Downsizing a life

Empty the Nest movers putting items in a truck.

Luanne and Bruce Johnson were constantly comparing to-do lists in the weeks before they moved from their house of 25 years.

Tess Vigeland: On a trip back home to see my parents last year, my mom asked me to go through a bunch of stuff in their catch-all room. She had my prom dresses, piano recital programs, photos, ribbons... No Olympic medals, but all the detritus of childhood.

Of course they've also got my brother's stuff and their stuff. If and when they ever move, they'll probably downsize as many people do. even after 20-plus years in the same place. That is often a tough, time-consuming and expensive business. But as Laurie Stern reports, help is available.


Bruce Johnson: I'm just trying to clean off enough space to be able to eat some takeout.

Laurie Stern: The table where Bruce Johnson and his wife hosted birthday parties and Passover seders is overflowing with books and knickknacks destined for the garage sale this weekend.

Luanne Johnson: My name is Luanne, and my husband Bruce Johnson and I are moving from our house in Minneapolis where we have lived for 25 years.

Bruce was laid off a few years ago.

Bruce: Nobody hires you when you're 64. So what do we do to start over?

Last summer, the Johnsons bought a bigger cheaper house in the country that needs fixing up, a perfect project for Bruce. They knew they'd have to sell the Minneapolis house eventually. But early on, they got a great offer from a developer. They had seven weeks to get out, and they were overwhelmed.

Luanne: It's like with this stuff, you know -- oh, I remember when we used to keep brown sugar in this jar -- I feel nostalgic about that. I mean what the hell, where do you draw the line with physical objects and memories?

Unloading 25 years of stuff, deciding what to keep and what to toss, can be emotionally excruciating and incredibly time-consuming. It can be financially draining too. Lucky for the Johnsons, they live in Minneapolis, where they learned about a new company called Empty the Nest.

Sharon Fischman: I am Sharon Fischman. I am here today looking through this house to figure out how we're going to empty it.

Kris Yohn: And I am Kris Yohn, Sharon's partner. We've got to go through with the family to decide what we will be taking and what the family will be taking, what is trash and what can be recycled back into the community or repurposed.

Empty the Nest will dispose of a houseful of junk for next to nothing. Clients pay only for the cost of hazardous waste disposal and a dumpster for trash. Empty the Nest recycles everything it can.

Yohn: Metal, we work with metal scrappers, the clothing goes to Goodwill. Unopened food to the foodshelf. As little into the landfill as possible. The client gets all the donation receipts forwarded onto them.

Once Lu and Bruce found Empty the Nest, they felt better about parting with their things -- until the closing date got closer.

Luanne: Oh my God, here's a whole dresser.

Luanne had asked her two grown daughters to take what they wanted, but they'd left some valuables?

Luanne: What what what is this??? Beanie babies. Yay! They were gonna be worth so much, remember? Beanie babies were an investment.

Fischman: So stuff in the basement, here's the scary stuff. We're not scared of it. We love this.

A week and a half before closing, Luanne has a basement top-to-bottom full of furniture and rows of dusty bookshelves crammed with boxes.

Luanne: This was my ventriloquist doll and my kids always thought it was scary so nobody ever played with it.

You may be wondering how a company can make money from other people's castoffs. Well, not all of a client's stuff goes to charity or the scrapyard. Fischman and Yohn cherry pick the good stuff and sell it.

Fischman: We have a once-a-month sale and we try to have a theme every time we do it. Our themes in the past have been things like tools, vintage clothing, jewelry.

Yohn: People do actually line up to get into our monthly sales. We have to hand out numbers, it's fun.

The Johnsons' Ethan Allen desk will sell, and the ventriloquist doll and Lu's pink frilly dress from the 80s.

Fischman: What kind of hideous is that?

Yohn: That is fabulous.

Fischman and Yohn: We love that. We do.

Fischman: We've had clients in tears of joy when we're done. A lot of thank yous.

Yohn: And we've had families come in and buy these beautiful couches for really inexpensive and they have like six children and they would never have what they have if it weren't for the pricing we afforded that.

For now, Fischman and Yohn have one employee and Yohn's husband to help with the hauling. They have not had a day off since they started their company about a year ago. They do most of the work themselves.

Yohn: That is why we are in shape.

Fischman: We do get dirty.

When they started, Fischman and Yohn served two families a month. Now they're up to three or four a week. Empty the Nest has been so profitable that now the women want to replicate it in other cities.

Yohn: We have trademarked our name nationwide and our goal is to franchise.

The company's promise to empty a house of years of junk for free seems like it would be a winner. The trick will be getting clients like Luanne Johnson and her family to part with their treasures.

Yohn: This says keep, Ellie, Keep, Keep. KEEP?!

In Minneapolis, I'm Laurie Stern for Marketplace.

About the author

Laurie Stern is a freelance radio and television reporter in Minnesota.

Luanne and Bruce Johnson were constantly comparing to-do lists in the weeks before they moved from their house of 25 years.

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