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Photo by Carter Berg
Mary Randolph Carter
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Photo by Carter Berg
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Photo by Carter Berg
Janet West's potholder collection
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Mary Randolph Carter will be at Anthropologie at Stony Point Fashion Park tomorrow, May 17, to meet folks and sign her new book, Never Stop to Think … Do I have a Place For This? from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Carter is the author of A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of Misspent Life, For the Love of Old, and the Junk books, a series on discovering and using flea-market and antique finds to bring something new to interior design. She was the former beauty editor at Mademoiselle, creative director of Self magazine and just celebrated her 25th year working with Ralph Lauren as vice president of advertising and creative director.
Mary Randolph Carter. A name that is so firmly rooted in this particular city, an ex-pat Richmonder in Hong Kong (or any other city in any country) would immediately recognize her as a fellow native. And once she opened her mouth, the particular way she says “house” and “about” would immediately confirm her identity.
Carter, as she’s known (the New Yorker who became her husband said he couldn’t manage all those names), is a descendent of The Virginia House-Wife's* Mary Randolph and part of the First Family of Virginia Carters to boot. She spent her childhood living in the shadow of the Lee Monument until a fire gutted her house and killed several family members.
One of nine children, Carter and her family moved to White Stone, on the Rappahannock River, where another fire destroyed the house. Fortunately, this time, no one was hurt, but the family lost everything in the fire.
It’s a peculiar beginning for an inveterate collector. Or perhaps compulsive collector is a better way to describe her. In her latest book, Never Stop to Think…Do I have a Place For This?, Carter visits and tells the stories of 20 other collectors, celebrating a style that is specific to each of them. What they all have in common is a passion for meaningful things — a passion Carter herself has exuberantly embraced all her life.
BF: Have you always been a collector?
MRC: Often people say to me, ‘Why do you collect all this stuff, knowing how fragile life is and how quickly things go — and disappear?’ I don’t know, I think it’s just because things — books, photographs, locks, old clocks, things that I love and surround myself with fortify my spirit and make me smile … That’s why this book is about giving permission to never stop to think, 'Do I have a place for this?' If you have a place for it in your heart, you’ll have a place for it in your home.
BF: When was the last time you went to a flea market?
MRC: That season is just beginning now, but there are always special places I go to on a pretty regular basis. I have a bumper sticker that I created and have on the back of [my] truck that says, “I brake for junk.” …If I see a yard sale or garage sale, I’m likely to quickly pull over.
BF: You had a [vintage] shop in White Stone with your sister, didn’t you? [It has since closed.]
MRC: My sister Nell Carter Thompson, who lives in Richmond, she and I started American Junk. It had been a Texaco station, general store, luncheonette on one of the four corners in White Stone when we were growing up. It was eventually abandoned and my sister Nell, one Christmas, told me she was thinking of renting it and opening a shop… My husband said, 'I can tell you want in on this shop. Call Nell right away.'
We opened on July 4, . We just filled it with all of this stuff. I brought the truck down [from New York] three times. My husband Howard said, 'You know, the cost of the gas you’re using is worth more than what’s in the back of this truck.' I said, 'I know! But it’s so much fun!' …The day we opened, people started piling in — it was this great community, this family reunion. I saw all of my old classmates. Towards the end of the day, we were looking around and the shop was looking empty. We had to go back to my parents’ barn and refurbish the store!
BF: But how did you part with stuff?
MRC: It was very hard! I would see someone leaving with an old, bent watering can that I’d brought down from New York that I thought I could give up — but no! But truly, it wasn’t so hard. Everyone was so happy and that’s what it’s all about, you know? …There’s always more. And that’s what so much fun! It’s the hunt — hunting stuff down and knowing any minute, just around the corner, is that thing I can’t live without.
BF: Who are the people in your book?
MRC: Most of them are friends or are people who have antique shops, vintage shops. I’d known their store, known their eye — and their aesthetic really meshed with mine. Although I had never been to their home, I knew that they must have incredible homes — and they did.
BF: Of all the people in your book, what was the most inspiring idea that you took away from them?
MRC: I have to say… they are all inspiring to me. They’re all just very generous people. I think [of] Janet West, who is kind of a legend in the world of collecting in New York City. She’s had a spot in The Garage on West 25th Street. She’s been there forever and she’s my go-to person. I went to see her house, and I knew it would be amazing. …She was so frustrated with the more diminutive things she collected. She would pack them away and never get to see them and enjoy them. It happens to a lot of us. So, she started to use the backs of her doors to hang her collections. …She found a way to create these little exhibits for her stuff. For me, that was a good lesson — I feel like I learned a lesson from everyone I met.
At the beginning of the book I talk about a lot of the motivations for collecting — the first is “possessed.” I guess I am possessed, but I [think] the question is, “Are we possessed by our possessions?” Sometimes we collectors that love too much — and I am the girl who loves too many things — we start to feel guilty about having these things. At my apartment and my home in upstate New York … when people come in, hopefully they feel warm and comfortable and they can explore and just feel at home.
All of my books are about the same thing. It’s about having confidence in your own eye. Don’t worry about collecting things that have a lot of value that you can resell. You create the provenance now in your life, so you’re responsible for what it is and what it will become.
*This article originally stated that the title was The Virginia Housekeeper.