Starting From Scratch — Nicole Sallak Anderson

Nicole Sallak Anderson
13 min readMay 29, 2022

After two years of tending the land post-fire, we’re able to move forward with the second half of our plan-purchase a condo in Chicago near our families. I’ve written before about wanting to be closer to our elders as they age. Covid-19 has taught me that these days are precious, and California is too far away to be a part of their lives. Thus, while we love the land in Bonny Doon, the time has come to split our lives between the two places. I recently found my dream home for part of the year and closed on a condominium near the lakeshore mid-May. I journeyed out to the Windy City by myself, with nothing but a carload of bedding, books, and a few trinkets. Since everything we owned has burned, I don’t have any furniture. One day spent looking online for beds and dining sets, and I discovered that the rumors were true-there are huge delays for new furniture. A bed was going to take six weeks, which was unacceptable as I needed a place to rest when I got here. Dining sets and couches are even worse. I’m only here for a few weeks before I’m needed back in California, hence I found myself in a bind.

Ever since the wildfire, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about stuff. The stuff we lost, the stuff we need, the stuff we’ve replaced, the stuff we must move from rental to rental. Is there too much stuff for the tiny homes? What does one really need to navigate this life? Right after the fire, I lived in Los Gatos, an ultra-premium town in Silicon Valley. Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo shoes, as well as beautiful furs, jewelry, handbags, and clothes, all available at the local thrift stores. I know that this part of recovery-replacing what you lost-is hard for some, but I had a blast curating my look with such an abundance of style all around me. A year later, the time has come to do the same with the house. Insurance is set up to replace what you lost with a new equivalent. The process encourages spending lots of money, and of course I want to get what I can out of them, however, what if the reality is that everything we will ever need has already been made, and it’s just sitting in our neighbor’s garage or environmentally controlled storage unit? Do we need brand new furniture to be manufactured? What if we just opened the storage units and started swapping? I’d replaced my clothes with the hand-me downs from those with taste, why not my furniture as well?

I started with asking the seller of my home if I could buy a queen bed from her as well as the bar stools. That way I’d have a place to sleep and sit once I got. She agreed and I was off to the races. I posted about my goal on Facebook-90% of the furnishings would be used-only linens and kitchen gadgets, like wastebaskets, garlic presses, etc., would be new. New towels and sheets are nice and honestly, it’s hard to find good ones used, and as far as gadgets go, I wanted one trip to Target and World Market and be done with it. Everything else, even dishes and glassware, had to be used.

I will be honest; it hurts a bit refurnishing a home after you lost everything in a fire. Each purchase reminds you of what’s no longer here. Rather than dwell in the past, this challenge brought a sense of peace, not because I’m doing the thrifty, environmentally responsible thing, but because the treasures I have found are getting a new life. I had boxes burn in that fire that I’d never opened when I moved from Chicago to California in 2007. That’s the fate for the things we no longer want; they are locked away and forgotten, never seen again if hit by disaster, or thrown away when their owners die. By searching Facebook marketplace, flea markets, garage sales, and consignment shops to furnish my new home, I’m giving objects a second chance as I start from scratch. It matters that we care for the things we’ve made, even if mass produced.

After moving in, I began the process, room by room. I do love a good thrift store, but in the end, Facebook Marketplace has been most responsible for decorating my home. It’s an interesting process, sifting through thousands of listings, refining the ability to ask the right questions and create the perfect search. Then there’s the work of getting it to the house and hoping it all goes together. Each room has had its own journey, but there are some similarities. After two weeks of setting up house, I’m at the point where I have what I call the “bones” for each room-the largest pieces of furniture needed for the room to function. With time, I’ll add art and rugs, but for now, I wanted to share a few tips should you wish to endeavor on a recycled interior design quest.

Facebook Marketplace is the Bomb

Several friends suggested this route and it enabled me to begin shopping for my condo in Chicago from my bedroom in California, before the closing. Armed with pictures of the rooms on Zillow and a blueprint of the home with room dimensions, I was able to pick out the dining room set, entryway furniture, and a gorgeous couch before I got to Chicago. In the case of the dining room, there’s original wood paneling on the walls from 1907. This room required an antique set, not something modern and I found the most beautiful set from a man named Larry. He thinks it’s from the late twenties and grew up polishing the table and buffet before going out to play. Getting the story of the furniture is one of my favorite parts of this process. I loved hearing him share the memories of his life with this table-from the various celebrations to the copious amounts of Pledge-while we waited for the movers. I’ve used Marketplace for almost everything else since then. Even the consignment store I visited to look for my office furniture, I discovered on Marketplace. I’d saved a bunch of items and noticed that the seller’s name was the same on several of them. I checked her out and sure enough, she worked for a store that buys out the entire estates after a death or downsizing of Chicago’s finer homes. The other day, while sitting in the kitchen, I decided that I wanted a large poster or canvas with the Chicago skyline on it, with red accents to go with kitchen. I searched “Chicago skyline pictures red” in Marketplace and earlier this morning, I rode the bus a mile to pick up the perfect picture. There’s really nothing you can’t buy on Marketplace-just set your search radius and go.

Buying Used Furniture Means More Human Interaction

You begin with the ask, “Is this still available?” and from there, the conversation either ends, because it isn’t, or the dialogue starts. Where is it located? What condition is it in? Can I put money down to hold it? Even better, when it comes to furniture, you must go check it out, and visit the person’s home. This may scare some people, but for someone who just moved to the area, this traveling into other neighborhoods has been incredibly rewarding. I’m learning new bus routes, checking out the cafes and shops as I walk by, and getting to know the various neighborhoods of my city. I get to the person’s home to see the furniture, and they often have a story about what they’re giving away, especially if the item is large and meaningful, like a dining table or living room couch; the type of furniture that hosts parties and life events. I found a beautiful Paul Rogers custom made sofa on Marketplace and met LeeAnne, a woman with impeccable taste who is moving out of one home into another that is already furnished. While I was there to see the couch and give her the cash payment, I “shopped” her home and was able to purchase my entire bedroom set and a daybed that is simply to die for. I also learned that she too loves to pray the Rosary and has a deep connection with this form of prayer. I met an entire Polish speaking family who runs a Porsche dealership when I went to pay for the leather sectional. I’ve enjoyed all the various interactions in the past two weeks-it seems that when someone gives up an item, they want to let it go with a blessing of sorts, and sharing the story is a big part of this process.

After the item arrives in my home, I send the seller a picture of it. I love the way they reply, so happy that the item has found it’s next life in my care.

Buying Direct is Cheaper than a Resale Store

Between my closet and my home, I’ve figured out there’s a resale hierarchy when it comes to the cost. At the top are the consignment stores-items there will be the most expensive. There are two reasons, first the store must pay rent and employees to function. Second, the items are there because the owner of the stuff is expecting a certain value. This is especially true with high-end items. The fact that the item is no longer in the seller’s home means they can wait longer for the right price to be offered and will refuse to sell for less until the moment when the store returns it. This is not the case with someone who has listed on Marketplace. They negotiate and are desperate even to unload the item, often because they’re moving. In Larry’s case, he was closing on his parent’s house, and it had to be empty by a certain date. He needed the dining set out of there. It’s the same with many of the pieces I’ve purchased this way. The object is in the seller’s way, in their space, and at first, they might have wanted more money, but now they want-no need-it gone. Thrift stores are a happy medium. People donate to them, so the store can set the prices and will based on how fast they want it gone. The best example of this is the leather sectional couch I just got. I saw something similar at a resale shop, and it was $3000. This is still a deal; the couch is $7000 new at Macys. However, I was able to get one barely used for $1650 because it was too big for the room it currently lived in, and the owner was unable to return it. She wanted it gone and even threw in the custom rug once I got there.

There’s A Lot of Beautiful Stuff Going Unused

My dining set has seen a lot of use, most antiques have, but there’s a lot sitting in people’s second homes, storage units, or guest cottages and houses that are like new. The same goes for all the clothes you see with the tags still on at thrift stores and clothing exchanges. Americans buy things and then fail to use them. Or we collect things and then when we die, our families don’t know what else to do but sell them. This is a wonderful way to get high-end stuff for less than something poorly made. The furniture in my new home is spotless, barely used, and much nicer than what I could buy new at West Elm or Pottery Barn. Insurance is having a challenging time figuring out how to reimburse me because I’ve paid cash and even causing me stress about it, which is foolish because I’m saving them tons of money. Regardless, there’s nothing like getting a good deal on a beautiful piece of furniture. It’s a joyful endeavor that never grows old.

You’re Going to Need a Mover-and Plan for Tips and Refreshments

This is crucial. You will have to pay for delivery on top of the asking price and the seller will normally want nothing to do with it. Fortunately, the woman with the Paul Rogers couch, LeeAnn, has a friend who is a mover and he’s been a godsend. Most consignment and resale shops also offer delivery, but the sellers on Marketplace expect you to show up with your own method of transport. In the Chicago area, Marketplace has linked with a service called Dolly-the Uber of movers. I used them to arrange the pickup for the dining set from Larry. He and I arrived on time, but the movers never came. I called the Dolly service line and within the hour, a new driver was assigned. It was a bit awkward to wait with a stranger for hours, but Larry mowed the lawn one last time at his parent’s home and I did a quick run to the Target. When the new set of movers arrived, they did an excellent job. Even better-they gave me their private card. I was able to use the same duo for everything else I’ve found and that has truly made everything easier.

I live on the third floor, no elevator. I’ve walked up and down several dozens of times unloading my car and hauling up smaller items the past two weeks, to the point that I thought my calves would fall off, so I know the work these men are doing. Each time they carry a huge item up those stairs, I’m in awe. It’s important that they are tipped very well and having water and soda on hand for them during the job is something they appreciate. Makes them more willing to keep delivering for you as well.

The Tape Measure is Your Friend

I’ve been sharing my progress on Instagram and Facebook, and something a lot of people have said is that I have a good eye. In his book about thrift furnishing, The Find, author Stan Williams suggest that the tape measure is the most important part of this endeavor. I always ask for the dimensions from the seller and then measure out in my house before committing. I failed only once in this way-I bought a beautiful Henredon buffet and mirror for our entryway. The seller of the condominium had a dresser in this space when I toured the home, and I liked the way the mirror opened up the hallway and having a place to set things down as you enter is valuable. The piece fit perfectly when it arrived, but I hadn’t realized there was a huge vent in the wall. The dresser had hidden it, but this buffet is more like a console table, and I could see the vent between its legs. Not the look I was going for. I had the movers put it in the living room instead-we’ll need a place to put food and drinks when watching TV. In the end, it was exactly what the room needed, so even if it was nearly a miss. I got lucky.

Recycling Takes More Time, But the Result is Unique to Each Decorator

It would have been so much easier to go to a Crate and Barrel or West Elm, sit down with a designer there, point, and say yes. That process is not a bad one, but it does not produce a custom look. I realized this while scrolling through Marketplace-I can’t tell you how many of the same model of furniture from these main brands is for sale. It’s like a bunch of people got married three years ago and furnished their condos at Restoration Hardware with the same oatmeal couch and mid-century dining sets and now have kids or pets and have realized the white farmhouse look was a bad idea. By customizing each room piece by piece with used furniture, I’m sure no one will have a home that looks like mine. I’ve enjoyed “meeting” each room in my house, asking it what it needs and then scrolling and searching for just the right item. The afternoon I spent in the resale shop putting together my office furniture was also splendid. I couldn’t have pulled this off if I worked full-time, but I’m grateful I do have the opportunity to furnish my house in this way.

The More You Believe in Synchronicity, The Better This Works

Here’s the point where I must get esoteric, but esoteric I must be, otherwise I would be holding back a key piece. The first time I heard the term synchronicity, I was a twenty-three-year-old budding techie attending a Seven Habits of Highly Effective People conference. While the term has come and gone as an industry buzzword, in my life it has taken on a whole new meaning. Through my biodynamic work on the land in Bonny Doon, I’ve become familiar with synchronicity, and the mechanics behind it. The concept is this-behind all life is a field of awareness, or consciousness, that we all share. Jung called it the collective unconsciousness, Pierre Teilhard de Chardintermed this field the “noosphere.” It is within this field that we are all connected. All thoughts, stories, dreams, wants, demands, expectations, needs, interactions, actions, ideas, songs, basically the information of life is connected, like the internet. The goal is to be logged into to this web of life so that one can accesses it within everyday life. When we do this, synchronicity is the norm. The exact lesson, person, book, interaction, podcast, etc. that you need to answer your question will arrive. It’s like the best Google search ever. What better application for interacting in the field than using the internet to furnish your home. The number of perfect synchronicities I just experienced are too many for an essay, but I give just this one. The other day, I was sitting on the couch and thought it would be nice to have a throw blanket to take a nap. I got the phone and searched Marketplace for throw blankets near me. I found a woman who makes hand knit blankets two streets away. Even better, the search also showed throw pillows near me and low and behold, a woman had just listed five brand new throw pillows in exactly the colors I needed to complete the bedding in the bedrooms. She was a mere three bus stops from my house. Every acquisition was this way and I have started calling this “city magic.” Ask, and you shall receive. One note though, just like the internet, you need to have the password to log into the field of awareness where synchronicity occurs, and that password is faith. If this concept doesn’t resonate with you, pass over it, the rest of my advice still holds, but your experience might not be as seamless as mine. You can’t force synchronicity, it can only happen if you believe in it.

I’m at the point where I’m ready to rest and enjoy the furnishings I’ve acquired these past few weeks. Get to know them and the home I’m making. I’ll tackle art and rugs when my husband arrives, I need him to hang the pictures and carry the rugs up the stairs 😉 The rest of the decorating will happen as we live our lives, one day, and one thrift store, at a time.

Originally published at https://nicolesallakanderson.com on May 29, 2022.

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Nicole Sallak Anderson

Author of 8 books, California wildfire survivor, essayist. All books available @Amazon. www.nicolesallakanderson.com