“When you enter a house, the objects tell stories, they tell your life. They tell us where you have been traveling, if you like or don’t like to cook, if you like tennis or play golf, if you read and what you read, if you listen to music and what music you like, if you have children or not. Objects don’t lie. Recently, we were in a house where we found pharmacy bottles, a microscope, a formulary, and I asked: ‘Doctor or pharmacist?’ He was a doctor,” Astrid Romero told EL PAÍS, who, together with her partner María López, founded Arquitectura del Orden in 2018, a company that is dedicated to ordering junk to empty homes, organizing markets in homes that need to free up space and which works mainly thanks to word of mouth and the growth of their flirtatious Instagram account, where they accumulate close to 31,000 followers.
We are on the top floor of an imposing building on Calle de Lagasca in Madrid, a large penthouse and a delicious terrace where light pours in, illuminating every corner. In here everything is upside down. Family crockery, cookbooks, small and large electrical appliances, pots, trays, bowls and mortars are displayed on the kitchen counter. In the drawing room, still boxed but ready to be placed in a preferred location, is a 19th-century English Spode crockery, blue-glazed porcelain, about to be installed on an imposing solid wood table. There are also modernist-style furniture and lamps, oil paintings with still lifes, divans, chairs and armchairs, vases with flourishes, glass side tables, ashtrays, books. In one of the main rooms, we find sheets, quilts and blankets embroidered with the family’s initials on the bed. Everything around—from kitchen ladles to coats hanging in closets—is for sale. In less than three days, a huge number of people completely alien to those who lived within these walls will come to take a little piece of their history at a bargain price.
It all started by chance five years ago. Astrid Romero, a journalist by training, received a call from a friend of hers: her father had died and her widow was going to move to a smaller apartment where she couldn’t take all her things. She proposed to him to do a clothing market: “When I arrived, I was amazed. That was a thousand-square-meter house and the lady moved to a 180-meter flat. I proposed to them to make a market with everything”. Romero, who had spent part of her life in the United States, was familiar with the concept of estate sales– House open houses where the owner or his heirs sell much, if not all of what’s inside. This idea goes beyond setting up a simple market: “It’s a farewell ceremony,” says Romero, “where we narrate the history of the house and its owners through the objects.” For the first open house, Romero decided to call an old friend of hers, María López, a professional furniture restorer, to give her a hand with the economic valuation of the objects. The weekend they organized the market, word of mouth caused the queue to go around the chalet. On the second day, Astrid and María hung a sign: “We emptied your house”. And the business came up. To date, 53 homes have been emptied, mainly in Madrid, but also in Segovia, Toledo or Alicante.
When Romero and López receive a call, the first step is to visit the house that they are going to empty. There they assess whether the set of objects they have within their reach is likely to be sold: “What for you are junk, for others are treasures,” says María López. “The most curious thing about all this is that the money is not in a wonderful sideboard or a large dining table, the money is in the screwdriver, in the wooden spoon, in the clay dish, in the mismatched plates. They are things that we take care of, but their owners no longer value them.”
Among those who come to the open days looking for bargains or treasures, there are profiles of all kinds, not just middle-class people: “For example, many students come who take advantage of these markets to buy tableware and kitchen utensils,” explains Romero. , “and also those who collect letters or old photographs or who are dedicated to the collage”. The prices are also part of the attraction: “Our objective is to empty the apartments, so we work below the second-hand market,” says López.
Contrary to other countries such as the United States —with its estate sales or your garage sales—or the UK—full of charity shop, stores vintage and famous markets dedicated to used products—, in Spain the second hand has traditionally been perceived as “tacky”. “The mentality here has always been: ‘If I can afford to buy something new, why buy it used?’” says Astrid Romero. In recent years, environmental awareness and the search for more sustainable and responsible consumption, added to the rise of platforms for buying and selling products between individuals such as Wallapop (with 17 million users per month in Spain) or Vinted (six million) , specialized in fashion, have changed this perception. “Consumer mentality is changing,” says María López, “and we are increasingly more ecological and more aware of what we buy.” “Furthermore, especially young people, have discovered that thanks to second-hand they can afford to have better things,” says Romero, “why are they going to buy horrible Ikea crockery if they can have good crockery in a market? Why continue spending money on furniture made in a chain? This is much cheaper and, without a doubt, much more ecological”.
The last barrier, perhaps, is attachment. The Italian philosopher Remo Bodei defined objects as “knots of relationships with the lives of others, circles of continuity between generations, bridges that connect individual and collective histories.” Perhaps having more than 100 people share the memories of a family past can be shocking, even violent. Romero and López’s work has a lot to do with psychology. And they know it: “Our job, in the end, is to make the family that needs to empty their house see that these are just objects: a set of dishes, a glass ashtray, a chair. They are just things. And to the person who comes to the market, convince them of the opposite: this is not a tableware, a glass ashtray or a chair, they are little pieces of someone’s life. Things are not just things”, explains Romero. It seems to work.