Collectors

kayla kumari upadhyaya

Photos: Brandi McGuinness

Photos: Brandi McGuinness

For longer than she would probably care to admit, three mismatched bookshelves stood in a cluster in the oddly shaped nook that juts off of my girlfriend’s living room. She found them all on the street. One, wobbly and beigish (perhaps once white), she found before I entered her life. I remember it greeting me in her former Williamsburg apartment, boasting books and booze. The second is made from a light-colored wood, a little beaten down, which I always say is part of its charm. It’s curved, meant for a corner space. Brandi was walking out of her drum studio in East Williamsburg when she spotted it on the sidewalk. The third, my favorite, we found together. It’s black and has shelves like puzzle pieces.

Brandi does most of the streetside furniture scavenging in our relationship, but this black bookcase was a team effort. We were walking in downtown Brooklyn, on our way to pick out her new glasses for her, when we stumbled upon two identical bookcases far nicer than anything we could afford. Two! A set! In near-perfect condition! But being on a time-sensitive mission as we were,  and without her car, we moved on, resigned to their loss and the knowledge that someone else would no doubt find them by the time we finished at Warby Parker. Two hours later, we returned to the spot, where both bookcases miraculously remained. We stood next to them, weighing the possibilities of getting them home. A guy who lived in the building where the pieces likely came from said he’d offer his truck if it wasn’t in the shop. Others passed us and offered, “nice find!” like we were all playing the same furniture finding game together. It started to rain. Feeling pressured by the elements, we carried one of the bookcases three blocks to a busier road and hailed a cab, deciding the piece was worth the fare. As we loaded it into the back, a woman on the sidewalk admired the bookcase. “Where’d you get that?” she asked.

“It was just on the street!” Brandi replied. “There’s actually a second one exactly like it!”

“Where?” the woman asked, excited. Brandi pointed, and she took off around the corner. At the same moment, a woman who had been walking out of the bank behind her also sprinted in the direction of Brandi’s finger, having apparently overheard the whole thing. I stared in disbelief. Had we just sparked a street brawl over a bookcase? Brandi rushed around the corner to watch it unfold, and I heard her laughter turned into squeals of excitement. The two older women weren’t competing. They were together. They ran the three blocks to the bookcase holding hands and pumping their other fists in the air, having just won the game.

Plenty of New Yorkers walk past discarded furniture on the street without so much as a glance. I consider myself a Furniture Observer: I always stop to admire the pieces that catch my eye. The purple Victorian-style fainting couch in Prospect Heights that my mom will never forgive me for leaving behind even though Brandi and I don't have room for it. The orange barstool set in Bed-Stuy. I like to imagine who used them, lived with them, put a part of their lives out on the street, before I move on.

Brandi is a Furniture Collector: someone who would rather pick up a coffee table from the sidewalk than from IKEA, someone compelled to take anything off the street if it’s in good enough condition, try it out for a few weeks, and then either keep it or return it to the sidewalk for the next Furniture Collector to come across. Freecycling furniture is a longstanding New York tradition, even though it isn’t always legal to put furniture on the sidewalk or even pick it up. We didn’t know this at the time, but Brandi and I could have been fined $2000 for loading our found bookcase into a vehicle.

But Furniture Collectors aren’t impeded by the question of legality. I doubt Brandi will ever stop collecting. She goes through phases: her bookshelf addiction recently gave way to a coffee table compulsion. She carried one large, grayish coffee table several blocks by herself in the summer heat. She found another when she had her car, but had to remove the legs so it could fit, using her tweezers as a makeshift screwdriver. That one, black and with a lower shelf, kicked the grayish one to the curb. Somehow, a third coffee table turned up a few days later. I didn’t ask questions.

Photo: Brandi McGuinness

Photo: Brandi McGuinness

The family of bookshelves in the living room eventually worked itself out, just as the war of the coffee tables eventually will. The oldest bookshelf was donated back to the street, the curved one remains in the living room, housing mostly her roommate’s books. We keep saying we’re going to paint it. The black bookcase now lives in her bedroom, where it keeps Brandi’s plants. I wonder what the other couple with the matching piece keep on theirs.

Of course, Brandi’s room also has another bookshelf. This one, tall and ladder-like, wasn’t found but was donated to her by a family friend. Among its many residents are books that I, a Book Collector, have foraged for in boxes on the streets of our neighborhood. She'll continue to find bookcases and bookshelves, and I'll continue to fill them with books, our compulsions to collect compounding, completing.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and television critic living in Brooklyn with her girlfriend. Her work can be found on Autostraddle, Vice, Vulture, and The A.V. Club.