Exclusive: Q&A with Significant Objects Creator and Yard Sale Poet Rob Walker

After purchasing a toy hot dog for 12 cents, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn were able to sell it on eBay at a markup of (hmm, if we did this math correctly) 2,983%. Who might these wizards of finance be? Just a couple of writers with a taste for knickknacks and narrative. The two recently launched Significant Objects, a website that matches garage sale detritus with writers, who then create a story to go along with the object, a story that serves as the object’s description when it goes up on eBay. We particularly love how each object is photographed next to penny to illustrate its size — how quaint!

With writers like Ed Park, Lucinda Rosenfeld and Sarah Rainone slated to participate, the project’s been getting a ton of attention. We caught up with co-creator Rob Walker to find how the auctions are going so far, where he gets all those wacky objects and what’s next for Significant Objects.

Flavorpill: What do you look for when you’re hunting for objects at garage sales and thrift stores? Are there any qualities that you’ve found make objects particularly conducive to inspiring stores? Do you have any rules about objects you won’t use? Are any of the items chosen deliberate curve balls?

Rob Walker: For me it’s very tempting to buy the most unlikely thing possible. But I have to hold back: An actual piece of garbage is just depressing. Also I should immediately admit that Joshua Glenn (my partner on this project) has emerged as the superior thrifter.

Really what it comes down to is trying to see things you’d normally overlook, but if you did look, you might wonder: What the hell is the story with that? And then you get Kurt Andersen or Bruce Sterling or Curtis Sittenfeld or some other writer to tell you the story — or at least the story that they imagine.

We’re now reaching the point where we have to stop buying certain categories of item, at least for a while — coffee mugs, for instance.

As for curve balls, in most (not all) cases we give writers a couple of pictures to choose from. In the beginning I felt really confident — “Oh, she’ll choose this one for sure. Why even show the others?” But I was consistently wrong. I have no idea why the writers choose what they choose, it never lines up with my guess.

Interestingly there were a few objects that were non chosen by so many writers we simply took them out of circulation. They resist significance I guess. (Which, in a way, becomes their significance — this will be what Josh and I have left over when the project is done, and for us these objects will symbolize the entire undertaking, which is kind of perversely cool, I think.)

FP: Can you imagine the project expanding in any interesting ways? Would it be conceivable, for example, that in the future I might be able to send in an old Troll doll and request that you commission someone to write a story about it? It seems like it would make an interesting novelty gift.

RW: Well, now. That’s a good idea, and I’ve been thinking about something sort of similar, although your approach may be better. It would alleviate the problem of finding more and more thrift-store stuff, for one thing. And more seriously, it would provide a way to sort of open up the project even more, which is something we’ve pondered. The most surprising thing that’s happened is how many people have come out of nowhere to volunteer to write for us. We don’t have enough of junk to go around!

Meanwhile, we do have some more thought-out ideas for expanding the project in some exciting new ways, in collaboration with certain entities. But at present I am not at liberty to say more.

FP: Do you put any particular effort into matching writers with objects that you think will complement them well?

RW: Per the above, I had that mindset early on, but as I realized the writers were so unpredictable, I just gave up. That said, there have been a couple of instances where we’ve just said to a writer: “Here, this is what you’re writing about.” But I can’t say this was done because we just had to have the writer address that object — it more seems to be the case that with certain writers it’s easier to *not* give them a choice.

13a-smilemug

FP: How did writers you initially contacted respond to your pitch of, “I will send you a tchotchke if you write a story about it.” Did anyone refuse? Are the participants your favorite writers? People who you thought would get the most buzz? Friends?

RW: Yes, some writers said they were too busy, and that’s totally fair — people are, after all, busy. And if you have a book due or you’re on tour, this is probably not the ideal way to spend your time. So, that happens.

The writers are basically people we wanted to work with. At the very beginning the writers we approached were people we had at least some connection to. It was almost like we were asking for proof-of-concept: “If we did this, would you participate? What do you think of it?” We didn’t know if people would just say, “That’s stupid.”

So it was great how receptive people were. But then it was even better when we started going to strangers. It’s pretty gratifying when you just contact some writer whose work you’ve admired, out of nowhere, and ask them to play along with something like this, and they say yes. Some of these people have just been incredibly generous, in my opinion, to get involved. Many could have very easily, and justifiably, said no. Or not even answered the question. (And, again, that did happen sometimes.)

We’ve also both gone through the process of asking others for their recommendations, which has led to some great writers neither one of us initially knew much about but that we’re now excited about working with.

The buzz side is so hard to figure out. It was more about thinking of writers we thought would come up with interesting stories — sometimes that means “big names,” but not necessarily. There’s nobody we approached because we thought, “Oh that person will generate buzz.” That’s really no fun.

toy-toaster-550

FP: Which story/object has been the most popular? Are you surprised?

RW: Lydia Millet’s “chili cat” story was an interesting one: I thought it was a really nice story, but I thought the object itself would be a tough sell. But it ended up being one of the top bid-getters, I think it went for more than $22.

Susannah Breslin’s “Necking Team Button” story has the highest bidding right now [Editor’s note: the auction has since ended, with the button going for a cool $36.88]. I guess I thought maybe Kurt Andersen’s story would be the big early bid-getter, because he’s well-known, and because it’s a particularly amazing story. But Susannah’s story was also really good, she’s a very talented writer, and I think that object is cool. (Josh bought it at a flea market for 50 cents — the bidding is now at more than $36.) It’s also an image that’s been picked by a number of bloggers to represent the project. Same with the “smiling mug” that Ben Greenman wrote about — I sort of wonder if it didn’t come to symbolize the whole project in some way. Plus his story was just incredible.

It’s still early days but most things seem to be settling into the $10 to $15 range so far. What I’ve really been puzzling over the most lately is why some objects haven’t taken off in the bidding. With almost every object it takes a few days for the bids to build, but, for example, Jonathan Goldstein’s story about a toy toaster is great, and he’s a popular writer with a lot of fans. Plus the object has an interesting look — it could be in someone’s house in one of those Design Sponge pictorials. But as I type this, for some reason the bidding hasn’t really taken off. Curious.

As you can tell, I really, really like the stories we’ve published … But that’s why we did this!