Sunday, June 27, 2010

Collectors, Accumulators & Hoarders, Oh My.

***WARNING*** Those readers with sensitive dispositions/stomachs may wish to skip this particular entry.

As a picker scouting for "stuff," you tend to get into places that other people just do not regularly see.

In some of these cases, the owners of the stuff could be hoarders, or collectors or a combination of both.

There is a very fine line between collecting & hoarding. The human need to "acquire" things can go haywire, and show itself as a psychiatric illness. If a collector acquires those sorts of illnesses, their collecting can become very obsessive, beyond a normal level...and "normal" for nearly any collector could already be seen as "abnormal" for the "Joe on the street" as it is.

Who else but a collector would dedicate a whole room in their house to one particular object or theme, be it lunchboxes, signs, tins, dolls, china plates, salt/pepper shakers, pickle castors, carnival glass, Smurfs, etc...and sometimes their whole house is consumed by collections of one kind of another.

Louie Anderson was (maybe still is, I am not sure) a big collector of Mission/Arts & Crafts era furniture, preferably Stickley. In one of his books, entitled "Goodbye Jumbo - Hello Cruel World" he analyzes his "need" for the items as trying to replace something missing in his life, similar to his habits of overeating/binging. He had amassed an impressive collection, but one that was grossly taking over his living space.

Collecting gone haywire, perhaps.


I don't know, really, maybe more like trying to fill an empty hole, or pit, where something is "missing", or using it as a salve on the psyche, or to create a feeling of self-worth.

To me, and I am sure some (all?) psychiatrists out there will disagree, hoarding is something that relates more to an obsession with hoarding things that make little sense, except to that one person. Also, it conjures up visions of unhealthy situations, where insects, mice, rats, and assorted "germs" are the direct result of the hoarding.

Did I mention I am a picker, not a psychiatrist?

What does good old Wikipedia say about hoarding?

Ok, so according to Wikipedia, I am on the money..."Compulsive Hoarding" "is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary." and goes on to say similar things about "animal hoarding". I will leave animal hoarding for an animal activist blogger to discuss, seeing as it does not really relate to my field at all....I am not going around looking through piles of assorted animals for intrinsically valuable animals.

I have been in the homes of a few hoarders...and MANY homes of people who could well be on their way to becoming hoarders, as per the Wikipedia definition of adult hoarders, if they are not aware of their situations.

I got a call at my store one day, asking if I bought old wooden crates. Actually, they said they were told that I bought old wooden crates, by several dealers. Yes, between that find in the attic of that old general store, and my penchant for advertising items, the stacks of wooden soda crates I tended to pick up out of old drug store basements, the apple & other fruit crates I bought for the labels, and a few other cool wooden boxes, I guess I did buy lots of crates...and still do.

Anyway, she proceeded to tell me she had about 20 apple crates.

I wasn't overly keen on that, but I said I would come and take a look. You never know what the crates are, as people's descriptions can be way off from what they are describing....PLUS (TIP HERE!!!) it is a legitimate invitation, and invite to see inside the garage, attic, etc....and you never know what else is there that they may sell!

So, I made arrangements to go take a look.

What I walked into was a 1920s bungalow, with a narrow staircase to a small second floor set of 2 narrow rooms. The main floor had been cleaned out, and was pretty much bare. The second room of the second floor was lined with crates sitting stacked on their sides, on planks.

And they were all filled with books & magazines, every wall to a point where the ceiling slanted up, about 5' from the floor.

Turned out she wanted rid of the books, also, and we hammered out a price for everything.

We talked quite a bit, which seems to always happen with me...I guess I have a gift of gab. In our conversation, she revealed the whole back story of the owner of the house.

The owner of the house was a family friend, who her (the person I was talking with) family sort of kept an eye on. A former teacher, and a spinster, she (the owner of the house) had also inherited much of her brother's possessions, who had been an actor in Hollywood.

No, sorry, no one you would know.

She...I mean the person I was talking know, for ease of understanding, let's call her "Joyce", ok?

SO, Joyce would call her once and awhile, and chat, see how she was doing. Never really visited her in person often, but kept tabs on her...(let's call the lady "Edna", ok?)

SO, over a few weeks, Joyce was away, and had told her son to keep tabs on Edna.

(ahhh...using names is SO much smoother, isn't it?)

So, the son (ok, he is "FRED!")....

Fred calls the house, and can not get a hold of Edna.

He calls again the next day, and the phone still goes unanswered.

Concerned, he goes over, and knocks, but gets no answer.

Knowing that Edna is a little "off", he contacts the police to be there when he goes in, to assure there are no mis-understandings.

The police arrive there, Fred unlocks the door, and they all try to enter the home....

And the stench makes them wretch.

Once they were in, they found Edna on the bed, no covers, unconscious, where she had likely been for possibly a couple days.

In the bedroom, Edna had been saving her cats' (note: more than ONE cat...but not a hoard) feces...yes, their crap, shit, whatever you want to call it, it was piled in a box by the bed.

But, that was not the worst part of the place, as the toilet had been stopped up long enough that the overflow of sewage had rotted out a significant section of the flooring.

Ah, that explained the new plywood floor in the hallway and part of the living room I had seen.

But, that still was not the worst part of the situation.

Perhaps it was that the basement had flooded, and had never been cleaned out, just more stuff added on top once the water receded?


The oddities, such as two huge, orange garbage bags full of empty toilet paper rolls that were in the basement, or the fact she had no running hot water in the kitchen. Or that the old one car garage was full, to the rafters, front to back with just years and years of newspapers?


Maybe the fact that there was only very narrow paths through the house, due to the piles of stuff everywhere?


So, what was the worst part of the situation in the home?

AND, I do need to note, I do mean aside from the human issues, such as the obvious, severe mental illness Edna was suffering with. I want to make clear that I am not down-playing that, nor making light of it, as it is a serious, and very upsetting situation for families & friends of those suffering from such illnesses, and more importantly, absolutely horrible for those experiencing such emotional turmoil.

Specifically, for the intents and purposes as related to this blog, I mean the physical situation of the home...the "stuff".

Ok, now brace yourself....

Edna had "decorated" the walls with her own feces.

Yeah...I know....that's pretty bad.

Now, when this sort of severe mental illness comes to play, I tend to avoid getting involved in a business/buying situation with the individuals, for obvious reasons.

In this case, I arrived on the scene many months later, with the house cleared out, things already sanitized, etc. There was still an ever-so-faint odor about the place, despite fresh paint, refinished floors, etc.

In many ways I was happy I had arrived on the scene after the big clean-out had occurred...but, hearing that the person who cleaned it out had hauled ALL the stuff to the dump was a little heart wrenching.

To understand why I felt a pang of anguish, you should know that this story dates from the late 1990s, and Edna had pretty much blocked herself out of the walk-up 2nd floor in the very early 1980s, possibly even late 1970s, and she had been in the house since the 1950s, possibly earlier. Plus, the door to the attic had been closed tight since the early 80s. It seems to me it had also been her parent's home, but I can't recall for certain.

The rooms had been full (remember the garage?) not just with books and some magazines, but with vintage paper stuff galore.

From the few paper things I obtained that had somehow missed being tossed, it was obvious her brother had frequented the Hollywood thrift stores/used book stores, and collected that sort of memorabilia.

I found a few gems in the books I purchased, though between the purchase price and the work involved, I really only made a meagre profit, considering the work involved hauling apple crates of books out of the place in the dead of summer in stifling heat, down a stair case narrower than the length of each crate....which meant you had to hold the crates out in front of you the long way......and you know how heavy a box of books or magazines can be. Let's just say it was a real chore.

So, there had been an entire hoard of old Hollywood & Broadway paper items, all quite likely in near mint to mint condition, tossed out.

The attic crawl spaces in the eves on either side of the rooms had contained even older stuff, and it also had been tossed. Those crawl spaces were also bone dry...excellent for preserving paper stuff.

So, she had been on the trail to hoarding for some time, and got progressively worse.

Her brother, on the other hand, probably was a collector.

Was she collecting? Could you call her a "collector"?

No, not in the least.

Same goes with another situation I happened across.

Again, I came across it thankfully/sadly after the worst had been dealt with.

But, I will leave telling you about it for a little later...

I have seen many collections. One fellow liked to collect things he felt were weird and wonderful, and almost always vintage or antique, and also collected things he felt would have value in the future.

He didn't sell much of anything for many years, just collected.

He was one of his community's "characters". A bachelor, who frequented auctions regularly, picked up stuff at the dump, got things given to him, bought weird things, and eventually built 3 buildings totally about 3000 sqr feet to house his collection.

Well, I guess you could call it more of an "accumulation."

He also proudly called himself "The Accumulator", and had business cards printed up as such.

In the last 20 years of his life, he decided it was time to start selling some of his stuff.

He did ok, sold pretty much at a wholesale level, though achieved retail prices for some things. He did well selling items to the movies being filmed in Manitoba locations, to the props and set dec departments of various productions.

He had saved things like old advertising calendars...and had started back in the 50s, continued up into the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. He sold most of the older ones into the early 70s fairly easily. He also had old hand made items, folk art/outsider art, catalogs galore, antique Bibles, Victorian photo albums, tobacco tins, taxidermy, antique deer antler furniture, mustache cups, and almost anything you can imagine...and lots you can not imagine. There were cabinets of files draers, all full of various items, sorted by subject...pens, keychains, bottle openers, bottle caps....hundreds and hundreds of items in the "small" category. From tiny things like tokens & bottle caps, to a 1880s pump organ, he had it all.

Actually, as I write this, my keyboard and screen are sitting on a folk art desk that I purchased from him several years ago.

His saving was orderly, with things well sorted, stashed away in boxes & crates for safe keeping.

His walk-up attic was full of a couple thousand trucker caps, hundreds of collector spoon racks, shelves of catalogs & well as several hundred (empty) Texas Mickeys, as he had a penchant for big bottles, which I was well aware of, as I had sold and traded him many vintage oversize liquor & perfume display bottles. I am sure he acquired the Texas Mickeys empty, and I never saw him take a drink....though, one has to wonder how much whiskey a staunch, pretty "dry", Mennonite community actually consumed, considering how many of these huge bottles he had...I am sure it numbered around 40 or more....

He was a character, for certain. He had what some might consider a slight speech impediment, which gave him a bit of a drawl. However, it was no worse than trying to understand someone with an accent from a different part of the country.

He was an old bachelor who, frankly, didn't bathe much, or keep a very clean kitchen or washroom....a washroom which I think I used once in the about 15 years I knew him...that first sight of a black toilet, that was originally white, kept me out of there.

That said, he was actually pretty intelligent, had a wry sense of humor, and was a pretty kind soul.

He likely had some issues, no doubt. Considering that they say that 7 out of 10 people will suffer from some sort of mental illness sometime in their lives, that is no surprise...the odds are there....(And, in my opinion, the remaining 3 in of that 10 are compulsive liars.....)

So, he may have had some issues.

But, can we consider him a hoarder?

Not by the definition Wikipedia has.

True, his kitchen sported some mouse droppings and his washroom was pretty disgusting, and he had stuff stored everywhere....

BUT, the stuff was not stored in his kitchen, though there was various things there, a box or two dropped next to the kitchen table, as he was in the middle of sorting through the stuff from the auction he had just been to, a few fresh buys from the local thrift store, a stack of auction flyers, papers open to auction ads, etc.

But, nothing stored there, stacked up in a way so that you couldn't move.

His dated living room was consumed by an orderly amassing of Elvis memorabilia, the one collection from which he didn't sell much of anything from. But, if he wanted to use the couch, he could, as it was clear, and would not trip over anything to get to it.

When he wasn't at his 9 to 5 job, he was sorting his stuff, organizing, selling, wheeling & dealing, going to auctions, antique shows, antique shops, thrift shops, going to pickers' places to buy, picking stuff up at the local dumps, etc....

Sound familiar?

Ok, so maybe you don't do ALL of those things....but if you collect anything, you do at least a few of them....and more likely several.

That was pretty much his life. Pretty much his entire social life. He may have been an outcast in his community, but he did have friends that thought he was funny & intelligent, not some weirdo.

OH YEAH, he WAS a real character...but who in this business isn't, at least in some way?

A weirdo? No.

Had some issues? Yes, for certain...possibly related to the way he was treated by his family in the past.

A hoarder by definition? Nope.

A collector? Most certainly.



So, he had foresight to save things. Some that later became of value..and possibly some that had value, and lost it...and others that didn't gain value.

Is that hoarding?


That is collecting.

Now, if he had a cat and was saving the litter box scoopings, that would be another story.

And on to another story....

A hoarder, for certain, this fellow was.

I was introduced to a guy and his associate who were filling a large trash bin with items from an old, damp garage and a garden shed.

My first view of the place was driving up, a pile of stuff stretching into the back yard, a a couple crocks and crock lids on top of the pile, headed for the trash. I bought them, of course.

The fellow was a "scrapper"...

Not the fighting type, though by his stature I would want him on my side in a fight.

He picked up scrap metal for a living. This meant he picked up things like old water tanks, cast iron bathtubs etc, and often by himself. That is the kind of guy you want backing you in a fight...not some muscle bound weightlifter.

Over the weeks I got to know him, as I was salvaging some free stuff, and buying stuff from the piles of stuff he felt may have some value. He was a really nice guy....a character, but a nice guy.

The story of the place was thus:

He was contacted by the trustee involved with the property, as the old fellow who had owned it had also been a "scrapper" there was an accumulation of metals on the property.

In the end, he was "hired" by the daughter, who was in her late 30s to mid 40s at that time, to clean out the house, garage, sheds, and yards. The deal was that he could keep whatever he found, other than personal photos and such items.

There had been 16 large trash bins full hauled away by the time I arrived, and the large two story house was empty.

Again, I was both glad and sad that I didn't come across the place sooner.

"Bob" related the back story to me.

The old man had been found in bed, alive, but emaciated. He also had 3 dogs in the house, obviously to the point of starving, as one or all had been starting to chew on the old man.

There was also a 3" thick layer of dog feces over the floors.

Again, there were very narrow pathways throughout, with walls of accumulation piled on either side.

The stench was so bad, they had to punch out a huge hole in the back wall. Oddly enough, when they did, they punched through what turned out to be a false wall in the process, and found a 1930s china cabinet behind it.

While I was going through some of the stuff that was pulled from the garage (many items with 1960s/70s Salvation Army price tags), I came across a photo, which ended up back in the hands of the daughter, of course.

What the photo showed was the daughter, sitting on the family's couch, at about age 14 or so.

On both sides of her & behind her on the back of the couch, were hills of cascading & precariously balanced newspapers & magazines, obscuring the couch completely.

In front of her was a TV table (one of those tin folding things) with about a 7" high hill of what looked like rotting food.

Remember, at the point I came on the scene, I figured she was in her late 30s to mid 40s.

This sad state of affairs had been going on for many years.

A hoarder, for certain, and his wife may well have been the same. I hope the daughter is trying to get/is now mentally healthy.

In those two hoarding situations, I was at arms length from those involved, with a buffer, the person in charge of the situation, the clean-up.

In one, I was not entirely at arms length.

I got a call from a trustee one day, who was going "above and beyond" by trying to help a hoarding client with some of his accumulation.

The fellow picked the back lanes, going through people's trash, and kept anything he felt was usable...which meant more than what you or I would feel was usable, as he most certainly had a hoarding disorder, and judging by the amount of cat feces & stench of urine in his basement, he was possibly, and sadly, an animal hoarder as well.

The trustee was hoping there was something of value to an antiques dealer, that could be sold, thus removing the items, and getting the ill fellow some needed funds.

Sadly, anything that was "something" was in such poor condition that all of it held no value. Add to this that my presence, and my handling items made the fellow visibly upset, which made it all the harder for me to be there. He was having a hard time, and was obviously fighting impulses to want to "protect" his "treasures". My heart went out to the poor guy.

I did my best to try to find a diamond, but barely found usable coal.

Most definitely a classic hoarder by definition.

A collector he was not.

These are but a few of many "experiences" with "hoarder", "accumulators" and "collectors" I have had...and with which I will leave you to contemplate for now. I will blog about a few more of these always unique situations in the future....possibly the very near future!

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