Post 208

Duc in Altum: Let's Tackle Your Front Closet

Let’s pretend that the closet near your front door needs an overhaul. This post is about how to go about organizing it and making it work for you.

(Let’s also assume, further to yesterday’s post, that if you are a homeschooling parent in Alberta, who had entrusted Wisdom to do you right, that you’ve now signed up with one of the other school boards which offer traditional homeschooling. Good for you if you have. I’m glad you sent it priority post.

I recommend that you move on, while Wisdom continues to string along the families that trusted them, telling them to do nothing, indefinitely. If Wisdom is up in the air and ground to a halt, then should your life be up in the air and ground to a halt?

Let’s say no. You got work to do, mama — decide where you’ll go and then go.)

Most people ask their front closets to do too much. They expect their closets to store all the coats and boots and hats and gloves that they’ve ever owned (yes, I exaggerate) and yet to also be ready and willing to accept the coat that they wear from day to day.

Sometimes it’s more extreme than that, and the closet is truly a storage centre, holding anything that you might need when you’re heading out the door for almost any activity. So it has water bottles, sports equipment and even some camping gear. In such a case, the closet has minimal use from day to day, because it’s so unpleasant to navigate through it.

But it can be even worse than this. Some homeowners really have no clue what’s in their front closets anymore because they no longer try to get it open. The area around the closet is so cluttered that they can’t open the closet door without clearing a path to it. Inside are all sorts of things — old newspapers and magazines, screwdriver sets and all the things they were planning to return to the store. As for their coats and jackets, they toss these on a nearby chair.

Per inch, closets take a long time to declutter, because usually there are more things crammed into them than other areas of the home. Other areas typically have clutter spread out and arranged in a more easy-going fashion.

So arguably, a person should not begin decluttering their home by beginning with the closet. But on the other hand, you have to begin somewhere, and a closet is a clearly-defined space. You’ll know whether it’s done or not.

Besides, I’m going to walk you through it.

Let’s start with the shoes. How many pairs of shoes do you HAVE, darling? And do you really need so many beaten-up runners ‘just in case’? How many times are you going to be needing old shoes to wear for painting the fence? How often do you paint the fence anyhow?

Take them out of the closet, and for that matter, let’s collect all the shoes that everyone in this house has. We’ll put them on the floor, but we’ll do it by arranging one line of shoes for each person in this house. Here — let’s use the family room, there’s a lot of space here to put them all in a row. Boy, daddy sure has a lot of shoes. Considering the fact that his feet aren’t growing anymore, he’s got quite a collection. What are those? Oh, they’re golf shoes. And those? Well, one time he saw a pair on sale and he thought he’d like them but they’re not as comfortable as these, which look almost identical. If they’re still unworn, I guess we could drop them off at Goodwill.

Ah, but look — momma is still finding all kinds of shoes stashed all over the house — dress shoes, mostly — many pairs of dress shoes. It’s almost getting embarrassing — the number that she has. Her excuse? They match different outfits. Alrighty. Does she wear any of these? How about these strapless lilac heels? No? Out of date now? I see. And what about these tangerine beauties, looking brand new? No? They were supposed to go with that one purse, but the strap on the purse broke and she hasn’t gotten it repaired yet. It’s okay. That’s how it goes. I’m not making fun of you — there are millions of people in your tangerine shoes.

I don’t think women need nearly as many pairs of shoes as they think they do. I’ll accept as essential a pair of everyday flats, a pair of everyday fairly comfortable heels and a pair of dressy and rather uncomfortable but neutral-coloured-go-with-anything heels. That’s three pairs of shoes. Now you can add, assuming you live in a region with four seasons, two specialty items: sandals and a pair of winter boots. (And if you have obscure hobbies like golfing, bowling or jogging, I’ll look the other way and let you add shoes for those activities.) You should be set with that. Stop looking at the catalogues and the shoe stores and you’ll be okay. Don’t read articles online that tell you that shoes ‘make’ the outfit. The feature of your look shouldn’t be way down there. I know shopping for shoes can be mildly entertaining, but if you replace these basic three pairs as they begin to look beaten up, you’ll get your fill of shoe shopping often enough.

Okay, so survey the pile of shoes that don’t fit into these shoes-you-need categories. Get your garbage bag ready and launch. Plop those shoes in there and carry the heavy bags to the curb. If you find a forlorn pair in your closet or elsewhere that you really want to rescue, then go ahead, but the chances are, you’ve probably moved on. You just didn’t get rid of pair number one when you brought pair number two home from the store. And for that matter, did you throw out the packaging that came home with pair number two yet?

Once you’ve slimmed down your pile, you will probably still need to subdivide what’s left. It may be the case that not all the shoes can fit into your front closet. A family of five will still have about fifteen pairs of shoes if everyone has three. That’s a lot of shoes, for most closets.

So I’d say put all the out-of-season shoes in a separate bag or bin. You don’t need your sandals taking up closet space in the winter, and those big boots shouldn’t be in there all year if space is tight. Find a space for your off-season shoes. For now, this space may be in the corner of your garage or in the basement, and you may not like the idea of cluttering those spaces right now, but the front closet is pretty much primo real estate, and it needs to be able to breathe.

If you have several darling pairs of shoes that you rarely wear, but that you can’t bear to discard, then store them in clear plastic shoe boxes. They’re really inexpensive – the flimsy versions can be just a couple of dollars each. Yes, I know the shoes won’t be ventilated, but you barely wear them anyway, so you’ll hardly notice.

You can stack these precious shoes in these little boxes, and they’ll look perfectly neat. You may want to put them up in your bedroom. The boxes are clear, so you’ll see whether they’ll suit your outfit. I like that better than the idea of taking a photograph of your shoes and then taping that to the outside of the box. Sure, the idea looks good in a magazine article, but it’s very hard to maintain. You barely get your normal photographs printed — do you think you’re going to print off the photo of your soccer cleats?

Be careful not to buy too many things to organize your stuff. Wait until you’ve really purged unneeded stuff — then you’ll know what you need.

Onwards and upwards. You can do the same thing with your coats. How many black jackets does a person need? I’d say zero, unless you’re gonna be a priest. Here again, you can gather each person’s collection of coats. It’s a pretty big pile, isn’t it? But what do you really need? How about a cool weather coat (like a raincoat or some sort of fleece-lined thing) and a cold weather coat (wool coats are nice) and a parka or a fur coat if you think you will need it? Shouldn’t that do it?

Once again, relocate the out-of-season items if space is tight. Possibly you can hang them in a closet that’s in a more remote location of the house, or perhaps you can bag them and put them further away.

Do the same with the accessories, like hats and gloves. And weed out specialized clothing and paraphernalia. Group those things with each other — here’s the tennis equipment, here’s the camping equipment, here’s the mountain-biking gear. They don’t need to live in your front closet.

The front closet should be a place to put the things you need to wear on your way out the door, to prepare you for the weather that you’re going to face. To that end, you can put your umbrella in there.

As for the structure of the closet interior, vertical hanging space is a good thing, and I would caution against adding organizers that reduce the amount of hanging space. Some of these closet-organizing companies want to come and turn all of your closets into bookshelves. That’s no good – we need the vertical hanging space that closets traditionally provide.

I typically rearrange the space in my closets, re-installing the top shelf or rack higher. Otherwise, there’s a lot of wasted space at the top of the closet. You can use the top shelf to store summer hats and some (or all) of your clear shoe-boxes.

Re-install the primary shelf higher than it was, but not so high as to make it difficult to hang your hangers. The second step is to install another shelf at about waist-level. This allows you to hang another row of jackets in your closet, and also gives you a surface at a convenient height.

As for closet interior accessories, I have:

  • white plastic hangers
  • a shoe rack with three shelves
  • 3M hooks for keys. I recommend putting little labels above the hooks, to separate your hook from the hooks of other key-owners in your house. It is good to always use the same hook, so that you can tell at a glance whether they’re where they’re supposed to be. Don’t forget an extra hook for the set of spare keys.
  • 3M hooks for umbrellas
  • a dark industrial-style mat which is thin enough that it can be cut to fit the interior of your closet. I also cut pieces to fit into my shoe rack, because the shoe rack shelves were made of a mesh material, which allowed debris from shoes on the upper shelves to fall into the interior of shoes on the lower shelves.

If you happen to have more than one closet on your main floor (perhaps you have one near your front door and one near your rear one), then you may want to designate different purposes for each. I once assisted a homeowner in reorganizing her closets, and we settled on an interesting plan. The large closet near the back door (in their home the back door was more convenient) became the home for all the coats belonging to the mother and the children, who would almost always leave the home together. The narrow closet by the front door became the home for all of the father’s jackets and coats. He left the home earlier to go to work, and he’d stop there to get his things.

Another approach would have been to use the narrow front closet for bulky winter coats.

When you’re done, your closet will be pleasant and useful, and you’ll have more room to accommodate guest’s coats too, but that shouldn’t be your motive for straightening things out in the first place. Your motive for organizing your home is to make it work better for you (and your family), not to make it picture perfect for guests or for Architectural Digest.

So don’t worry too much about leaving space for guests’ coats. You are under no obligation to provide hangers for the world, and so don’t feel embarrassed if every hanger in your closet is spoken for. Welcoming your guest has more to do with the space you leave for them in your heart, and not in your closet. They’ll know that you’re happy to see them, if you are. So it’s okay to say to your guest something like this, “We usually put our guests’ coats on this chair — is that alright with you?” If you choose a chair that’s clean (free of animal hair, for instance) and put it there nicely, you’ve done enough. And besides, sometimes when coats get tucked away in the closet, the guests leave without them. That happens in warmer weather, when the just-in-case sweater or light jacket isn’t remembered by guest or by host.

There. So are you excited? Let’s get to work. But first, classify yourself.

In group A are the keeners who have quite a few hours free and the people working with help. You guys can begin by removing everything from the closet. Then wipe down the interior of the closet and start working on the shoes.

In group B are the less-than-sure folks and the keeners working alone and in shorter stretches. You may want to sort only one section of the closet at a time. Tackle only the top shelf, for instance. Remove the lonely useless items that have been there for who-knows-how-long and put them in their proper homes. Don’t just make a pile by the back door of everything that needs to go into the garage — go into the garage and put them where they belong. Take the Atari video game apparatus and put it in the trash.

The advantage with going section by section is that you won’t get in over your head. It’s no fun to disembowel the closet only to find, three hours later, that the project is only 25% done. Be glad that you’ve dealt with this part or that part, and keep going until it’s done.

In group C are the really-bad-habit folks, who tend to almost never clean up after themselves. For these people, I would say that it’s best to tackle the problem from both ends. Do your best to not make any new messes, beginning now. When you’ve poured your milk into your cereal, put away the milk and the box of Shreddies. Even if you think you might want a second bowl, put those things away. Then once you’ve eaten your cereal, wash out your bowl and your spoon or else put them into the dishwasher. In other words, slow down and clean up after yourself before moving onto the next thing. That’s tackling one end of the problem. When you unwrap some food or any new package, discard the wrapper right away; when your laundered clothes are dry, put them away, and so on and so forth. And as for the second end, take courage and head for the closet. Decluttering and organizing your living space is something everyone can and should do, once in a while. You too can have the fun of sorting through your shoe collection. You too can declutter and get organized.

Take the first step. Clear a path to the closet and duc in altum!