Too Much Stuff

How to get rid of everything you don’t want.

(page 1 of 13)

Illustration by Tim Williams

After living in the same Bethesda home for the past 50 years, Carol Bowis had an overwhelming feeling that many people experience these days. She had too much stuff. 

Bowis used to own One Step Up, a consignment store for crafters in Bethesda. Now she’s putting that retail know-how to good use as she looks to downsize. Last fall she started renting space in Kensington’s Antique Row to sell her furniture, art and housewares. 

Carol Bowis decided she had so much stuff that she opened a shop in Kensington’s Antique Row. Photo by Stephen Walker

“It’s given me a lot of joy,” she says about her stall. “The things I’ve sold are totally useful. They’ve got a brand-new home, and someone will appreciate them.”

We’re drowning in stuff, and the burden of overloaded closets, basements, attics and offices is overwhelming and exhausting us. While baby boomers are downsizing—moving out of large houses and into condos, small ranch homes or senior living apartments—millennials are driving the green movement to reuse and recycle. 

We’ve assembled a handy guide to getting rid of furniture, clothes, sports equipment, books, toys, bikes, medical equipment and office supplies—and to discovering deals and treasures that were once someone else’s beloved possessions. 

Reddz Trading employees Kelli Cramer (left) and Maggie Eguià inspect a consignor’s boots. Photo by Sarah Hogue

There’s so much secondhand merchandise and interest in donating that several new franchised thrift and consignment stores have spread throughout the country. Many of these clothing and furniture boutiques look a lot like stores selling new goods. The stigma about buying someone else’s stuff has nearly vanished, with shoppers happily sharing their finds on Instagram with haul videos and photos. 

“Thrifting allows you to buy up,” says former Washington Post reporter Annie Groer, who was raised in Silver Spring and makes regular runs to Unique Thrift on Veirs Mill Road. She once spent 60 cents on a teal sheath and jacket she wore to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “All the best stuff I own comes from resale,” she says.

The locals who run consignment shops and thrift stores, and who work for charities that accept donations of clothes, books and furniture, are experiencing boom times. They’re handling an avalanche of high-quality merchandise from our affluent and generous neighbors. Many clothing items still have original sales tags. Younger consumers are discovering resale shops, attracted by the famous clothing labels they can’t afford to buy new. For many, secondhand no longer means second best.

It’s a golden time to be a resale buyer—but not so much for downsizers trying to sell or consign their things. The overload of available merchandise is causing consignment shops to be extra picky, causing hurt feelings when beloved items get rejected. There’s also a mismatch between buyers and sellers. “There’s no resale value for so much of our parents’ stuff,” says organizer Cindy Szparaga of Orchestrated Moves in Bethesda. “No one wants the teacup collections, the china, crystal, needlepoint chairs and Oriental rugs. This generation doesn’t want to be tied down with big brown furniture.”

The glut of excess stuff is so large locally that there can be two-week waits for appointments to sell clothes to consignment shops, and four-week waits for some charity trucks to visit houses and haul away furniture. Catherine Meloy, CEO of Goodwill of Greater Washington, says its stores are now inundated with furniture. Local consignment stores are turning away items due to a lack of space. Estate sale companies are declining to take on new households.

“We had to start making appointments because every August we’d get killed by every girl who went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase or Walter Johnson [high schools] coming in with laundry baskets [of clothing] before they left for college,” says Derek Kennedy, owner of Remix Recycling Co. in Bethesda (formerly Mustard Seed). He’s been in the clothing consignment business since 1991 and has never seen so much merchandise come to his store. He schedules 20 appointments daily and could easily fill 10 more slots. “We’re a disposable society. People come in to sell so they can buy more.”

Warren Wigutow of Second Story Books in Rockville visits up to three area homes daily to determine the value of private book collections. He regularly sees hoarding situations. “I’ve seen places where a person bought every book on one subject, let’s say railroads, with many, many thousands of books filling rooms, closets and kitchen cabinets. Or someone hit every library sale, every flea market and has stacks of books piled in every conceivable place.”

Helping this migration of goods are entirely new industries that assist people with getting rid of clutter. Nationwide companies, like Address Our Mess, help with clutter and hoarding, offering “no judgment” employees and plain trucks that don’t announce their purpose. Professional organizers, working in small firms or through TaskRabbit or Craigslist, are prospering in Montgomery County. 

Betsy Fein (left) and Julie Carringer of Clutterbusters!! organize a client’s Rockville garage. Photo by Stephen Walker

Betsy Fein, president of Clutterbusters!!, a Rockville organizing firm, has a team of 12 professional organizers that has been tackling home and office messes since 2002. Its more recent sister company is called Hoarderbusters. “Some people drink. Some people eat. Others become hoarders,” Fein says. “There are definitely shopping addicts with brand-new things stuffed in closets, but stacks of paper are the biggest issue. We get calls to sort files in garages so that people can park their cars inside for the winter.”

Recycling haulers, such as Donation Nation in Gaithersburg, are a new form of movers and are paid by customers to remove and responsibly redistribute unwanted items. 

For those with valuable items, there are auction houses. “We are high-end recycling,” says Stephanie Kenyon, president of Sloans & Kenyon Auctioneers and Appraisers, which operates in-person auctions on the ground floor of its Bethesda store and an extensive second-floor Consignment Gallery for items $300 and under. 

The second-floor Consignment Gallery at Sloans & Kenyon in Bethesda has items $300 and under. Photo by Skip Brown

The internet also can be a lifeline. Online resellers of clothes, shoes, handbags and accessories, such as ThredUp or Current Boutique, will send you clean-out bags. Just fill with your folded unwanted items, seal the bag and the post office will pick it up for free. You also can photograph your nicer castoffs and sell them instantly on websites such as Poshmark and the RealReal.

Declutterers love eBay, where you can easily upload photos and descriptions of your treasures. If that’s too much trouble, take your items to an eBay drop-off location, such as iSoldIt in Gaithersburg. It researches, photographs and sells your items on eBay, Craigslist, or OfferUp for a fee. Newer yet are Facebook Marketplace and Nextdoor, which unlike eBay or Amazon, do not take a percentage of sales. 

If you prefer to donate to non-profits, be wary about putting items in some of the metal boxes found in area parking lots. Many of those donation boxes are run by for-profit groups that rent charities’ names and give as little as 20 percent of their proceeds back to the charities.

You’ll be a happier donor if you consult a store’s website to get specifics on what can and cannot be donated. Most of the clothing stores list specific brands they’re seeking. Appointments are required in some cases. Here’s where you can start. ››

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