to the amount of joy they bring.
In addition to the sentimental clothes, I go through periods when I “reward” myself by browsing online sale sites like Gilt, or those incredibly enticing Kate Spade sales. When I have a new book tour coming up, or when I’m interviewing a noted author on stage in front of a large crowd, I tell myself it’s a good time to buy new clothes. (Thus the gray dress for the Paul Auster interview, the mesh skirt for the Kate Mulgrew interview, the new sweater for the Joyce Carol Oates interview, etc). Online shopping, no matter how deep the discount, is not a very productive way to spend one’s time, as Ann Patchett notes in her essay for The New York Times, My Year of No Shopping.
Well, something has to be done about the clothes. By habit I fill a bag with donations about once a month, but that’s not going to cut it for the Paris move. Now, when I look at my closet, I think, “Would I wear this in Paris?” It’s a much tougher standard than the one I usually apply, which goes something like, “Does this have holes in it?”
I’ve set up accounts at Poshmark and Tradesy to sell new-with-tags items (yes, it’s a shame, but there are a few of those — dresses that seemed like a “great deal” at the time but never did meet the right occasion, shoes that were too narrow or high to keep but too pretty to return within the return window), as well as dresses that I bought for a certain occasion, thinking they’d become staples, and wore only once or twice. And there are the aspirational clothes — those I bought to wear when I’m ten pounds lighter. If they don’t fit, they go.
Also, flats. Everyone says you need flats, so I’ve bought them but I just have to accept that I am not a flats person. I never wear them because I am short and I really enjoy that extra inch or two! Unfortunately, I’ve also bought some four-inch heels I can’t walk in, which I’m also selling. Shop my closet on Poshmark.
The no-buy vow: And as I start whittling down my wardrobe, I’m committed to not buying any new clothes or shoes, with the exception of a pair of athletic shoes (mine are several years old and worn out), for the next six months. (Of course, my kid hits a growth spurt every five minutes, so I’ll continue buying clothes and shoes for him).
Paris Declutter Part 3: Downsizing our Furniture
We have mahogany dressers that we bought for our first house in Daly City, nearly 20 years ago, that worked well in our Marina style home in San Francisco. We’ve never used them in our current house, because they don’t fit the midcentury modern style, but I’ve been reluctant to sell them or give them away because I bought them with money left to me by my maternal grandmother. She was extremely hardworking and extremely frugal, so I felt that I should honor the small sum she left to me — which is why I used it to purchase solid items that I could keep for a long time. But I imagine one of the major reasons people hang on to items that have outlived their use is that we feel guilty for disposing of things that come to us in this way — from family, friends, or other sentimental means. I know I have to get over that, especially when the items in question are large. Which means I’ll keep the metal colander and cast iron pan from my paternal grandmother’s kitchen — which we use several times a week — but won’t keep the dressers. Fortunately, the dressers will find a home with my sister in Napa. There were a couple of other furniture items they were able to put to good use as well.
We’ll ship our beds, dining table, and dining chairs to Paris, but that still leaves a good bit of furniture to dispatch with. (Update: due to new tax rules that require employees to pay enormous taxes on moving expenses, we might not take any furniture or books with us at all, so this whole downsizing thing just got a lot more complicated). We’ve been storing the teak dining table we bought for our San Francisco house down in our unfinished basement, thinking we’d use it one day. We also have accumulated chairs, desks, the aforementioned bookshelves, side tables, and coffee tables that won’t fit our new home. When we moved to San Francisco from New York City in 1999, we bought a cozy reading chair to go beside the window in our Castro apartment. That chair (pictured above) and the bed frame and mattresses we bought at the same time were the first major furniture purchases my husband and I made together. The chair was on sale at Macy’s for $350, which was a huge sum to us at the time. We still use the chair, which is still insanely comfortable, as well as the bed, which is in our guest room. Both are big, and both will probably have to go. 18 years is a good life for a piece of furniture, especially when you consider that these items will continue to have a life beyond us, in someone else’s home.
The Habitat for Humanity ReStore is a terrific place to donate furniture in good condition, and all proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.
Why the 3-progned approach:
There will be plenty of other parts to this downsizing project, for sure. But I’ve started with books, furniture, and clothes because these are my albatross (or my albatross trio), and, taken together, they’ll have a huge effect on downsizing in terms of volume.
What are you decluttering for 2018? Where are you starting? What’s your albatross? Please share in the comments!
A few great resources for your own 2018 declutter:
6 Decluttering Projects You Can Do in 10 Minutes, by Clean Mama
The 2018 Decluttering Challenge, by Nourishing Minimalism
Be More With Less, Courtney Carver’s blog
Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life, by Peter Walsh