Finder Not Keeper
Finder Not Keeper
When Mithra Ballesteros goes to estate sales, she sees beyond the objects waiting to be picked over.
“In these homes were men and women who kept their possessions and took care of them, who repaired their toasters and pressed their linens,” she says. “They lived very differently from most of us. I decided I wanted to capture and pay tribute to their lives somehow, and so I started saving some of the things that spoke to me.”
What sorts of things speak to her?
She laughs. “I have an unnatural attachment to objects,” says Ballesteros, 54, who lives in Mequon, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee. “I’m pretty obsessed with animals; I love brass, I love old books. The other thing I really love is needlepoint.” (Later, she adds puppets to the expanding list.)
Those items and more can be found at Finder Not Keeper, the online shop Ballesteros opened in 2014. The fervent forager sells some of her vintage treasures individually, but the vast majority play roles in imaginative collections. Browsing the site is like thumbing through an interior stylist’s lookbook – which isn’t surprising, considering that Ballesteros worked in the fashion industry before raising her four sons, now ages 18 to 26.
“My gift is for merchandising and accessorizing. I could accessorize a tent and make it look great,” she says.
Another talent is telling a good story. In her product descriptions, Ballesteros often includes links to her upbeat blog, the Bubble Joy, where she shares compelling backstories about her findings, sometimes weaving in anecdotes from her own family.
For instance, the collection No Smoking! includes a 1970s poster of a woman enveloped in a cloud of smoke, a Chesterfield cigarette tin, a brass lighter, and William James’ Habit, an 1890 book about habitual behavior. In the description, Ballesteros links to a blog entry that shares her father’s history with smoking, and how she had spotted the poster “at the estate sale of a deceased hippie who was also a hoarder.” The vignette, priced at $475, sold to a woman in Switzerland.
“I have no idea if she’s using it the way I photographed it, but I’m glad it has a home,” says Ballesteros.
To round out collections, the designer scours eBay and Craigslist, but estate sales remain her favorite hunting grounds. “They help me glean information about the owners, which gives me context,” she says. “In my mind, I already have a journey I want to honor. I’ll start with a few things that pique my interest and set them up at home and gradually work on them.”
Her basement, which serves as her workshop and photo studio, is filled with hundreds of finds that will eventually be grouped, photographed, and sold under categories such as “mantel,” “desktop & books,” and “child’s play.” Ballesteros also accepts commissions, creating displays around other people’s mementos.
Although she resolutely parts with her acquisitions (hence the shop’s moniker) she did redecorate her dining room around a walnut and sterling silver bowl she found at an estate sale. An engraving on the bowl reads: “Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Gardener: A token of friendship and esteem from Dr. G. J. Parks.”
“I imagine Dr. Parks must have gone for a visit and this was his hostess gift,” she says. “To me, it signifies a lost time.”
Lost, and then found again.