Almost 3-years ago, when I was laid-off from a bookstore in Park Slope (that's about to lay itself off...heh, heh), I started selling used books online and trolling Craigslist for estate sales. I hit the jackpot with this one:
The owner had been a printer, a publishing production manager, and a packrat of Collyer Brothers proportion. His estate comprised a Soho apartment and three houses in upstate New York filled to the rafters with junk, beat-up antiques, and ephemera of every sort.
After two days of sorting through the initial apartment, the arbiter and I came to an agreement: I could take what I wanted (within reason) provided I help get the estate into something like showable condition. This turned into a month and a half of urban archaeology, compensated via sweat equity.
With the help of my father and a friend, we removed five dump truck loads of trash from the main house, down to what most people would consider a semi-normal estate (rather than a health and architectural hazard) and in the process I learned a lot about packrat psychology (and this guy in particular).
At first the owner stockpiled, buying multiples of everything--overkill but kind of understandable. He was also a compulsive auction-goer and it looks like he tried to establish a presence on eBay. At some point he went through a messy divorce and was joined by his brother, who mirrored his accumulating but in Bizarro fashion; filling closets--and whole rooms--with cheap stuffed animals, carefully labeled burned-out lightbulbs, and borderline correspondence with public officials. Eventually their personalities seem to blur into a sad folie à deux. In the end the owner died and his brother was committed.
This estate produced many of the items from my "11 Wonderful/Horrible Things Found While Bookscouting" essay (printed in LCRW #20 and continued here) plus numerous life and sanity threatening moments. One night a blizzard forced me to spend the night in one of the houses, resting atop a hope chest, eating stale Rollos washed down with ancient airplane booze mini-bottles (not one of my prouder moments). On another trip there was flash flooding in the next town that sadly claimed the life of at least one person.
I'm a third generation packrat and several members of my family make some portion of their income on eBay. The experience of belonging to one family of packrats digging through the remains of another provided many valuable life lessons. Now I can't pick up an item, no matter how cool or unique, and not think about the pile I'm going to leave when I drop dead.
If you are morbidly curious, I just uploaded a flickr photoset here. Looking through these pictures I have a hard time telling which way is up (and that's not solely due to my lack of photography chops).