“What, are we poor?” my new-ish husband Neil yelled with a look of distress as he referenced a rolling desk chair I’d found on 74th off Lex; a perfectly good, oak piece that reminded me of something a 1940s reporter named “Scoop” would sit in as he pecked out a big story on his Royal typewriter. I planned to refinish it.
It was 1989 and we’d been married a mere year. We’d finally gotten all our living room and bedroom furniture, but because I didn’t want our home to look like an Ethan Allen showroom, I started adding in quirky, conversation piece-type items to give it a homey vibe.
I was a hardcore Do-It-Yourselfer back then whose motto was “One man’s trash is another one’s treasure.”
I frequented flea markets all over Manhattan, but my favorite was the one across the park in the schoolyard at Columbus and 77th since renamed The Grand Bazaar NYC. (FYI: The 43,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space is the only purpose-driven market that donates 100% of its profits to four public schools, funding arts, enrichment, and classroom essentials for over 2,000 children.)
I was also always on the lookout as I passed the piles of discards put out by apartment buildings’ maintenance crews. My elderly relatives were often nagged about vintage pieces, as in, “Can you will that hope chest to me?” (I’m shocked I wasn’t disowned.)
For a number of decades, our home often smelled like turpentine and the phrase, “Careful that’s still wet” was part of my family’s vernacular.
“Make Things Beautiful”
As time went on, my projects never ceased to amaze our guests and I never felt so flattered or more creative than when I heard Neil tell visitors who were admiring my handiwork, “Lorraine knows how to make things beautiful.”
In the past fifteen or so years, I eventually had to agree with Neil: “We don’t need any more stuff.” Also, the time and effort required to turn an item into a showpiece no longer fit into my agenda.
I began to live vicariously through a TV series called “Flea Market Flip” and watched with special interest when the contestants sold their wares at the aforementioned Grand Bazaar. Sometimes I still get wistful; if back in the day only I had had Lara Spencer and her design sense as well as a workshop of master craftspeople to saw, solder, and refinish my pieces would’ve been next level.
With the advent of social media came Instagram and a slew of DIYers for me to follow.
“I’m watching someone strip,” I’ll tell Neil to which he’ll do a double-take until he realizes it’s a video of someone peeling paint off a gorgeous armoire they’ll go on to stain and repurpose as a wine closet.
Nothing though makes me want to run and grab my long-neglected sanding tool than an IG account called Stooping NYC.
It’s photo after photo of not only thrown-out furniture — everything from table lamps to pianos to full dining room sets — ripe for the taking but their exact locations as well.
People who’ve made a beeline often post before and afters, with a shot of what they found curbside and then how they incorporated it into their homes. Some things are so nice it makes you wonder why the original owners got rid of them in the first place.
Don’t think I’m not tempted when I see the page has shared a find in my Upper East Side nabe. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep myself from borrowing our building’s transport cart and nabbing whatever it is.
I know though, even after all these years as well as Neil’s acknowledgment of my reuse/recycle/repurpose skills, if I start again bringing home “strays,” no matter how viable, this time he won’t ask, “Are we poor?” but, “Are you regressing?” or perhaps he’ll kick me to the curb.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novel “The Last Single Woman in New York City.”