Harvey Molotch, a professor at New York University and author of "Where Stuff Comes From," says that consumers' connections to the narratives behind objects is not new. "Every object is story rich. Every object gives off information," he says. Businesses like Of a Kind are "simply taking advantage of that truth. They're trying to mobilize that fact to sell one item over another to a particular group. The phenomenon is not one they created."
It was exactly those types of stories that attracted Caroline McCarthy, a journalist for tech site CNET, who discovered the site via friends. Initially, McCarthy had trouble finding anything that fit her style or price range, but when a necklace from Erica Weiner caught her eye, she was hooked. It wasn't just the jewelry but the revelation that the designer spent time road-tripping to the same antiques market in Maine that McCarthy had. "It was this place I've been to a million times," she says of the write-up on Weiner's page on the site. "Thus far, I haven't connected with anything again, but I'm more attuned to what they're selling, because you never know."
But there's a danger as well to focusing on the narratives behind objects. "Sometimes people tell boring stories," says Rob Walker, author of "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are." Not all creators are gifted storytellers, and an inability to communicate a good story could deter someone from interest in a given project. "The story always comes down to some variation on why [the creators] are awesome," Walker says.
Moreover, Walker thinks the more important stories are those that consumers tell to each other about a product. Walker and fellow writer Josh Glenn started a site called Significant Objects that pairs everyday items plucked from yard sales and pairs them with authors.
Writers like Nicholson Baker and Colson Whitehead mocked up tales in miniature about a meat thermometer and wooden mallet. Jonathan Lethem's yarn about a Missouri shot glass takes the story of a monologue from an excitable patron of a bar, regaling the reader with tales about his home state. The objects are then put on sale on EBay to raise money for charity. The result was a huge increase in the value of these objects as less than $200 in everyday objects became more than $3,000 in charity funds.
"The stuff that's most significant isn't the most valuable," Walker says. "It's the stuff with the best personal story for you."