The Tempestuous Lives of Secondhand Furniture

In the summer of 2019, Jacqueline Lobel, a 33-year-old TV producer, was scrolling through Craigslist, optimistically hoping to buy a dining room table that would fit into a slightly dark space in the large studio apartment she had just moved into in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.

“When I saw how this apartment was staged before I rented it, I was inspired to do the same layout, so I knew what kind of table I needed,” she said.

Two months into her search, she saw a post that promised a gorgeous, 42-inch walnut wood and brass dining room table in good condition. It was part of the décor at Günter Seeger, a Michelin-starred restaurant that was closing in the West Village. The custom-made table retailed for $3,000. The proprietors were offering it for $500. She bought it for that price.

“I met the owners and could tell they were sad about selling these pieces. There’s romanticism and story behind them,” said Ms. Lobel, who has learned that anything and everything is findable — and sellable — on e-commerce sites, especially Facebook Marketplace.

So naturally Ms. Lobel turned to Facebook Marketplace two years later when that same table fell out of favor.

“I loved it, but I was too precious about damaging it to use it,” she said. “I think I had two or three dinners on it before it became a visual clutter and dumping ground for packages.”

Despite the awkwardness Ms. Lobel said she feels when interacting with strangers, she loves enthusiastic buyers who will give her furniture “a happy place” to live. “I’m continuing a cycle. I’m getting rid of something to bring something else in.” (Last year she scored an impressive vintage camel leather couch for $50.)

She posted photos and descriptions of the table in November 2022, but it sat unclaimed for a month before she refreshed the posting. The following day, the table was spotted by Ruth Gallogly, 51, a freelance writer and consultant who lives in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.

After a few messages and some texts, Ms. Gallogly said she sent over “a guy with a van that I use when something needs to be picked up.” The mover measured the piece, confirmed it was the right size, and Ms. Gallogly paid Ms. Lobel $500 by Venmo.

An hour later it glowed in Ms. Gallogly’s kitchen in her one-bedroom co-op. “Now it’s become this warm, welcoming hosting spot,” said Ms. Gallogly, who had been trying to fill the space since she renovated her apartment in 2021. “I loved the table, but I also loved the back story and the history this piece of furniture had to tell,” she said. “I share it with everyone who visits.”

And so it goes. A furniture handoff sparking an unexpected relationship.

“People are looking for connection. Through this transaction you’re continuing a thread through a shared piece of furniture,” said Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of marketing at University at Buffalo School of Management, whose focus is on the psychology of consumption and consumer behavior.

“That’s how you can share a piece of someone’s life,” Mr. Lindsey added. “It’s also the new story you’re creating by extending the history of something that someone owned by how you display it and embrace that item. It makes buying something from someone else psychologically attractive.”

E-commerce sites offer that attraction to millions of consumers, from the amateur sleuth to the full-blown shopping addict.

Ms. Gallogly, who likes the hunt, has furnished her home over the past year with more than 20 items from Marketplace. “I’m one of those people who knows what I like once I see it but who has a hard time visualizing how things will look in a space or what colors will work well together,” she said.

Sylvain Sénécal, a marketing professor at the business school HEC Montreal who specializes in digital marketing and consumer behavior, said Ms. Gallogly was not alone.

“The social proof and inspiration these items create when someone sees how one person highlighted it in their apartment and how someone else can do the same in their home is part of the draw,” he said. “For potential buyers, that becomes aspirational. It triggers something that increases their willingness to buy something.”

Last year, Mr. Sénécal conducted an online experiment. He showed 335 participants a dozen photos from a pool of 60. In some, the photos showed only a bare table or bed. Others were staged to reflect a lived-in environment or an indication that a person had a personal connection to it.

“The staged shots increased the person’s emotions, motivation or intention to buy the product,” he said. “They have an easier time imagining that item in their home, especially if they think the item was connected to happiness.”

Like many shoppers, Ms. Gallogly doesn’t identify as just a buyer, she also quickly became a seller, adding to the momentum of a continuous furniture circulating chain. In 2019 she purchased a gray and white marbleized oval coffee table from CB2, which she adored. That feeling never changed, but her surroundings did. After the renovation, it no longer went with the décor.

“The idea that this was in my home and I loved it, and that I’m able to pass this along to someone else who will love it is very settling,” she said.

She posted the oval table at the end of December 2022. At $400, it wasn’t getting any inquiries. She lowered the price to $350. Then $300.

When Kristen Daibes and her husband moved from their small one-bedroom rental in Edgewater, N.J., in 2020 into a 1920s colonial-style three-bedroom house in Harrington Park, N.J., they suddenly had extra rooms to furnish.

Ms. Daibes, a 30-year-old elementary teacher, wanted something oval that was white and gray to complete a family room, and spent six months scrolling on Marketplace. She was instantly smitten with Ms. Gallogly’s table, but it was out of her budget until the price dropped. When it went to $275, she pounced. In January of 2023, she stood alongside her husband, Ghanem Daibes, in Ms. Gallogly’s hallway.

“Once I saw it, I started envisioning it in our room, with a candle placed on it, and yelling at my husband for not using a coaster,” she said. “I’m a big secondhand person, my husband is not. I had to sell him on this concept, and the coffee table.”

The piece now resides alongside a piano and two couches, under a skylight in their family room. “As unsentimental and boring as a coffee table is, there’s an acknowledgment that someone loved this item in their home and it is now in mine. I’m giving it a second life,” she added.

Ms. Daibes’s satisfaction and sentimentality, which seemed rather passionate in the beginning, was surprisingly short lived.

“None of these pieces last in our home forever,” she added. “I’ll probably sell it in a few years.”

Her ability to maintain detachment is what led her to sell a full-length mirrored door, that when opened, revealed drawers, compartments and countless slots to hold jewelry, which she bought on Amazon in 2017 for over $200.

“It was important to have at the time. When we moved, it didn’t fit with our home and I didn’t have the jewelry to fill it.”

No worries. Mary Jo Birrittieri-Parente had plenty of jewelry.

Early in the pandemic, Ms. Daibes and Ms. Birrittieri-Parente met in a busy Target’s parking lot in Closter, N.J., to do a handoff, three days after Ms. Daibes posted it on Marketplace.

“I got involved in Marketplace during Covid because stores were closed or they didn’t have inventory,” said Ms. Birrittieri-Parente, a 51-year-old, former medical receptionist, who lives in a two-bedroom condominium in Bergen County, N.J., with her daughter.

Ms. Birrittieri-Parente, a single parent who appreciates the bargains offered by sites like Marketplace, has accumulated more than 90 pieces of costume jewelry. “I needed something that would organize them all in one place and I needed a full-length mirror,” she said.

The exchange in the parking lot lasted only a few minutes, and after Ms. Birrittieri-Parente determined the piece reflected what the photos promised, handed over the negotiated price: $30 in cash, down from the original ask of $60. The multitasking armoire fit into her black SUV. Minutes later it was propped up in her bedroom.

“This breathed new life into me and this room while making it more modern,” she said. “Everything has its own place now. I love that it’s white and goes with my furniture. It doesn’t matter that it was someone else’s. It’s brand-new to me and my home.”

The furniture tango is always moving and constantly changing partners. Sometimes the dance is easy, other times, not so much.

Ms. Lobel, who felt an emotional loss at selling the round table, was soothed by quickly filling the once empty space with a bookshelf, chest and reading chair — all bought secondhand, and by the fact that Ms. Gallogly was so thrilled at the find, and purchase.

“It was a beautiful piece. But I empathized with Ruth deeply,” she said. “I was her three years ago looking for a beautiful round table. Knowing I helped her find that made it more sweet than bitter.”

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