The Mercer Street Project

Mercer Street Project screengrab

A screengrab from the Mercer Street Project tumblr.

Like so many people, Kaira Kristbergs was faced with the question of what to do with a houseful of stuff after her grandmother, Anna Rande, passed away in 2012, leaving behind one of those classic Albany two-family houses on Mercer Street in Pine Hills.

Her grandparents, Latvian refugees, had arrived in Albany in the 1950s. They got jobs at places like Tobin's and Freihofer's and found their way as immigrants. Kaira's mom grew up in the house, as did Kaira.

By the time of her grandmother's passing, the house was full of stuff collected not just by her grandparents, but also items Kaira's parents had accumulated from around the world while working in the international shipping business. All sorts of stuff: furniture, toys, family memorabilia, mason jars, so many picture frames, and on and on.

So Kaira, an illustrator, turned the situation into The Mercer Street Project -- a sort of online documentary of her family's life, one object at a time, folded into an ongoing estate sale.

mercert_street_project_1.jpg

The best way to understand what Kaira's doing is just to go have a look -- so here's the Tumblr and Instagram for the project, along with the Etsy store.

Kaira and her partner, Andrejs, are now living in the house as they document and disperse the contents. We stopped by last week to talk with Kaira for a few minutes.
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Your grandmother passes away, that's a hard thing to deal with. When did it dawn on you the situation you were facing with this house?

I always kind of knew how full it was, but I never really thought about it too hard because it wasn't my stuff. And then I went to Chicago and I was getting my masters. And I was in a cartooning class and I kept finding myself drawing this house, and thinking about it, and then it became this weird thing where I was drawing it differently than it was -- like I remembered it different.

Then that kind of started this whole thing about how do we really remember the past, and also the idea of who we were set up to be. All this stuff was left for somebody. Like, who were we supposed to be? What happens if we disrupt that? What happens if we get rid of all these things? What happens if all these things go somewhere else? And it just kind of became an interesting story.

mercert_street_project_2.jpg

A lot of people have been faced with this, a parent or a grandparent dies and you end up with a house full of stuff and you have to do something with it. And people have a garage sale, an auction, whatever. You're doing that to a certain extent, but you also decided to make this a project for yourself.

I wanted to make sure that everything got seen. I wanted to give everything that chance. And I feel like there's a lot of stuff here that had all this potential when it was moved here and it never really got to have its true experience.

I guess I wanted to know what I had before I got rid of it. I wanted to know what there was. Not so much that it was left for me to know, but that there's something there -- there's some sort of information there to be gathered, maybe like a history not to repeat, in there that needed the respect of me going through and it being seen.

mercert_street_project_3.jpg

Is there a particular object that, in a way, didn't get its chance to live its life and you were able to surface?

My grandmother was a really avid baker and a sewer. So when we sell a stand mixer or one of the sewing machines -- I kept the one that was "her" sewing machine -- but there were a couple that you could tell were waiting for sewing. So it was really nice to be able to get rid of stuff like that and know that someone was going to use it.

The other thing I can think of is that my grandmother painted. And we had a painting down here that was OK, it wasn't too impressive. But then we had somebody who was coming here and they were getting their first apartment. And both the people involved were really excited because this was going to be their first painting. And you're like, that's so amazing. It was just a garbage painting, and I wasn't going to give it a second thought. And it's someone's first painting and they're going to hold onto that, and it's another 100 years of being an object.

It becomes a part of the story of their life

Exactly, exactly. And we can change that object. For me that painting is sad because I miss my grandmother. But for them that painting is exciting because it's new for them. So you get to kind of redefine what stuff is. That's kind of powerful.

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What have you learned about the way other people have reacted to all this stuff?

I've been shocked that people are interested. I kind of assume that everybody's got their baggage and who would want to see someone air theirs out in the world. But you just get so many people who remember they had that thing or remember having that thing in their house.

It makes you realize that you're not alone in this. And that everyone's been in this situation, kind of, before. So, it's humbling. ...

I think it's been really weird to watch Albany interact with the internet. You see people come out of the woodwork, people I went to high school with a million years ago, or people who just heard about it from a thing. You really see a lot of people that I wouldn't see when I was not doing this.

It's a way to not only reacquaint yourself with your family, but with other people here.

Yeah, because you hear everyone's story when they come in here, for sure. Everyone wants to talk about how they've been in this situation and what they did and what they recognize.

You mentioned before that when you were working on some of your cartooning work about this house that the image of it in your mind differed from the way it actually was. As you go through all this stuff, and all the memories connected to this stuff, has that changed the way you think about your family, the story of your family?

Yeah, I think you learn that, especially as a kid, that things were more complicated than you give them credit for. And people's shortcomings weren't necessarily what you saw them -- not necessarily that they were right or vindicated -- but there was more to it and that things were more complicated than you'd imagine.

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Andrejs and Kaira

Has this affected the way you look at stuff and the things that you acquire?

Yeah, when we lived in Chicago we were avid thrift shoppers and we'd go on the weekends and scour for t-shirts and furniture. And I'm saturated with things [now] -- I think I'm set for the next seven years of my life.

But I also find myself late at night arguing with Pawn Stars or Storage Wars, like, "that chair is $60" and I'll be like, no, you can get $20 tops for it, stop -- who are you kidding?! And then we're like, oh no, we're those people, arguing with the TV.

When you see yourself 50 years from now, are you in a house with a lot of stuff?

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I have collected kitschy, tiny objects forever. It's not going to change. If anything, I have more now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Kaira figures the estate sale portion of the project will continue for another six months or so. In addition to the Etsy shop, they also have open "office hours" at the house roughly every other weekend. (Those hours are announced on Instagram.) They're also available by appointment.

And after the items are sold, and the apartments are prepared to be rented?

"I have dreams of building a geodesic dome somewhere in the desert. I've lived in Albany, Chicago, and Burlington -- I'm done with the cold."

(Thanks, Laura!)

Comments

Nice story.
That gives me an idea about my life on this block!

As a historian, I find this project a fascinating social history. As a senior citizen with a lot of stuff I find it slightly terrifying: what if all my crap were photographed and documented? I often feel the same way at estate sales (of which I am a denizen). They have a very different feel from ordinary garage sales. Like they are 3-day exhibits of a person's life: objects that are admired or coveted perhaps, others disdained, certainly all judged. This post has actually helped me in my current decluttering mania.

p.s .Except I want ALL the dishes pictured above.

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