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Living Small—Buff Wright is ‘all in’

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Long before Marie Kondo motivated countless Americans to ditch their clutter, swelling thrift store shelves with various and sundry items that didn’t “spark joy,” there were the pioneers, applying their own version of her organizational concept to their lives. 

Among those early adopters was Elizabeth “Buff” Wright, owner of a cozy 792-square-foot home on Marylind Street in Claremont.

The 66-year-old retiree lives contentedly in the art-filled 1947 ranch house, originally part of a citrus grove. It’s situated at the rear of a generous lot, with a lovely view of the somewhat wild garden that rambles artfully down to the street.

Ms. Wright hasn’t always been an advocate for living small. She and her family once lived in a 4,200 square foot place overlooking Puget Sound.

Her journey from that spacious home to her current address was gradual. Her next house in Washington was a relatively modest 1,600 square feet.

When she moved to Claremont in January 2010 to take a job as secretary of the board and associate vice president at Claremont’s Keck Graduate Institute, she rented a 1,200 square foot apartment in the Village.

Looking to buy a few years later, she was at first put off by the pocket-sized Marylind Street property. Something clicked though after being shown other homes on the market, and in February 2014, she became the new owner of the diminutive gem. 

“I just love it,” Ms. Wright said. “I can plug in the vacuum cleaner and vacuum the whole house without unplugging it. It’s great!”

The home’s former owner, noted Claremont Artist Ingrid Peterson, lived there for 60 years prior to Ms. Wright, and used the small garage as her studio. Ms. Peterson’s roommate for a time was Condit Elementary School namesake Eleanor Condit, who lived there for two years before her death in 1957.

Ms. Wright acknowledges missing a second bathroom for when guests are visiting, but aside from that, she’s all-in. 

“I miss nothing [else] at all about having a larger house,” she said. “I do think it is how we all should live, because there’s too much stuff. That would do something to the economy, and we should be concerned about that I guess, but there’s just too much stuff. We don’t need so much stuff.”

Each of the spaces in the one-bedroom, one-bathroom home is replete with intelligently designed built-in storage, all original to the home, and often in unexpected places. The kitchen cupboards extend up to the ceiling, and it seems no useable volume lacks a door, a drawer, or a shelf.

She’s proud of having sourced an RV dishwasher she had installed in her petite kitchen, where cooking with more than one person “is an intimate experience.”

There is one appliance, though, on which she refused to compromise.

“Okay, with my coffeemaker I went to a bigger one, because I really like good coffee,” she said, gesturing to her fancy espresso maker.

A fervent traveler since graduating from high school, Ms. Wright has always been able to distill her necessities down to an easily toted small bag. This training has served her well in her new small home, but she’s no evangelist.

“I mean, look at all the books I have,” she said, gesturing toward her overstuffed bookshelves. “[Living small] may be a metaphor for how I’d like to be. I mean, I’d love to not have a closet that is so full of clothes that I can’t put the clean ones back in.”

Modesty aside, her place is a wonder of efficient use of space. Art hangs on most every wall, but all of it makes sense ergonomically. It’s uncluttered, but warm and welcoming and not at all museum-like.

Ms. Wright’s advice for paring down is simple, yet gets to the heart of why we accumulate so much stuff.

“What you do is you take a picture of that stuff, and then you give it away,” she said.

For example, her mother, a music teacher, bequeathed to her her prized autoharp.

“I took it outside and put some flowers near it that were a pretty color, and I took a picture of it,” she said. “There was no way I was ever going to play it. It reminded me of her, but so does the picture.”

Another excellent tip involves something you might not expect to hear from an erudite veteran of higher education who holds a law degree and two master’s degrees: stop buying books. Ms. Wright makes a point to say she has too many, and should probably donate some to a thrift store or charity, but the truth is she hasn’t bought one in years.

“I download them from the library,” she said, touching on what may be her most valuable piece of advice for aspiring downsizers: the Los Angeles County Library system offers free 21-day downloads for thousands of titles. And those downloads can go anywhere with you on your iPad, laptop or even your smartphone. The result? One less (very heavy) box to move into the attic, or for your descendants to take to Goodwill.

“If you’re the kind of person who wants to support bookshops and shop local and really likes the feel of a book and all that, do it,” she said. “But I find when I travel I really like having books on my phone or on my Kindle.”

Many of us of a certain age have had the unfortunate and anxiety-inducing task of sorting through a parent’s things after they’re gone. I suppose it can be a joyous, sentimental occasion that helps with closure, but honestly, who has had that experience? Most of the time it’s a heart-wrenching, exhausting and sad undertaking.

Living small can also help to stave off that kind of suffering after you’re gone.

“You think, ‘What if I get hit by a bus and my kids have to come in and deal with all this stuff that has no meaning to them?’” said Ms. Wright, a mother of two grown children.

“We kind of did that with our parents, right? The problem is that you’ve accumulated it, you’ve already paid for it, so why not give it away?”

As Ms. Wright seems to have discovered, there’s a certain freedom in living simply; that it can be liberating to live without a garage full of dusty cardboard boxes filled with things we don’t need.

“I like to have space, and I have space in this little house,” she said. “I don’t feel at all crunched. You have to be ready to live in a smaller space, ready to get rid of stuff, and just ready to delight in it. If it’s the right house it’s just lovely.”

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