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Marie Kondo Has Everyone ‘Tidying Up,’ And Chicago’s Thrift Stores Are Reaping the Rewards

Chicagoans are purging their closets and homes, but all that stuff has to go somewhere.

Marie Kondo of Netflix's "Tidying Up."
Denise Crew/Netflix
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LINCOLN SQUARE — Need proof that Netflix and its algorithm can read our minds? Witness the streaming service’s New Year’s Day debut of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” — eight episodes of home makeovers perfectly timed to help us lesser mortals make good on barely formed resolutions to amend our unkempt, quasi-hoarding ways.

For the uninitiated, Kondo is the 34-year-old Japanese high priestess of organization. Her 2012 book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” became an international sensation and spawned the Kon Mari method that, depending on who you ask, is either a lifestyle, a movement, a brand or a cult.

Thanks to the Netflix show, Kondo’s message to “keep only those things that speak to the heart” has reached a new group of acolytes. With the fervor of the recently converted, these folks have been sharing photos of their mountains of discarded clothing, cassette tapes and other detritus to Facebook and Twitter — cluttering up the rest of our feeds in the process. 

Over the weekend, staff at Ravenswood Used Books, 2005 W. Montrose Ave., noticed something was up when they were swamped with 30 boxes of books versus the typical half dozen.

It wasn’t just the volume but the attitude of the sellers that caught the attention of employee Barbara X. (she preferred not to give her last name).

People typically part with their books begrudgingly, often only when circumstances force them to, she said.

“People are not [normally] cheerful,” Barbara said. “I swear to god, people [over the weekend] were joyful.”

Her curiosity piqued, Barbara asked the obvious question — What gives? — and Kondo was the culprit.

From Trash to Treasure

Marsha Fogle of Lincoln Square is among Kondo’s newest disciples, much to her surprise.

“When I heard about Marie’s ‘hold it to you and ask if it brings you joy,’ I found it comical,” Fogle said. 

She took a pass on reading Kondo’s books but tuned into the Netflix series after hearing how much friends were enjoying the episodes, and that’s when the “tidying” concept clicked.

“It’s always been easy for me to get rid of clothing and other non-essential household items, but larger items that I ‘might use again someday’ have been a problem,” Fogle said. “I think what resonated with me from watching her show is her respectful approach toward home, material possessions and the families themselves.”

Thanks to the power of Kon Mari, Fogle finally let go of a bread maker she’d been clinging to, the first in what she expects will be an ongoing purge of items she’s held onto for too long, she said.

Welcome to the party, said Bridget Melton, who fell hard for Kondo back in 2012.

“We live in a small Chicago apartment and it felt like we were overwhelmed by our stuff,” said Melton, who shares her Ravenswood Manor home with her husband and toddler daughter. “Right when [the book] first came out, I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing.'”

Kon Mari “releases your attachment from things,” Melton said. “My closet has been reduced by 75 percent. When you see what you own in a pile, you go, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t realize the abundance of riches.'”

“Tidying Up” has spurred Melton to move forward with Phase Two of her personal decluttering efforts, also known as “rope in the husband.” (Their daughter has been an early Kon Mari adopter by default.)

“He has a mini-disc player — they never took off. It’s been sitting in a box for 13 years,” she said. “In the show, [Kondo] says, ‘Is this something you need for your future?’ That has been huge to getting my family on board.”

With so many people paring back their possessions to the bare essentials, the question becomes: What happens to the resulting avalanche of castoffs?

The dumpster is of course one option, but plenty of people, including Fogle, expressed a goal of keeping as much out of landfill as possible.

Enter thrift stores and resellers.

“Oh my goodness, we have so much stuff in our back room right now,” said Joseph Basilone, co-owner with wife Melissa of Portage Park’s Thrift & Thrive resale shop, 6025 W. Irving Park Road.

“I guess it’s all the stuff that doesn’t bring people joy,” Basilone joked, referencing Kondo’s advice to discard items that “no longer bring joy.”

“We are getting a lot of donations. I see all my friends on Facebook posting [about Kondo.] People are watching that show,” Melissa Basilone added.

The Salvation Army, which has been preaching the gospel of recycling and repurposing for 100 years, has also been on the receiving end of the tidying craze.

“I really think 2019 is going to be the year of conscientiousness,” said John Aren, administrator of the organization’s Chicago donation program. “The pursuit of minimalism is alive and very well and it does benefit the Salvation Army.” 

Even without the “Kondo effect,” New Year’s tends to be a high volume time for resellers (the busiest season is spring), and both Aren and the Basilones said they were equipped to handle the influx of donations.

“I wouldn’t say ‘overwhelmed,’ I’d say, ‘blessed,'” Aren said of the windfall.

Because on the flip side of people purging their closets and homes are the shoppers flush with Christmas cash, said Melissa Basilone.

“It’s a good time for thrift shopping. I have the people who are purging, and then I have the people that need those things and can have access to them at a lower price. It’s a beautiful, mutual symbiotic relationship,” she said.

At Ravenswood Used Books, once all the Kondo-inspired drop-offs have been sorted and shelved, regular customers — who take books home by the bag load — will be thrilled with all the good stuff, staff said.

Like many resellers, Thrift & Thrive and the Salvation Army will accept nearly any donation if there’s the chance of a prospective buyer.

Basilone has taken in a vintage dissecting kit, trading cards featuring members of Ringling Brothers freak show, and vintage men’s bathing suits, among other oddities. For its part, the Salvation Army will accept “rag stock” — sheets, towels, extremely worn clothing, etc. — which can be baled and sold by rag dealers to car washes, for example.

But there are limits.

“There are people who mistake the Salvation Army as a free junk service,” Aren said. “We are very conscientious about what we put on our shelves. We won’t put out what we don’t expect to sell. We can’t flush out your particle board or dirty glass or electronics for free.”

Another option is the less formal system of donating items among neighbors, a practice that’s grown along with social media.

For books, there are Little Free Libraries, and for pretty much anything else, there’s Free Box.

Both Fogle and Melton belong to the Facebook group Rockwell Free Box, in which members post items free for the taking.

Melton discovered Free Box when her daughter was a couple of weeks old and it revolutionized her life almost as much as Kondo.

“We were trying to sell some stuff on Craigslist and literally no one would take a $150 IKEA sofa for $5. People at Free Box will take a half-eaten bag of chips,” she said.

Pre-Free Box, items she marked for donation would sit on their shelf for months, or years, until Melton accumulated enough stuff to justify renting a car to schlep to a thrift store, kind of defeating the purpose of Kon Mari, she said.

“I love our Rockwell Free Box. If we ever moved, that would be a huge consideration, our Free Box community,” Melton said.

Fogle had nabbed items for her newborn grandson on Free Box, so it was the natural place for her to donate her bread maker, she said. Demand for the item was so high, she had to hold a raffle. 

“I have seen Freeboxers come together to help a family with basically nothing set up an apartment with furniture and household goods, also clothing. It’s truly heartwarming,” Fogle said. “At the same time, all of those items are staying out of the landfill. It doesn’t get better than that.”

One might even say it brings joy.

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