Our little town of Berkeley has quite a reputation – liberal hothouse, naked tree people, hippies on every corner. That reputation is sort of deserved, but the emphasis has to be on “sort of” since the “Berzerkely” nickname is mostly rooted in the events and people of yesteryear. These days much of Berkeley is turning into an unfortunately typical yuppie town, an overflow neighborhood for techies and new parents priced out of their preferred digs in San Francisco. We’re liberal, sure. But there’s plenty around here that wouldn’t jive with a real Berkeley hippie …
A while ago (weeks, months? it all blends together), my wife and I were walking along Fourth Street in Berkeley. Now Fourth Street is in fact 4th Street, running parallel to and between 5th and 6th Streets. But it is known as Fourth Street because it is a thing upon itself, a happening, a Place To Be. To be more specific, Fourth Street is the home of our Apple Store, our Kiehl’s, our Sur La Table, our Anthropologie, and our Restoration Hardware. Now you understand, right?
So my wife and I are window shopping along this mecca of AMAZING STUFF,* under no deadline to be anywhere, when I spied a wonderful place: A Custom Closet Store.* Seriously, this was a whole store dedicated to fixing our desperate closet situation. Now, just so you have a clear picture, our house (a cute little ninety-year-old bungalow which we adore), has a total of two closets. One in our bedroom, one in the hallway. That’s it and there’s no space for any more. The hall closet is totally full of things like sheets and toiletries and cleaning supplies and TUMS and the iron and sunglasses and dog shampoo. You know, piles and piles of crap. Our bedroom closet is a small, very standard approach to closetry with one rod and one shelf. We’re not big stuff-owners but, come on, there are two of us. We each own shoes and shirts and one dress and a few fedoras for dress-up parties. We had stuff stacked and heaped and spilling everywhere. It was making us both crazy (especially me, because I’m too short to reach the back of the high shelf where my wife sticks all the miscellany).
I took one look at the Custom Closet Store and said to myself “Holy Bejeezus, this place is going to save my sanity and my marriage and it’s going to look cool and maybe we can have them build an awesome secret compartment too.” Actually, I probably said all of that out loud, knowing me. I dragged my reluctant wife into the store. It was totally empty of people, spacious, light, airy, beautiful. It was sort of like being in IKEA but there were no children shrieking and the lighting was much better. The salesgirl came out to talk to us. She was young, beautiful, well shod, absurdly thin. I should have known right then how it would all go. But I didn’t.
So I say to the young waif something like “Hey! These closets are awesome! But I notice that there are no price tags on anything and you are absurdly beautiful and stylish to be working in a closet store so maybe I should just not ask about pricing because it’s going to hurt my soul?” Just kidding, that would be way too astute for me. What I said, for real, was: “So, how do you price your closets?” Her response: “Well, the cost is determined by the number of feet and type of material used, as well as the intricacy of your custom design.”
Ah hah! They priced the systems by the foot! I had taken a beginner woodworking class and knew a bit about linear and board feet and lumber and all that woodworky stuff. So I said, in my most knowing and familiar tone, “So, let’s just say I was going to re-do my closet with this very nice material – pointing to the display in front of me, which was not hardwood or pine or anything wood-like at all but some sort of laminate – how much would this cost?” And she, tired of dancing around my blatantly commercial and non-artiste approach to commerce, said, and I paraphrase for your benefit: “For that non-wood plasticized crap, probably about two-fifty a foot, but if you wanted to use real wood, it would be more.” The price seemed surprisingly reasonable given my vague understanding that $2.50/foot was in the ballpark for real lumber from real trees – I was ready to start some serious discussions.
“Ah, two-fifty a foot, huh? Well, I have a 6-and-a-half foot long closet, maybe 2-and-a-half feet deep, and I’d want some drawers and some dividers and some other stuff, so at two dollars and fifty cents per foot, that would be …” and sort of stumbled as I was trying to do this hard math in my head (decimals! complicated!) because I noticed that she was, for want of a nicer word, staring at me. I’m not used to being stared at by young beautiful people so I got flustered and looked at my wife, who sighed and said, in effect: “Sweetheart. My naive, innocent, provincial little wife. I don’t think that she means two dollars and fifty cents. I think she means TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS per foot. ” And I looked at my wife, and I looked at the girl, and they looked at each other, and then my head effing EXPLODED. Is that like a JOKE? We’re talking about a closet. Shelves made of particle board coated with plastic. Affixed with regular old screws and bolts, no mahogany or Japanese hand carved joinery anywhere in the picture. The girl looked at my exploding head and sort of half-sighed, half-smiled. After all, she was a laborer in the shop. She clearly didn’t have a FIVE THOUSAND DOLLAR closet either. Then she said, “Yes, they can get fairly expensive, but most of our clients feel the expense is worth it. After all, they’re not just buying the materials, but a relationship with our design team.” At that I nearly lost it. Seriously? A relationship? With a closet design team? Is that really a thing? By this time my wife was tugging me out of the store, likely afraid of what might fall out of my gaping mouth next.
I sputtered and muttered all the way home, with my wife wisely staying out of my one-person conversation. By the time I got home I had come to a few conclusions, though, which I will impart here:
- If someone says you are paying for a “relationship” run away.
- If that “relationship” is with a “closet designer” run faster.
- I have zero design experience, but if I can’t come up with a shelving system to hold jeans and T-shirts in an organized fashion in a rectangular closet, then I’m an imbecile.
- If, after building whatever shelves I can muster, there’s still so much stuff in our closet that it impinges on our happiness, then we have to get rid of some of it.
When I got home I dug out my measuring tape and a sketchpad and announced my intent. And, for the first time ever, my wife told me, “Yes, honey, you can try to build that,” and sent me out to the hardware store for supplies. An hour later, I returned with one full sheet of plywood, a couple 1″ rectangular dowels, two steel rods and some nuts. (Nuts in the hardware sense, not in the legume or anatomical way). And so I measured and remeasured and borrowed some tools from the Berkeley Tool Lending Library (free!) and ended up with this:
Shelves. In the closet, where they are out of sight most of the time, and which do a mighty fine job of holding our clothes and, on occasion, our cat. Less than fifty dollars, total. Now, I’m sure someone in the crowd will proclaim that the thousands of dollars they spent on a fancy custom closet system were the best dollars they’d ever spent. A great investment, saved their lives, etc. etc. To that I simply say, Fine. Your money, your closet. But for me, I would prefer to keep my money in my pocket. It can keep my pudgy little thighs warm.*
Anyway, I designed and built our closet shelves. And they have been useful for storage. But more than that, the whole process gave me some practice with construction and the confidence to hang out my new shingle: Closet Designer Extraordinaire. I have high hopes for my new career. If you’d like to establish a design relationship with me, just shoot me a check for two-fifty. That’s $2.50, flat. Most people think I’m worth it!
Notes: Although I don’t really like to acquire stuff, I very much like looking at it. Odd, isn’t it? My wife is constantly pulling me away from a close examination of some amazing thing or another. Usually my first words are: “I could build that.” To which she invariably says: “Right sweetheart. Let’s go now.” I’m never sure if her snark is intentional or implied by my own paranoia.
Custom Closet Store is not the real name of the store. I’ve changed the name because I have no interest in calling them out specifically. The point of the story is only to offer my own perspective on closet matters.
Of course a better place than my jeans pocket for the $5,000 would be a revenue generating investment that keeps paying us $$$ far into the future. For example, let’s say that I invested the $5,000 in a REIT that pays a monthly dividend at a 5% annual rate. After 10 years of reinvesting the dividends, that investment would be worth about $8,000, assuming that the stock price and the dividend rate remain exactly the same over the 10 years. If real life instead gives us 2% annual growth in the stock price and dividend rate, then the investment will be worth about $10,000 at the end of the 10 years. And if we were to enjoy 5% annual growth in price and dividend rate over that period, then the investment will be worth almost $20,000 at the end of the 10 years.