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Shelf Life

Turning tchotchkes into significant objects

Kai Ryssdal Jul 19, 2012
Shelf Life

Turning tchotchkes into significant objects

Kai Ryssdal Jul 19, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: We all have ’em, collecting dust on shelves, cluttering our closets: Tchotchkes, trinkets, random objets d’art.

Most of ’em probably aren’t worth a whole lot. Or maybe they are. Rob Walker wanted to see whether one might be able to create value for things that — on the face of it — are worthless.

His experiment came together in a little book called “Significant Objects.” Hey Rob.

Rob Walker: Hi Kai, thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: This is one of those books that sort of defies explanation — so I’m going to let you do it.

Walker: Well, no one is more surprised than me that this book exists. But the book is sort the end result of a project that Joshua Glenn and I did a year or two ago. We had gotten interested in the idea of, basically objects and stories and value. We had this hypothesis that you could actually add value to an object by completely making up a story about it — a completely fictitious story. So interesting hypothesis, so how do you test that? Well, we hit the thrift stores and the yard sales and bought about 100 cheap doodads.

Ryssdal: And when you say cheap, I mean, these are old, beat-up items. I mean, they’re remnants from a yard sale.

Walker: This is the stuff at the table at the end that nobody wants, and they’ll practically give it to you. You know, I bought stuff for a dime in some cases.

Ryssdal: And then the stories, though. How did you — each individual item has this backstory?

Walker: Yeah. Well we decided that we needed to get really good storytellers, so we rounded up a lot of writers — some of them you’ve heard of: William Gibson, Jonathan Lethem; some folks who were more up-and-coming; and we got TV writers and comedians and playwrights. We wanted a bunch of people with creative imaginations. And we gave each one one of the objects to write about, and they would invent a completely fake story about it.

To test whether that was going to change the value, we used eBay. We put each object up for sale on eBay, and instead of the regular product description, we put this fake story. We had a little disclaimer that said ‘This is a fake story invented by’ whoever, and the opening bid was whatever we paid for it, so $1, a dime, whatever it was. And we sat back to see if the prices would go up.

Ryssdal: And I’ll tell you what, man — some of these went for a couple of bucks, but there was my very favorite one, and as it happens, it’s the one that did the best in the auction. It’s a, let’s see, the description is: Figurine of St. Vralkomir. You paid $3 for it, and it’s a little Russian dancing figurine. Somebody paid $193.50 for this thing.

Walker: Yeah, which sounds crazy. The story, though, was a really good story by a writer named Doug Dorst, who’s a novelist in Austin. And here’s my counterpoint, though: I would actually say even though that was our highest-priced object, it’s still a bargain, because the magic of this project —

Ryssdal: Get out of here.

Walker: The magic of this product is that we converted these tchotchkes — they used to be little nothing things languishing on a shelf somewhere — but now they’re one-of-a-kind things. They’re practically art objects. You can’t go buy one of these objects anymore. There’s only one of each.

Ryssdal: It’s all about the sales pitch, right? That’s kind of what this is.

Walker: It was sort of a sales pitch. The stories were good, but I think that there was something about the project that people wanted to kind of participate in. They wanted to be part of the story, and they wanted to tell their friends about it, and they wanted to have one of these things on their shelf that — you know, if someone asks you, if you have that little paper dancing saint figure, like why do you have that, you have a pretty good answer.

Ryssdal: Yeah, yeah you do. The book by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn is called “Significant Objects.” There’s a little asterisk by the title, and if you look down, it says, “A literary and economic experiment.” Read Doug Dorst’s story on the Figurine of St. Vralkomir here. Rob, thanks a lot.

Walker: Thanks for having me, it was fun to talk.

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