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What Our Relationship To 'Junk' Says About America Through Generations


Alison Stewart's written a book that may make you contemplate whether to keep the book when you're done or give it to the Salvation Army. The book is "Junk: Digging Through America's Love Affair With Stuff." Alison Stewart, the award-winning journalist, who's worked for every network, including this one where she hosted the beloved Bryant Park Project, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALISON STEWART: Oh, it's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: This begins in your parents' basement.

STEWART: It does. I had the task, as many Gen Xers and baby boomers do, of having to clean out my late parents' basement. And they were elegant, sophisticated people with a lovely home in Princeton, N.J., but their basement - if I could have poured concrete in it and said I didn't know what happened, I would have. It was a severe junk situation. And they were children of the Great Depression and it was clear that that had made an impression on them and they really could not part with much.

SIMON: Well, you found a real - some real generational distinctions between what you call people who grew up - and I think you called them the veterans generation - and their children, who grew up in a time of want, and then their children who grew up with plenty. And now, you know, young people growing up these days in which they think most of what's vital can be kept on a screen device.

STEWART: That was so interesting. And I actually think it's why we're having such an awareness about the amount of acquisitions in our life at this point in 2016 is because I think you have sort of a fender bender effect happening with this veteran generation that were taught to save everything because you never knew where the next thing was coming from. And then in the '50s and '60s, everyone was taught to spend and stimulate the economy.

And in the '80s, when baby boomers were in their go-go money years, they could accumulate more. And now their children aren't really that interested because all their pictures are on their phone and they live in a shared economy and they might decide to be a tiny house person. So now we're all faced with what do we do with all this stuff.

SIMON: I was actually amazed by the number of people who make a living off junk. I mean, organizing companies, removal operations, storage operations. You spent time with - in fact, I'm trying - what's the incredibly clever name of the people you spent time with?

STEWART: There's a bunch of them. Annie Haul.

SIMON: Yes, right (laughter).

STEWART: Trash Daddy, Junkbusters, the Regeneration Station, junk recyclers. But what I did was I embedded the junk removal companies, for lack of a better word, and I went on junk removal runs with them because I was trying to find out the definition. Like, what is junk? I had to go find it and see it.

SIMON: You spend time with a number of people who have a problem...


SIMON: ...I think it's safe to say. And there's a man you call Adam Brown. His apartment was overwhelming, I gather.

STEWART: It was. And it was very interesting to spend time with him in his apartment and to see, in real time and in real life, all of the science that I had read about and written about and all of the experienced professional organizers, all of the signals and signs of someone with a developing problem with acquisitions played out.

People who do have an issue, it often starts with something traumatic or something dramatic in their lives. Sometimes they'll be perfectionists, which is sort of counterintuitive, but they don't want to complete a project or finish something or start something until they really know how to do it exactly right.

SIMON: I mean, he didn't really even have a bed the way you described it.

STEWART: No, he had - he had what he called his desk bed, which was a bed under there somewhere (laughter), but it was mostly covered with paper and projects. And in some ways, I found his apartment oddly hopeful because he had so many - he had so many interests and such a nimble mind that there were all these projects he wanted to do someday. And he was accumulating what he thought he needed to do that.

SIMON: As a generalization, do you think we have a problem in this country?

STEWART: I think we have a problem managing it in this country. And I think that's a very important part of this because it's not going to go away. We have access to so much that costs so little. And I'm not sure human beings were ever meant to face, you know, 96 rolls of toilet paper in a giant store and think, oh, gosh, I need that. I think it's we need to manage it, the way we need to manage junk food in our lives, the way we need to manage junk news in our lives.

I think it's all about mindfulness at the end of the day. Do I really need this? Why am I bringing this into my life? And you know what? You may want it in your life. You may be thrilled to have it in your life. But just really check in with yourself. And when you get to the point of feeling like you need to bring in a professional or you're just at that point where it's causing you more stress, that's also a big part of this. Repeatedly on these junk removal runs, people would say things like, oh, a weight's been lifted off my shoulders after the junk removal guys had cleaned out a garage or a room that felt overwhelming.

SIMON: Yeah. Between MTV, PBS and NPR, you've worked for a lot of places with a lot of mugs and a lot of tote bags.

STEWART: Yes, I have.

SIMON: How many do you have?

STEWART: I have a mug from every place.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEWART: I have about three T-shirts. But one of the sweetest things I found in my parents' basement were boxes and boxes of VHS tapes of me doing the news, which was wonderfully sweet and at the same time, again, something that wasn't really useful but the memory of them all, the idea that they did that, that's more valuable than anything else.

SIMON: Alison Stewart - her new book, "Junk: Digging Through America's Love Affair With Stuff." Thanks so much for being with us.

STEWART: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.