In her quest to furnish her new house, a writer discovers that Mainers’ trash is full of treasures. 

Suzanne Rico and her free pile finds

From our Fall 2018 issue

In the hayloft over our garage in Northport, half of a Herman Miller Eames Lounge Chair rests on its side. I plucked it out of a free pile, its base already thrown into a garbage truck. With not a scratch on its gleaming black leather seat or rosewood-veneer frame, when I see it I think, almost.

They don’t have free piles where I come from. Or if they do, they’re comprised of a stained mattress and ratty couch fading under the Southern California sun. So on the day I rode my bike past some stuff in the yard of a Saturday Cove estate, I stopped. A plywood sign leaned against a tower of old paint cans. Free it said, in large neon- orange letters.

“Just the paint?” I asked a harried woman emerging from a weathered barn.

“No,” she said. “Take it all.”

A wagon wheel, intact, rested against a hedge. I spied a painting of a cow in a mahogany frame, several crates of records, and a walnut table with half a dozen leaves. I called my husband, Ethan. “Bring the minivan,” I said. “And hurry!”

My family moved from Los Angeles to Maine last summer, after years spent dreaming of exchanging frenzied big-city living for Maine’s slower pace. Our “new” house was built in 1874 and has a 1970s addition — a funky mix — and while we bought it furnished, there wasn’t much we liked about the furnishings. Too Laura Ashley. Too Texas (the previous owner’s home state). Too discordant with the Maine beach vibe we wanted to create. But where to shop? Marden’s, someone told us. Sadie’s Antiques on Route 1. TJ Maxx. No one said “free pile.”

But that’s where we’ve gotten about a quarter of our furnishings. Among them: a 19th-century drop-leaf table in the living room that holds a vintage walnut-and-maple chessboard; an eagle weathervane that stands in the dining room, its long rod attached to a piece of driftwood I found on the beach; and a huge, pre–Civil War Waldo County map that hangs on the wall in the den. On the opposite wall, a free pile church pew I decorated with old strap hinges is a continual conversation starter: Guest: “Where’d you get that?” Me: “Free pile.” Guest: “Where do I find a free pile?”  Me: “Keep your eyes peeled, and if you’re wondering whether something is up for grabs, ask!”

Case in point: As we were driving down Shore Road one day, my 10-year-old son yelled, “Free pile!” People were lugging items out of a house facing Penobscot Bay and tossing them into a garbage truck.

“That’s just trash, honey,” I said.

“Trust me, Mommy,” he replied with a sigh. This kid once spotted a marble coffee table on the side of Route 52 with a green-painted base that matches the floor in our screened porch perfectly, so I put the van in reverse.

It took half a day to get a mother lode of mid-century modern furniture destined for the dump home from the Shore Road property and another week to refinish my favorite gem: a nine-foot-long teak trestle table marked Made In Denmark. But it looks lovely in my dining room, shining amber in the sun. I like to think of its former owner as a benevolent ghost — a white-haired Mainer, I’ve imagined her, happy to have a family loving her furniture again.

From a cost-benefit perspective, sometimes I think I’ve gone nuts. I’m a freelance journalist who can never find enough hours to write all the stories for which I could get paid. Maybe that’s because I’m outside refinishing a large free pile shutter I plan to hang in our den as backing for a $2 Goodwill dartboard. When I posted an Instagram picture of myself sanding the water stains out of an oak table that now has pride of place in our kitchen, a friend commented, “What have you done with the real Suzanne?”

But since moving to Maine, I can’t seem to resist a good freebie. Taking psychological inventory of what happens when I sense there might be something for the taking — something that can be made beautiful with time and elbow grease — I’m reminded of the carefree summer days of my childhood, when happiness wasn’t yet a thing to be identified or parsed. The world has once again become a place of pleasant surprises, possibilities that weren’t there before that roadside hodgepodge came into view.

Of course, the trick to free pile foraging is knowing what to take. Mixing scavenged things with new ones to create a look that is timeless and eclectic (versus schizophrenic) is hard. The proof is in my hayloft, which is slowly filling up with rejects I’ve carted home: a cherry coffee table, four handmade Japanese frames, a mid-century wall unit in so many pieces I’d need an engineering degree to reassemble it, and that dismantled Eames chair. The only replacement stand we could find is in Holland and costs $700 — sigh.

I shrug off my husband’s teasing that I’m becoming a good old-fashioned pack rat.

“Admit it,” I say. “You get excited about free piles too.”

“No. You get excited. I get the van.”

Still, he can’t deny that our efforts have borne fruit. At dinner, we admire the old calf yoke I’ve turned into a candleholder and the 1970s chrome Goffredo Reggiani floor lamp gleaming in a corner. We congratulate ourselves on the salvaged burgundy carpet in the guest room, the rich patina of age on its hand-knotted design impossible to find at Pottery Barn. We feel good about our commitment to buying as little new stuff as possible. And when the time is right, we’ll give back to the freecyling economy that has given us so much, piling up our hayloft’s bounty in the front yard for someone else to discover.