THE Q&A: ROB WALKER, CONSUMER, THINGAMABOB CONNOISSEUR

angels-thermosRemember burying a time-capsule as a kid? These care packages to our future selves usually included a letter and any valuable possessions we could bear to part with: stickers, a mood ring, a key chain. How much would you pay for that mossy stuff now, and the letter explaining them? How much would those objects be worth to a stranger? The value of such things is complicated, and largely subjective. This is why I still have my Breyer horse collection, and why I would pay real money to have any of those time-capsules back. Rob Walker, author of the book “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are” as well as the “Consumed” column for the New York Times Magazine, understands our compulsion to sentimentalise things. Together with Joshua Glenn, a fellow object lover (his books include "Taking Things Seriously"), Walker began the "Significant Objects Project", an experiment that tests the malleability of an object’s value. The project involves scouring thrift shops and yard sales for cheap thingamabobs, and then asking writers (such as Luc Sante, Lydia Millet, Ben Greenman, Neil Labute, Christopher Sorrentino, Jonathan Lethem and Nicholson Baker) to contribute stories about them. These objects are then posted on eBay with their invented stories (and a disclaimer about their true provenance). The first volume of “Significant Objects”, which debuted over the summer, swiftly proved Messrs Walker and Glenn’s theory that stories add immeasurable value to objects. So for the second volume, they have “decided to do something useful with the information,” Walker says. This time proceeds will be donated to 826 National, a non-profit that tutors young people in writing and storytelling. The sale ends this week; over $1,700 has been raised so far. The short stories in this new collection are lovely. Some allude to an object’s brush with fame (James Dean and Michael Jackson make cameo appearances); others suggest heartache, loneliness and the occasional bar fight. Each story casts a strange spell on the objects, and on our perception of them (something Leanne Shapton managed beautifully with her book last year, "Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry"). Here Rob Walker answers a few questions over e-mail about what it feels like to sell other people’s junk for profit. More Intelligent Life: “Significant Objects” has picked up some speed. So when does this project end? Rob Walker: Volume 2 (cycle of 50 stories with proceeds to 826 National) will end the week of Feb 8th-12th. Or that's when the last five stories are published, each auction lasts a week, so the last auction closes February 19th. Our last week of Volume 2 is a team-up with Underwater New York, another online lit project—we'll actually be selling found objects that the editors of UNY got from the beach of Deadhorse Bay, Brooklyn. The writers that last week are Deb Olin Unferth, Chris Adrian, Kathryn Davis, Robert Lopez and Tom McCarthy. We are planning a Volume 3, another batch of 50 stories, raising money for a different nonprofit, Girls Write Now. MIL: Where did the original idea come from? RW: Both Josh and I already spend too much time thinking about value and objects, I guess. There is one minor detail of interest in the back story of S.O.: I broke a coffee cup I'd bought as a souvenir on a trip with my now-wife, early in our relationship. I was very sad to have ruined it, but I realised it only had value to me—it was just a coffee cup from some diner—because of the story behind it. This got me thinking about whether stories for worthless-seeming objects could be invented, and whether that would increase their value. That led to conversations with Josh that culminated in Significant Objects: We would buy cheap thingamabobs from yard sales and thrift stores and the like, recruit creative writers to invent stories about them, then put the object up for auction on eBay with the invented provenance as its description. (It's important to note that we were explicit about the invented nature of the Significance; there was no hoaxing.) MIL: Are you surprised by the results? RW: We expected that the stories would increase the value of the objects—but we were very surprised by how much. The first round involved 100 objects/stories, and in the end we sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51. (The money went to the writers in Volume 1, by the way.) That's a Significance Markup of more than 2,700%. While nothing we bought cost us more than $4 (and most were a buck), several objects sold for more than $100. We did not think the prices would go that high. I still have old e-mail exchanges between Josh and me from the first week, as we were very excited to see auctions reach, say, $15. The average prices seem to be a bit higher in Volume 2, perhaps because of the charity angle (easier to rationalise spending $50 or $100 on a tchotchke if the money goes to a good cause?) or possibly because we just have more readers as time goes on, and thus more bidders, and thus higher prices. Another surprise was that recruiting writers didn't turn out to be as hard as we'd imagined it would be. In fact we've had lots of volunteers. MIL: Do you have a particular favourite object, story, or both? RW: Oh that's very hard. I'm tempted to start naming stories and objects but the problem is I won't be able to stop. I'll mention one recent stunt we did: We recently sold a "Mystery Object." That is we had a story (written by Ben Greenman) but we did not disclose what the object was. We just showed a picture of the package we'd be mailing it in. It sold for $103.50. I thought that was pretty great. (We revealed the object after the auction ended.) MIL: Do you think that we find some items inherently more valuable? Have you noticed that certain types of items pull in good money, or is it completely story dependent? RW: Well, I'd say results on that have been somewhat mixed. A few items I do think were particularly cool—the Hawk Ashtray that William Gibson wrote about, the Smile Mug that Ben Greenman wrote about, and several others. But on the other hand we got decent prices even for stuff that I at least found aesthetically suspect—a crumb sweeper, for instance. I would say the object itself is a factor, and so is the story, but also probably the author (a famous author's story is likely to get more attention because of his or her fan base, which might lead to more bidding). I think the story of the project itself plays some role. Some of our regular readers just love the idea of the project. MIL: Why are we are willing to pay more for something with a story? RW: People value stories, we're drawn to stories, we like to hear them and I think crucially we also like to tell them. Surely one of the things that makes people want to own these objects is the idea of some random weird figurine on the mantle, and being asked, "What's that?" and having this amazing answer to give about how an author wrote this story about it, and winning it on eBay, and so on. Josh has observed that often it's the oddest knick-knack on the shelf that has the best story. I think we play into that tradition. (If tradition is the right word there.) MIL: How do you think the auction format changes the amount people are willing to spend? RW: The truth is we used eBay simply because it was convenient and easy, we weren't really thinking that part through. But having done this for a while, I think the usual observations about auctions apply—our bidders can be competitive, and the transparency of the whole process works to gradually convince observers that, well, other people are bidding and playing along, which sort of gives them permission, or an excuse, to join in, too. Another element of this that I've been thinking about a lot lately is that because the auctions are online, and the whole project is online, I wonder if that hasn't worked in our favour, and made the project into something it wouldn't have been if we'd, say, done a single-event live auction. I think for some of our readers and bidders anyway, they recognise that they are really part of this. Some have even sent us pictures of their purchases in their "new homes", and it's great for us and for the writers to see how things get displayed and so on. So I think all of that adds to the value of the project overall, which in turn makes every artefact of the project more valuable. Perhaps this will sound odd, but I believe the value we've created with this is quite genuine—who wouldn't want to own one of the actual Significant Objects? ~ ARIEL RAMCHANDANI Picture Credit: Significant Objects