Notes from the Field

  • by Ken Ames
  • September 15, 2014


According to its “Traffic Report” for August 30, 2014 (p. B2), the most-read online business article in the New York Times for the preceding week was “Retiring: Moving to a Smaller Home, and Decluttering a Lifetime of Belongings.” What the title of that article lacked in poetry it more than made up in its succinct description of a major transformation taking place within American society today. Three words—retiring, moving, and decluttering—capture the essence of the phenomenon. We may assume, as has been the case with so many other sweeping social changes, that these too will bring profit to some and loss to others.

And that brings me to a recent pair of experiences on a sunny Sunday afternoon in beautiful Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The first part of this tale of two industries begins at an antique shop we have frequented on and off over the last few years. As we approached on this particular day, we could see the conventional “open” banner hanging along the roadside. Surely a good sign. But, we wondered, would there be parking? We found out soon enough. Yes, many parking spaces available. All of them, in fact. Our entrance into this multi-dealer shop tripled the number of occupants in the building to a total of three, one of whom was the proprietor. 

We offered a few pleasantries about nice weather and our surprise at the low turnout and were treated to a lengthy and heated oration from the proprietor on the status of the antiques business and more. He had been selling antiques at that location for five years. Each year had been successively worse and this was the worst of all. And it wasn’t just the antiques trade that was in decline. Everything that the Baby Boomers had once sustained was now in trouble. Golf was suffering, boating too. The slips used to be all rented out but now half are empty, and so on and so forth.

Wandering around the shop we saw only one other browser, who had come in after we did. We also saw empty booths, goods deep-discounted, and a general air of abandonment. The whole place, once lively and full of attractive objects, had become pretty depressing. The experience at the antique shop stood in marked contrast to a very different experience earlier in the afternoon, when we lined up with scores of others waiting to visit an “open house” of model apartments in a new “independent living” complex for active seniors (so, not a nursing home) in a small city nearby. This four-story, multi-wing building offered studio, one-bedroom, and two bedroom apartments as well as shared studios and suites, about 125 units in all. Apartment rental fee included utilities, two meals a day, weekly housekeeping, local shuttle service, and more. The flashy brochure listed a host of additional amenities, among them on-site rehab facilities, laboratory services, a health center, hair-dressing and barber services, a library; a computer lab, and a dozen other features. All brand new and very seductive. 

The apartments won’t even be ready for occupancy until well into the fall but the open house was mobbed. Did I mention that? And unless the stars scattered across the prominently-posted floor plans were lying, a substantial number of apartments had already been reserved. Hint to those seeking investment opportunities: Pay attention.  There may be profit to be made here. But, obviously, some are already onto it. 

So as one industry slowly sinks below the horizon, another rises in its place. And that brings us back to the three key words in the NYT article: retiring, moving, and decluttering. Retiring, of course, is the prime agent here, along with longer life expectancy.  Downsizing comes next, although the practice is not universal. There are those who, for one reason or another, intend to hang on in the old house until the end. And some do. Occasionally it works out well, other times decidedly not. Some of those planning to hang on have a conversion experience of sorts when visiting a place like the one described above. While family or friends may have to drag them there, they soon recognize that life could be so much easier, so much more pleasant, without the weight of maintaining the big, old, and often multi-story story house pressing down on them. 

Then there is decluttering. I notice that my word processing system, admittedly out of date, underlines the word in red, which means it is a neologism of sorts. The term also represents a reassessment of goods that were previously defined otherwise. My aged copy of Webster (1975) defines clutter (in noun form) as “a crowded or confused mass or collection” and “litter, disorder.” That was pretty much the way Elsie de Wolfe understood the term back in 1913, when she published The House in Good Taste.  And what one did with clutter was clear it out. 

But clutter is such a harsh redefinition of what the NYT title describes as “a lifetime of belongings.” What strange alchemy is it that transforms treasured possessions into just so much dross? ‘Tis the alchemy of age, my friends, and the law that changing positions prompt changing perspectives. But questions do arise. If, for instance, there is downsizing, is there also upsizing? We see mega-mansions rising wherever there is money. Don’t these need furnishing? And how about cluttering in the first place or, to put it more favorably and the way it was once understood, creating nurturing domestic material environments and accumulating tangible records of lives lived? Are those ideas still operative?

The young (or the younger) now have as couple of possibilities ahead of them. Assuming that they have disposable income, this is a wonderful time to be buying. You want to acquire antiques? Go out into the marketplace and have a look around. You may be surprised by what is out there and, often, how little you have to pay. On the other hand, a long line of studies has repeatedly shown that experiences far outweigh goods in their ability to generate happiness. So what to do? Spend one’s life buying it all and then, in one’s senescence, liquidating? Or, by contrast, by-passing the cycle altogether and from the outset crafting a life thick in experiences but thin in goods? Ah, as someone once said, that is the question. . . .


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.



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