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Closet Space

Closets are big business, so much so that a new Association of Closet and Storage Professionals has been birthed. I saw their banners at the second annual Closets and Home Organization Conference and Expo at the Santa Clara convention center last week. The three day conference was devoted to teaching contractors how to exploit this latest home renovation trend. The closet as paen to our possessions.

Garages, too, were getting the home storage make-over, a sort of studly version of the closet with embossed faux steel panneling and matching fridge. On display were the handy overhead hanging storage racks. I've installed some myself for a colleague. They hang low over the car and are easy to see into, being made of steel mesh.


Closet installation is one of my sidelines. It's a day's work, but easy enough with these pre-fab, precision made components. And they are beautiful. Heaps better use of space than the shelf and rod of old. The latest designs were on display at the expo. New features included slide-out baskets covered with colored leather, stacked and sliding acrylic drawer organizers, a 4 gun revolving rifle rack for that unused back corner of the closet faced in black velveteen to match your drawer organizers. Software is provided to installers to make it easy to layout components. Everything done for you except to put the clothes away.

I made good money last week, moving a couple into their new house and walk-in closet. At first the closet seemed to be just the right size, but as more boxes arrived I was overwhelmed by the amount of clothes that needed to be put away. One drawer I devoted to her sleepwear. Above, I allocated a shelf for teeny little knit tops, another for long sleeve tops and one for workout clothes. I would allocate a space for a category and then run out of space; fifteen cycling jerseys I was trying to stuff onto a shelf along with the shorts and jackets. I found no pajamas for him, but his golf sweaters took up two shelves (okay so they're bulky). She gave him extra hanging space - a 5 foot rod of dress shirts packed together on wire hangers from the cleaners, 4 feet of pants, 4 feet of suits, 4 feet of casual jackets and another of short sleeve shirts. It was not an unusual amount. I had seen plenty of similarly packed closets.

I see the money spent on clothes as I organize and file away receipts. Startling amounts at the end of long lists of items. Rare is the receipt for just one item. An ongoing client, who had become a friend, wanted help with her budget. She had me tally up her Nordstrom receipts. For three months the figure came to over $7,000. (For the sake of comparison, my total receipts for clothing for 2005 was $631.78 for 29 new items). I read her the Nordstrom total without judgment.

"It's impulse buying," she confessed. "I fondle and I buy," she added wryly. Yes, lots of tactile fabrics and visually exciting shoes. Whimsical lime green, suede boots made by Prada, for instance. She gave them to me because they were too small for her. (Ah, the perks of being a home organizer).

"And just about everything these days is made in China," my client exclaimed. "I'm really tired of it. And I'm not the only one." The store clerk had confirmed that she was not.

After I saw the Wal-Mart movie, I went into Bed, Bath and Beyond to look for a pot scrubber. I couldn't find a single item there that hadn't been made in China. I wanted to run screaming from the store. Was this what these two great countries had come to? One ancient and clever civilization, peopled with highly skilled artisans, transforming itself into cheap manufacturers for the always-low-prices, consumption habits of North Americans. And weren't these the descendants of a pioneering people, whose very survival was determined by their frugality and make-do independence?

"And what about jobs for Americans?" my client observed. Never mind my philosophical musings, overseas production meant fewer jobs here. There are websites devoted to listing products still being made in America. I was triumphant to score a pot scrubber at Orchard Supply that was.

I mentioned, to my client, the 22 pairs of pajamas I had just unpacked and put away. As a woman who had been raised poor, gotten herself a college degree and was now a part of the American dream of self-made riches through her husband, I found her insights into the minds of Americans to be illuminating.

"Twenty-two pairs! That's a lot. Heck, I need more pajamas."

"So why do people spend so much time shopping," I asked her.

"It's a lot of work not to buy stuff. It takes a lot of discipline," she explained. I gave her a puzzled look. What did she mean, it takes work not to buy? All you had to do was do nothing.

Then I imagined, for a moment, walking through Nordstrom's, listening to the classical pianist under the stairs, fondling soft knits and impulse buying. Maybe it was like being at a buffet dinner, I thought and suddenly I understood what she meant. Shopping was a party of dazzling abundance to which everyone was invited no matter what your background. A party where nothing more taxing would be demanded of you than to feast your eyes on lime green shoes and muse over whimsical sweaters with fun designs that won't go with anything except jeans.

What I learned from the way my client talked about shopping was that in order to continue to be invited to this party of American abundance, one had to buy things continually. It was your patriotic duty as an American to uphold this dream of the good life by shopping and then admire each other's new duds at social gatherings. It was what we were about as a nation, she said. Yes, that was what made the rags to riches story of a classless people possible, but to go into such a fine store as Nordstrom's and feel like you belonged there, you had to buy something.

I never really got this part about shopping. I browsed through these beautiful stores as though I was a tourist in a museum, learning about the local culture. Not being a mainstream sort of woman, I never saw anything I would actually want to wear, unless it was in the men's department where it was too big. Only shoes tempted me. Then I couldn't afford more than one pair, which was fine. The lesbian community of my generation had been staunchly off the mainstream shopping grid for years; we rarely varied from one particular outfit, rather like characters in a cartoon strip, going for multiples over variety.

What my client needed was an invitation to a new kind of party. A party where frugality and make-do creativity was the currency of the realm. Such was the immediate appeal of a new Yahoo group called the Compact created by a group of professionals in San Francisco who had tired of the consumer juggernaut and had made a pledge to buy nothing new for the entire year and compact what clutter they had. By coincidence I, too, had tired of buying new. It wasn't enough just to boycott Wal-Mart when everything everywhere was made in China. And my favorite discount catalog had increased their mailings to such an extent that my buying of multiples had gotten out of hand. I still hadn't hemmed the chinos I ordered last summer. I signed up immediately.

The original group of 50 has amassed a following of over 500 members in the first few weeks. Discussions have spanned much more than just shopping, but take on the entire arena of sustainable living from whether ethanol was a sustainable alternative fuel (not really) to whether it was appropriate to discuss not having kids (a heated topic) and if mention of religious groups should be forbidden (no, if related to sustainable consumption practices).

The members peppered the group with local resources and links to directions on remaking old clothes, recipes for non-toxic cleaning substitutes, instructions on making origami boxes and where to get fair trade chocolate. A daily stream of personal details of frugal livng and forgotten family traditions brightened my day after being immersed in a client's clutter, reading thank-you notes from sales clerks. ("It was a pleasure to help you find just the right jacket. Please come by any time.")

News of the Compact rippled to other related groups from those who were going car free to voluntary simplicity groups to my Buddhists' forum. From overseas, members joined from Australia, Ireland and Japan. It felt as if we had hundreds of spectators on the scene eager to encourage and watch Americans embrace a new paradigm or watch us fail to stick to it. After the rush of participants eager to share their particular expertise in sustainable living, including myself, the group calmed down a bit and settled into a conversational eb and flow. I was making friends and grew to care about the Compact mission.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the group at its inception, then had to report again on the backlash the group had provoked. Cries of "righteous yuppie scum, try being poor, then you'll know what its like not to have a choice about passing over those $500 Prada shoes". And as if there could be nothing worse than yuppie scum being able to buy $500 shoes, it was that they wouldn't buy them at all. "The Compact will destroy America" insisted one radio show host in Seattle.

Yes, it was true that such a movement would put a serious dent in the afore mentioned closet industry and maybe ours, too, as professional organizers, but that's a little like saying there would be no gigs for fiddlers, if citizens stopped dancing while Rome burns.

Editorial Notes: Amanda Kovattana is a regular contributor to Energy Bulletin (list of essays). Related book review in the Christian Science Monitor: Why you shouldn't really buy this book ("Is it even possible to withdraw from the marketplace?"):
Instead, smug celebration finds little place in Levine's account. Living without buying is hard, she confesses again and again, and not because she finds herself hungry, cold, or lacking any true essential. Rather, it's hard, she comes to realize because - like it or not - what we buy defines us. It gives us status, it creates a space for us, and it allows us to commune with others.
-BA

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