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How downsizing expert Matt Paxton helps Americans sort through their stuff

(Joe Gough/for The Washington Post)

At age 25, Matt Paxton cleared out the homes of four relatives who died within months of one another. The painful experience of sorting through lifetimes of possessions and memories was life-changing. He went on to have a career as an extreme-cleaning specialist and professional downsizer who now appears on two TV series about people dealing with an overflow of stuff.

Yes, many things need to go. But Paxton’s personal experience made him realize that hidden in those old filing cabinets and dusty shoe boxes are also memories that need to be acknowledged and preserved.

“When we clean out our attics, we relive lives,” says Paxton, who now has 20 years of experience helping others sort through their homes or family estates. A veteran of A&E’s “Hoarders,” Paxton, 45, uses his own show, “Legacy List with Matt Paxton,” on PBS to help a diverse group of families uncover the history of their most important items and figure out what the heck to do with them.

“Legacy List” — “keep the memories, lose the stuff” — travels to the homes of people who are downsizing or moving. It’s a combination of “Antiques Roadshow” and “Finding Your Roots,” with a touch of the sparking joy of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Paxton arrives with his crew — experts on antiques, pop culture, fashion and military memorabilia — and helps homeowners identify sentimental items as they declutter and pack. “If your house was going to burn down, what are the four or five most important things that you would want to take with you?” Paxton asks. The answers have included a whaling harpoon, a POW bracelet from the Vietnam War era and a long-lost secret family recipe for a white sauce.

Season 2 of “Legacy List” launched this month against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which has focused even more attention on the need for baby boomers to take stock of their possessions. During the pandemic, many Americans have reclaimed stuffed closets and basements, turning up lost family documents and forgotten mementos. It can be challenging to decide whether to keep, sell or toss items, or to find a family member or organization that might want them.

The great decluttering of 2020: The pandemic has inspired a clean-out of American homes

This season’s episodes include a visit to a New Jersey family with a collection of fossils, a Massachusetts woman sorting through civil rights artifacts and two retired D.C. librarians whose relics include a Rolleiflex camera owned by a relative who played in the Count Basie Orchestra.

“We could make this show about any house in the country,” Paxton says. It’s not about what is financially valuable, he adds; it’s about what is spiritually valuable.

Paxton grew up in Richmond in what he calls an “average middle-class family.” A few years after college, he headed west. He returned home in 2001 when his dad died, and he took more than a year to “deal with the loss and also take care of his physical estate.” During that time, his stepfather and both grandfathers died, and he had to clean out their homes, too. Paxton felt overwhelmed.

He was emptying drawers and cabinets, overcome with grief. A therapist said he would benefit from volunteering. He found Comfort Zone Camp, a bereavement retreat for children who have lost parents. “It changed my life,” Paxton says. “It helped create the structure of my business, which is talking things out and hearing the stories of people’s lives.”

Paxton started helping friends and members of his church clean out their homes. In 2003, he formally launched his own business, Clutter Cleaner. “My clients who were over 70 had the same attachment to their stuff and the same grief as the 10-year-old boys I had been counseling at the camp,” he says. He told older clients whose millennial children had already rejected their china that the next generation will only want an item if it has real meaning and history. “Things that matter will survive,” he says.

Part of Paxton’s business also involved dealing with pack rats, now known as hoarders. “I had a number of Depression-era people who had never moved or thrown anything away,” he says. “They were out of control with their stuff, and their homes were a mess. Some had wedding gifts they hadn’t unwrapped in 40 years, or extreme collections that were overwhelming them.”

In 2008, he hired a film student from Virginia Commonwealth University to create videos of his clean-outs and post them on YouTube. Within a week, he got a phone call from the “Hoarders” production team, which was shooting its first season and looking for homes to feature. They came to Richmond and saw Paxton in action. A few days later, he was in Alabama filming the reality TV show at a house with more than 200 cars in the backyard. Paxton has appeared in every season, often working with people who have a disorder caused by grief or trauma that has made them value things over people and experiences. He has sorted through a collection of 1,000 dolls and dealt with 300 cats. He has cleared paths through rooms with horrible stenches and picked through mold, dead rodents and worse.

As the years went on, he dreamed of having his own TV show that would be an account of how to approach the hard decisions of downsizing in a different, drama-free way.

“I wanted to tell the story of aging Americans and their struggles with too many possessions,” he says. He made plans to sell his business that helped people downsize, and in 2018 formed the production company Shipyard Entertainment and partnered with Virginia Public Media to make “Legacy List.” He started filming in 2019.

He is constantly asked how to start the shoveling-out process.

“Pick a time every night to clean for 10 minutes,” he says. “Pull one box down and clean it with someone in your family, if you can. Tell the stories of what you find.” He says to stick to this schedule, and decide what to sell, donate, trash or keep. He suggests voice-recording memories as you go. Store them in a digital file.

And don’t try to do this over a holiday weekend. “If it took 50 years to fill a house, how are you going to clean it out over a weekend?” he says.

Look for treasures in roll-top desks, junk drawers, frames and freezers, as well as taped to toilet lids. Knock on rows of books; if a volume sounds hollow, it might be a fake book with a hidden compartment. (He once found a gold bar in a hollowed-out book.) “Grab books by the spine and shake to see if anything falls out,” he advises. Look for mustard-brown envelopes that hold savings bonds. “We find them everywhere, including once stacked and wrapped in pantyhose at the bottom of an underwear drawer,” he says.

Q&A: Downsizing expert Matt Paxton on how to deal with your stuff

Paxton recently had a reckoning with his own stuff.

In November, he moved out of his Colonial home in Richmond and relocated to a small, minimalist house in Georgia designed by his fiancee, simplicity expert Zoë Kim, author of “Minimalism for Families.” They have seven children between them. “She is amazing, and I’m realizing more than ever, you don’t need stuff to find happiness,” he says.

He had to get rid of 75 percent of his stuff when he moved. “I went through boxes in my own attic. I relived my grandfather’s death, my dad’s death. I went through stuff from college and old girlfriends,” Paxton says. “It was interesting to practice what I preach. Every box was a moment in time.” He stopped every 10 minutes to take photos and notes, because he’s working on a book. (Tentative title: “Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff.”)

His own legacy list, by the way, includes his mom’s handwritten recipe book (“all the food I ate as a kid”), a Beastie Boys painting done by a fan, his dad’s gold Tiffany ring and the wedding license of his great-grandmother — which he uncovered in a tackle box — showing she was married at 14.

Removing so many boxes of stuff was freeing. He advises boomers not to let this pandemic time at home go to waste. “This thing is going to end in about a year. There are still a lot of things to do,” Paxton says. He suggests corralling children and grandchildren and going over your legacy list with them.

“I believe we are coming out of the pandemic with something good,” he says. “Caring more about people and families, and less about stuff.”

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