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The worth of hanging on to your clutter

David Brancaccio and Daniel Shin Nov 24, 2021
Heard on:
A still life of three key objects in the film: Robert Krulwich’s grass, Rick Rawlin’s sugar egg and Heidi Julavits’ sweater. Vincent Liota

The worth of hanging on to your clutter

David Brancaccio and Daniel Shin Nov 24, 2021
Heard on:
A still life of three key objects in the film: Robert Krulwich’s grass, Rick Rawlin’s sugar egg and Heidi Julavits’ sweater. Vincent Liota

Everyone has items in their lives that others would call “junk.” Maybe it’s box of keepsakes from your past that you keep safe, full of things that are out-of-date or even unusable.

However, you still hang on to them. Why? Because their value goes beyond money.

That attachment is the subject of the documentary “Objects.” “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke with director Vincent Liota to discuss why some people value and hold on to the knick-knacks, tchotchkes and things in their lives. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Vincent Liota: The objects that we look at in the film have emotional value, like your grandfather’s tie tack, and often to their friends and family they look at it just a piece of junk like, you know, you could get a better tie tack than that somewhere. And it’s just interesting how two different people see very different value in the same object.

David Brancaccio: Your film has some voices that essentially make a case that holding on to some of these things, in a way, is time travel, right?

Liota: Yeah, we follow these three unique people and they let us in on the secret life of the objects that they keep. And they use them to preserve memories, they revisit important experiences and it even helps them find meaning in their life. You think about something that happened and it can be sparked by an object that you keep.

Brancaccio: Among those people we meet in your film is a graphic designer, his name is Rick Rawlins. And he opens up his ornate wooden box keepsakes and what was that on top?

Liota: So he slides the box open and there is this odd looking thing. It looks like half an egg, only it’s made out of sugar.

Brancaccio: Some kind of compressed sugar. It’s the size of a half a, I guess, a hard boiled egg. And this he keeps?

Liota: In fact, he’s kept it for more than 40 years.

Brancaccio: And it has something to do with, he suddenly had to move from the Pacific Northwest. Tell me just a piece of that story.

Designer Rick Rawlins and his sugar egg

Liota: Yeah. So Rick, as a young boy, when he was eight years old, his family moved around a lot. He never had chance to make friends, one day, he was invited to a birthday party. And then he found out that it was on the day that his family had to move yet again. And he wouldn’t be able to go to the birthday party.

Brancaccio: Just before the family’s about to leave, he goes over to the birthday party, he kind of goes rogue and knocks on the door. And you recreate this in the film. And, you know, he doesn’t even know what to say. And then this happens.

I was about to leave, when David’s mom asked him to go get something. And he left and a few moments later, returned and handed me this yellow sugar egg, an egg that I have saved for almost 50 years. I walked back to my parents house. We were loaded into the station wagon. And we drove from there to Idaho. And I know that I held this in my hand the entire way.

Rick Rawlins, “Objects”

Brancaccio: There is a lot more to that sugar egg story, but I think people should see the film to see that. But I mean, Rick, this graphic designer seems almost a little embarrassed. But he’s also reached a kind of peace with the fact that he’s one of the people that likes to hold on to these things.

Liota: Right? He understands you can’t explain the importance of a sugar egg – a 40 year old sugar egg – to anyone, that it’s really just special to him. And because of the experience, which we just heard him describe.

Brancaccio: Now some of this is that these objects are not just things, they’re really stories. You met these folks who’ve been doing a project for a number of years. What do they do, they buy a bunch of worthless doodads, gewgaws, tchotchkes and then what do they do?

Liota: Well, what struck them is interesting is like all of these weird things that don’t have any intrinsic value, they always have a great story. So Josh and Rob, they wondered, how could we test this in a semi-scientific sort of way? And so what they did was they went into a thrift store, and they bought a lot of junk, they set some limits, everything had to be less than $4. Then they reached out to some fairly well known authors and had them write a story to go along with the stuff. And then they sold the stuff on eBay, and cut and pasted the story that these authors wrote as the object description on eBay. And it was pretty amazing what happened.

Brancaccio: Yeah, it’s important to note that they’re really clear that these weren’t the real stories, that these were fiction. And if you bought it, you knew you were reading a piece of fiction, but they stuck these interesting stories written by some eminent writers to the objects and saw what happened.

The value of everything went up. Metal boot for $3 sold for $86. The Hawk ashtray bought for $2.99, sold for $101. Wooden animal, 75 cents, sold for $108.50.

Josh Glenn and Rob Walker from the Significant Objects Project

Brancaccio: So what can we conclude from that experiment, Vin?

Liota: So what they conclude from it is that the story is what gives an object its value, that something going for 75 cents could sell for well over $100, just because of the story that came with it.

Rob Walker and Josh Glenn rummage at a thrift store, in search of items for their “Significant Objects Project.”

Brancaccio: Narrative has value which is something a person in your line of work certainly already intuitively understood. What did you learn about value making this film?

Liota: Well, what I learned was that, you know, it’s interesting to see why people see value in things. But what I learned in this film was the how – how did these things become so precious to them? And, again, going back to it, there’s always a story or an experience attached to it. And I had never really thought that through, that there are different sort of flavors of meaning that we give things.

Liota: And actually, can we try a little thought experiment? You’re focused on business and economics. So I thought we could look at how people see value in an object not featured in the film. A dollar bill, a U.S. dollar bill? Let’s say it’s a specific dollar bill, right? And we follow through three different scenarios to look at the different kinds of values. So most of us see it as just, it’s worth $1, right? The Federal Reserve said so, so we walk into a store, we buy a pack of gum with $1, and we’re very happy. Then you have a coin collector or a paper currency collector and they might see that same dollar bill worth way more than $1. Because it’s rare. And then there’s the kind of value that we look at in “Objects,” in the film. In this version, there’s the same dollar bill, but it’s hanging in a frame on someone’s wall. And why? Maybe it’s the first dollar they earned or maybe they won an important bet. But there it is again, there’s this story. And the dollar, it was a participant in that story. It’s precious to them, it’s got tremendous emotional value, it’s impossible to assign a monetary value. Everybody else looks at it and says, “oh, it’s worth $1.”

Vincent Liota, Director of “Objects”

Brancaccio: Well, hearing you make that point Vin, you just made this interview astonishingly au courant. That example you gave helps us understand the current rage of these NFT’s non fungible tokens, where you have a digital asset that can be easily copied a quadrillion times like dollars or copied a quadrillion times, not counterfeiting, but they’re printed by the government. Yet through a process, someone decides there’s an original, and there’s a certificate that goes with this and the value of those have been skyrocketing. So sometimes it’s just a digital asset, sometimes it’s an original.

Liota: And it’s hard to wrap your brain around that. We have information in our computers, we put it on on thumb drives, we email it, like we don’t think of the value of the electronic information that we’re sending. And it’s just, it’s kind of unfathomable to me.

Brancaccio: So Vin, are you a keeper or a declutterer?

Liota: I’m a keeper. And my wife is a declutterer. So that’s always interesting, keeps life interesting around the house.

Brancaccio: That actually has come up in your household? Something that you have assigned value to and your partner’s, like, why is this here?

Liota: Actually, the film has helped my wife understand have some empathy for the things that I keep.

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