Digging Through America’s Love Affair With Stuff


When journalist and author Alison Stewart was confronted with emptying her late parents’ overloaded basement, a job that dragged on for months, it got her thinking: How did it come to this? Why do smart, successful people hold on to old Christmas bows, chipped knick-knacks, and books they will likely never reread? Thus began her three-year investigation into America’s obsession with stuff.

JUNK: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff details Stewart’s journey into the country’s basements, closets and garages as she attempts to better understand why Americans can’t seem to keep their stuff under control. Stewart looks closely at how people define their junk by wading through hoarders’ homes, investigating a 250-mile-long yard sale and visiting the “Cathedral of Junk,” a three-story high art sculpture made from old and discarded items. She examines the big business that junk has generated, riding along with junk removal teams named Trash Daddy, Annie Haul and Junk Vets, interviewing professional organizers and talking to consumers that believe The Container Store will solve all of their problems. She goes backstage at Antiques Roadshow, and learns what makes for compelling junk-based television with the executive producer of Pawn Stars. And she even investigates the growing problem of space junk—23,000 pieces of manmade debris orbiting the planet at 17,500 mph, threatening both satellites and human space exploration.

Stewart explores the other end of the junk spectrum, too—the growing popularity of the tiny house movement, for one, and the junk-free mentality of millenials who have everything they need on their cell phones. She visits with the founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. And she spends a day at a Repair Café, where volunteer tinkerers bring new life to broken appliances, toys, and just about anything. From firsthand interviews with the movers, shakers and victims of the junk world to a glossary of the origin of terms like “junk food,” “junk bonds” and “junk science,” to, ultimately, an ending that gives a fairly positive outlook, Alison Stewart’s JUNK presents a comprehensive view of America’s strange love affair.


Kirkus Reviews:

Quirky, immersive report on the “who, what, where, when, and why of junk.”

After spending months painstakingly sifting through knickknack boxes in her parents’ basement after the sale of the family home, journalist and TV host Stewart (First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School, 2013) contemplated the nature of obsession, nostalgia, and our compulsive reliance on personal “stuff.” Her entertaining three-year exploration spans U.S. Route 411 from central Alabama to Tennessee, a stretch of Southern highway that becomes a 250-mile-long yard sale teeming with hives of eccentrics and their roadside tchotchke stands during a four-day autumnal “junk-a-palooza.” There, and throughout the many homes and storage units she examined, Stewart understood that “the key element of true junk is worthlessness.” However, behind the dusty boxes and overstuffed bins are real people; some harbor serious psychological impairments, while others seem trapped in a collection cycle, surrounding and guarding themselves with a disposable, ever expanding bloom of ephemera. “Letting go is a common problem for people who have attachments to things they know they no longer need but secretly still like or even love,” the author writes as more complicated issues of compulsive hoarding, loneliness, and disposophobia surface in other sections of her accessible, enthusiastic study. She conducts amusing interviews with experts in the big business of eviction clean-outs, junk removal, and recycling, and she queries the troubled creator of a three-story interconnected colossus of objects and the executive producer of TV’s Pawn Stars. Particularly engrossing chapters spotlight groups dedicated to the science intersecting identity and possessions and a NASA expert on intergalactic space junk. In all fairness, Stewart concedes that “what qualifies as junk is subjective,” and throughout her lively observations, she consistently remains respectful to those on all levels of the stockpiling spectrum.

Absorbing and enjoyably compelling research on the packrat conundrum in our society.


Americans are obsessed with stuff. Obtaining it, using it, and hanging on to it. So much that storing it all brings in nearly $25 billion in revenue every year to storage companies (a recession-proof business). We’re fascinated by television shows such as Pawn Stars, Hoarders, and Storage Wars—in fact, Stewart lists 27 different current shows dedicated to our fixation on junk. When faced with clearing out the family home, Stewart starting wondering about our new national pastime and what keeps people so wedded to objects. For fun, she tags along on jobs with various junk-removal companies, visits an artist who has built a tower of junk, and interviews the founder of Freecycle; she gets more serious when discussing hoarding disorders. A particularly entertaining chapter classifies the many types of junk, from junk mail to junk food to “junk in the trunk.” While there aren’t any earth-shattering conclusions here (it’s hard to give up sentimental items; someday that tchotchke might be worth something!), this is an engaging narrative that will certainly appeal to readers who love those aforementioned cable shows.