TV's Post-Recession Obsession With Stuff

What to make of all these reality programs about pawn stores, storage lockers, and hoarders?

Junk, clutter, crap, stuff—the rising tide, the rising gorge. Atop the unfixable air conditioner sits the box of unreadable books; somewhere nearby, dustily, sits your collection of plastic forks, and the unanswered letter from your uncle in prison. Are you going to do something about it? No. Never. Not a chance. Like guilt, like apathy, like the zombie host fermenting at the walls of Jerusalem in World War Z, these piles of personalized crud have a terrible negative capacity: They pluck at you and they pull you down. You’re helpless.

But not quite! Because television, in its obliging way, is enabling us to work through some of our difficulties with regard to stuff. In fact, there’s a whole spectrum of stuff-related programming on TV right now. At one end we have the cultured hubbub of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow: How much is it worth, pray tell, this fire-damaged heirloom of mine? At the other, on A&E, we have Hoarders: the madness, the cats, the landfill in the living room. And currently spreading through the middle, a rash of newer shows about reselling stuff, monetizing stuff, skimming a precipitate of dollaroonies off the suppurating stuff-heap: Pawn Stars, Swamp Pawn, Storage Hunters, Storage Wars, Storage Wars: Texas, and on and on.

“How much did you want on this?” asks Les Gold, the oily-haired patriarch of Detroit’s American Jewelry and Loan, the site of truTV’s Hardcore Pawn. His palms are flat on the glass display case; his brow is inscribed with an ancient patience. People and objects bob and swirl before him, the flotsam of a society-wide consumer wreck. Flatscreen TVs (stolen?), museum-quality collections of arrowheads (what?) … Les will almost always make an offer. He will float some disgraceful anti-amount—they want $5,000; how ’bout he gives them $150?—and they will blanch or seethe or shower him with oaths: “Asshole!”; “I’ll come back with a double-barreled shotgun!”; etc.

They’re none of them very “good,” these pawn and storage shows. Which is appropriate. Quality would be the wrong thing here. I do enjoy the drowsy Cajun vibe of Swamp Pawn, with its Barry Hannah–esque cast of loopy fishermen selling each other trucks and turtle shells, but the rest of the programs smell familiarly of contrivance, bodgery, rip-off—slapdash narratives and prodded-by-the-producer freak-outs. The Harrisons of Pawn Stars are tediously educational, plodding through the biography of the fancy object that has landed on their counter: the keys to Al Capone’s prison cell, Lyndon Johnson’s golf ball, Jon Voight’s pencil (oh wait, that was a Seinfeld episode). The pugnacious Ashley Gold, Les’s daughter, is the engine of many a “situation” on Hardcore Pawn. A despised ex-employee appears and is shown the door. “Your $20,000 watch turned my wrist black!” she complains from the parking lot. Replies Ashley: “Maybe because you’re fucking poison!”

Nonetheless, in the base coin of reality TV—accidental insights, cut-rate anthropology—the pawn and storage shows repay our interest. They ring, clang, toll with the sound of credit ratings going through the floor. Take Storage Wars, in which bottom-feeding speculators bid on the contents of forfeited lockers: Zzzzang goes the padlock on the storage space, sundering beneath the buzz saw, and the steel shutter flies upward. Behind it, what? A nation in arrears, in the red, three months behind on its payments. Some Rapture of collective debt has simply swept away the renters of these spaces. Poof! The bodies are gone; the stuff remains. The professional buyers peer in, itchily acquisitive: “I see a Weed Eater …” Some of the lockers are packed tight, right to the shutter, presenting a kind of cross section of somebody’s stuff-life: cardboard and fabric and gear, arranged in cellular patterns. Others feel diffuse and random, half-assed dioramas: a weight bench here, a pogo stick there. The buyers circle, stroking their chins. They are asking the question, the crude and vital question: Can I sell it, vend it, flip it? And the answer to that one is, or should be, a bristling American yes. “There’s money in everything,” says the prophet Les Gold, at the still center of this tragic national bazaar. “You just need to look for it ... If somebody bought it once, somebody’s gonna buy it again.”

Across the board, we find, when it comes to stuff, the question of value is paramount. She waits and waits, that nice old lady on Antiques Roadshow, her eyeballs hot with avarice, while the burbling expert appraises her brooch or ivory-inlaid boxlet or whatever. Even the valueless has value to its owner. The hoarder stands in his front yard, sullen and spaced-out, as the guy from 1‑800‑GOT-JUNK? holds up the broken lampshade and says, “How about this here? Can we throw this out?” Well, can we? Probably not, because the lampshade, like the brooch and the boxlet, has its own obscure provenance, and its own moldy meanings.

Hoarders (unaccountably discontinued; we await its renewal) is at the abominable extreme of the pawn and storage shows: Two hoarders an episode, each immiserated in stuff and suffering the clinical attentions of a new priesthood of shrinks, junk-disposers, and professional organizers—stuff-exorcists. The hoards, the “hoarded out” homes, are beyond description: unholy, brain-defeating messes. This is the point of a hoard, it seems—you can’t get your head around it. “If I can’t do anything,” mumbles a hoarder named Manuel, deep in the decades-old Christmas stocking of despair, “why should I even try? So many years of trying to clean up and failing.”

It’s tempting to salute the hoarders, to hail their glorious rebellion against hygiene and order, their bastard installations, the seething fecundity of their hoard-mountains. To sleep on a pile of Esquire magazines from the ’70s: cool! But it’s not cool. Child Protective Services is coming to take your grandchildren away. Your wife wants to leave you. A hoard, it turns out, is dysfunction materialized: the silt of your psyche seeps into the world and becomes your overwhelmed and rat-hospitable kitchen.

“I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” So wrote W. B. Yeats, upon returning (I like to imagine) from an unsuccessful attempt to pawn one of Madame Blavatsky’s crystal balls. But the writer with the best, which is to say the loosest, grip on stuff is America’s own Stanley Elkin, who was the son of a traveling costume-jewelry salesman. Elkin (1930–95) was a stuff-devotee, properly in love with the science of low-end turnover. There was stuff in his writing style—piled-on clauses, straggling bundles of significance—and his books are a stuff-study of their own: you can nearly always find two or three of them in a used-book store, clustering there, persisting, peddling themselves hardily through the half-life of Elkin’s reputation. His 1967 novel, A Bad Man, gave us Isidore Feldman, a midwestern, metaphysical trafficker-in-everything: “I just blew in on the trade winds, and I’m hot see, and dusty see, and I’m smelling of profit and smelling of loss, and it’s heady stuff, heady.” After one raving, ecstatic sell-off, Isidore finds himself without goods and without customers. It’s all gone, all sold. But he’s not satisfied. “What’s to be done with the unsalable thing?” he sadly asks. His small son wants to know: What is it? What is the unsalable thing? Says the salesman: “It’s me.”

Precious Moments: A Highlight Reel From the Pawn and Storage Shows

Fake Pegasus

No, says Rick Harrison of Pawn Stars to a gentleman who looks like a Tintin villain, this statue of Pegasus by Émile Louis Picault is not an original casting. The gentleman begs to differ: “I don’t care what you tell me, but I know you’re full of shit!” Trouble? From the front of the store, Antoine the bouncer looms. “It’s all right,” Harrison tells him. “I got it.” Of course he does.

Anti-Semitic Golfer

Did she pawn her golf clubs—as she claims—to American Jewelry and Loan, or did she sell them? The question becomes moot the instant the waspy lady on Hardcore Pawn makes reference to Les Gold’s “Jewish ways.” Out! Out of my store! Retreating, she descends into nonsense: “You know who breads your butter … Won’t let you in the club … Profane ass.”

Navajo Blanket

To have worked your whole life, and then to discover that the Navajo blanket slung over the back of the chair is worth half a million dollars? That would bring a tear to anyone’s eye. “Wow …,” says the nice old fellow. The Antiques Roadshow appraiser almost takes him in his arms.