A life and times, for sale on eBay

When John Freyer decided to sell everything in his apartment on eBay, an auction website, his friends gave him funny looks. Some people even worried that he was planning to commit suicide.

But Mr. Freyer, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, was simply trying to divest himself of items that were reining in his mobility. In the process of getting rid of his canned goods, boxer shorts, and computer equipment, he was finding the answer to that oft-asked question, "What would I do if I suddenly lost all my possessions?"

His experiences selling his kitsch and clothes are chronicled in his new book "All My Life for Sale" (Bloomsbury), named after the website he created to catalog his belongings when he auctioned them off in 2000 and 2001. Meant more for a coffee table than a long plane ride, the book features descriptions of former items of Freyer's and updates on where they are now.

His stories about why he owned false teeth and an album called "How to Belly-Dance for Your Husband" are diverting, but it's the ideas about consumerism and community building raised by the project that are truly thought-provoking.

For Freyer's tale is not just about selling off your prized possessions to strangers. It's also about making friends, as he did with many of the buyers, who invited him to come see how his items were faring. Even before he hit the road, documenting his visits on another website called temporama.com, he was forming relationships in unexpected ways – sharing not just goods, but culture.

"One of the things I realized in the middle of this project," he says in a phone interview, "is that the types of correspondence back and forth mimicked a previous time of exchange, which was not a strict commodity exchange, but an exchange of ideas as well."

As was the case during the spice trade, he says, "you're not just buying spices, but you're sharing culture back and forth. And on eBay ... there are those types of exchanges when people are selling things. 'Oh did you know that this has this history,' and so on."

He started the bidding for all his items at $1, and some, like his salt shaker and matchbook collection, sold for exactly that amount. Media attention along the way helped bump prices higher, with 16 potential buyers slugging it out for his two-volume Oxford English Dictionary. That drew the most money of any of his belongings: $183.52.

As Freyer slowly started losing things he needed to survive – from his toaster to his winter coat – he adapted his lifestyle, eating out instead of cooking, for example, once his kitchen table and utensils were gone.

"But I didn't forget the recipes, I didn't forget how to use a knife. You don't lose those things that are within you," he says.

His buyers came from as far away as England and Japan. One of his T-shirts went to a divinity-school student from Claremont, Calif., who saw similarities between the graduate student and another man who gave up his possessions and traveled: Jesus.

Freyer sees his motivation – which is not quite holy, as he did make money, after all – as a typical reaction to having too much stuff.

"The initial thought of downsizing or eliminating some things was, I think, a very common response. In my case, I was returning from New York to Iowa City" after a summer job, he explains, saying his choice to return was dictated in part by the items in his apartment. "Had I not had these possessions, I probably would have stayed."

He ultimately sold about 600 items on eBay and another 600 in a yard sale.

He held back a few clothes, so he would have something to wear. But he sold his sideburns, which arguably weren't symbols of rampant consumerism. He has specific ideas about reaccumulating – he tries to buy second-hand items, or ones made in countries where people can vote. In the case of his sideburns, which went to Pittsburgh, he simply grew them back. "Did I have to shave them off forever?" he quips. "I don't know what the rules are."

Unlike a yard sale, this auction provided Freyer with an opportunity to think about why the objects were in his life before they left it forever, making it easier to let them go. He wrote a blurb about each item, enticing potential buyers with tidbits about how he learned to cook, what was likely inside wrapped Christmas gifts for his family, and the childhood fall that required him to wear two fake front teeth for a time.

"A lot of the stuff I wrote stories about, I didn't even know I had. I certainly didn't know I had the set of teeth with me. So if it wasn't for the people who came and tagged stuff at my inventory party, I wouldn't have known I had that. I wouldn't have remembered to tell that story. That story was gone for me. That story had been told."

It's these stories, he argues, that really define us – not owning the objects themselves, as online profilers and other compilers of consumer practices and purchases would imply.

And sometimes the uses of the objects couldn't have been categorized. Like "the great old empty box" that went to a business traveler who started taking it with her everywhere – her plan is to fill the sturdy, medium-sized box, which Freyer acquired from University of Iowa surplus, with souvenirs of the places she visits. She is now exactly the kind of person she used to avoid, she's told Freyer, the chatty kind who slows boarding in order to stash her things in overhead bins.

Freyer was often the only person his buyers had ever met online. What surprised him the most about his sale – besides the fact that people bought his perishable goods, including a Vidalia onion – was the trust exchanged between them.

This was before Sept. 11 and the Anthrax cases, he says, explaining that people were willing to buy a salt shaker with salt already in it and a lunchbox with a lunch he packed. In return, he says, he knows that the people who have bought his items are good stewards for them.

His conversations with buyers often revolved around their use of the Internet, but they also included discussions about the need for possessions. One friend pointed out that people have a post- Depression-era mentality of needing to hold onto things, in case of hard times. "Her perspective was that we hold onto things because we're afraid that we can't provide for ourselves," he says. But the divinity-school student offered another view. "Katherine's experience was that if you give things up, you will be provided for by the Lord," he says.

As for Freyer, he sometimes misses his items, but they are never far from thought. His projects – the allmylifeforsale website, the book – have earned him credit toward his master's degree in photography and digital media. He even considers what he was doing on eBay at times as an "online performance."

He laughs at the idea that without his belongings he is unrecognizable, because the project has preserved them in so many ways.

"Do you think I'm going to forget any of these objects?" he quips. "They're going to haunt me for the rest of my life."

• E-mail campbellk@csmonitor.com

What is eBay?

Now seven years old, eBay is a lucrative online auction site that offers millions of products for sale, including books, sporting goods, cameras, furniture, Halloween costumes, and even cars. The ease with which it allows people to buy and sell their wares led at least one person to sell his soul on the site this year (a British 20-something, whose buyer was a man from Oklahoma who had lost his own soul in a bet). As many as 100,000 people make their living selling on eBay, reports Adam Cohen in his recent book, "The Perfect Store." The company doesn't consider itself an auctioneer or dealer, he writes, but a modern version of the classified ad.

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