Junk Sparks Joy

Mary Randolph Carter finds comfort in nostalgic, off-beat, wacky items. 

Photos by Carter Berg

Mary Randolph Carter lives a life filled with curated junk. An author and Virginia native, Carter is the creative director at Ralph Lauren Corp. in New York City. “When I first visited [New York] more than three decades ago, I noticed Ralph’s office was filled with stuff, and I felt right at home,” she says. “I asked him to write the foreword to my book American Family Style, and he did. He later said he’d joined my world and wanted me to join his. We have the same aesthetic, so it’s been a perfect fit—for 30 years now!”

This aesthetic is best described by her four-book series on junk—American Junk, Kitchen Junk, Garden Junk, and Big City Junk—which might have led readers to anticipate her most recent book, The Joy of Junk: Go Right Ahead, Fall in Love with the Wackiest Things, Find the Worth in the Worthless, and Rescue and Recycle the Curious Objects that Give Life and Happiness to the Places We Call Home! It stands in stark contrast to Marie Kondo’s Netflix show and year-old book on tidying up and decluttering.

Carter’s latest book covers high-profile collectors and designers—Mike Wolfe from American Pickers, among others—who share her passion for thrifting and junking as expressions of one’s self. It provides personal tips on finding treasures from estate sales to flea markets to the web. The collectors creatively integrate their histories and passions with nostalgic, off-beat, wacky objects (anyone for portraits of people not known to your family?), which Carter says help “give our homes soul.” 

On one hand, it’s hard not to feel guilt after initial exposure to Kondo’s organizing concept of good-riddance to items that don’t spark joy. “My mother was always looking for ways to organize our house, our possessions. So, I bought [Kondo’s] book and wrote about it,” says Carter. “Her idea on clutter versus tidying up is very different from mine. She suggests holding an object in your hand to see if it sparks joy. The problem is that I feel joy for all of the layers of things around me, from my grandmother’s Pyrex pudding dish to an old pie-safe I picked up to hold my children’s artwork.

“That means that if you love a lot of things, and decide to live in a house with them, you owe it to your family to be respectful. You can’t have everything thrown hither and yon. I try to have some kind of order. If not, it becomes clutter.” In other words, learn to curate your junk.

Two serious house fires in Carter’s youth might have influenced her philosophy on collecting new old things. The first, at her family home near the Robert E. Lee Memorial on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, destroyed all material possessions and left three family members dead. After this devastating tragedy, the family—her parents with their nine children—retreated to their former summer house, River Barn. The second fire occurred when she was home for the weekend from Richmond’s Marymount School. “I was 16,” she says. “After that fire we eventually moved to Muskettoe Pointe Farm just up the road, facing the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay. It was along the same road as River Barn, which was comforting.” 

Although she calls the fires “huge life lessons,” Carter hasn’t psychoanalyzed the impact they had on her enthusiasm for collecting as a possible way of fulfilling a need for permanence. “Someone suggested I might be picking up lots of stuff because I see everything as fleeting,” she says.

 The main thing, she says, is to enjoy and find comfort in whatever you collect. She moved to New York City in 1967, after graduating from Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York. She participated in Mademoiselle magazine’s guest editorship program, of which Sylvia Plath was a famous alumna. “A blue-painted rocking chair and old quilts from Virginia—things I could relate to,” were the items she says she brought to her sixth-floor walk-up.

Carter contends that junk also becomes part of one’s hospitality. “Visitors feel intangible connections to what you have in your home,” she says. “Our apartment is like a scrapbook—our family’s and other people’s—and that sparks conversation. In some cases, the provenance might have been attached to an item when I purchased it, but in most cases, we conjecture that a portrait, for example, looks like someone we’ve known, or we can imagine stories attached to it.”

Although she has lived in New York for four decades—longer than she lived in Virginia—she considers Virginia home. Besides being a descendant of Mary Randolph, the author of the 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife, her diphthong in “house” and “about” gives away her origin. She amuses her husband of 48 years, Howard Berg, when she says she’s going “home” each time they go to Virginia. “Someplace in my heart,” she says, “it’s home.”

Mary Randolph Carter’s Favorite Virginia Spots for Collecting 
Class and Trash at Scott’s Addition

Richmond, ClassAndTrash.com

Kilmarnock Antique Gallery

Kilmarnock, Virginia-Antiques.com

Sheppard Street Antiques

Richmond, SheppardStreetAntiques.com

Urbanna Flea Market & Antiques 

Urbanna, 804-758-4042

Verve Home Furnishings

Richmond, VerveHomeFurnishings.com

West End Antiques Mall

Richmond, WestEndAntiquesMall.com

This article originally appeared in our June 2019 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum