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How to Navigate The Container Store Like You Mean It This Time

What you should buy, and what you absolutely should not.

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A well-organized closet
The Container Store Birch Elfa Décor Reach-In Closet

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Do you remember where you were standing the first moment you realized your life could finally change for the better just as soon as you added a hanging canvas shoe organizer to your closet? I do. It was inside The Container Store on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue in 2010, when I was moving into my first apartment.

The hanging organizer was great until I faced the fact that what I really needed was the over-the-closet-door shoe organizer, which holds twice as many shoes. Because if there’s one truth of Home Organization, it’s that you can’t truly be organized without the right containers to hide everything in. And that turns out to be many containers, baskets, shelves-within-shelves, and drawer dividers.

What’s beautiful about The Container Store’s physical locations — what can’t be captured online — is the story of the perfectly organized ghost people who live there. The displays of neatly arranged closets showcase a family who prefers gray, white, and black clothing; they’re working professionals with sensible pumps, platform weekend sandals, and flow-y blouses on felt hangers.

According to a brief conversation with a harried cashier at a Chicago location, “someone from corporate” provides these props of a neutral life, where a color-coordinated bookshelf displays a Fellini coffee table book next to a row of John Grisham novels and The Faith of George W. Bush.Are they happy?” you wonder when you see their subdued craft closet with two tiny containers of felt pom-poms (not nearly enough pom-poms for the average craftsman). But their pantry has a hearty supply of pasta and Italian sparkling water. They certainly seem happy.

In my years of constant inching toward home improvement, I’ve returned to The Container Store again and again to learn from these ghosts how to get my shit together. Along the way, I’ve gathered a binary code of what is worth it and what is simply a distraction — the unnecessary, misleading tools that will only add to the chaos you’re trying to contain. It can be a blurry line. Let’s get to it.

Things You Need

Hangers: You have an eclectic set of the plastic ones, wire hangers (free!!!!) from the dry cleaner’s, and a wooden one you stole from a roommate along the way. But I’m telling you: Once you throw them all out and get a complete set of matching, actually good hangers (I like these felt ones), you’ll feel invincible. As you put all of your clothes on the new hangers, arranged by color, occasion, and number of stains, you’ll realize which items you haven’t worn in a year and make a pile for Goodwill. Win-win.

Closet shelves: We can’t avoid talking about the Elfa system here. The store-within-a-store is where a bulk of the greatest TCS propping takes place, with a staff on hand to roadmap the future of your closet with you. Measurements happen. Hammers and nails await. It’s an intimidating prospect: shelves in an empty closet and cohabitating with someone you’re pretty sure you love.

In my current apartment I share a closet with my worse half, and an Elfa system was already installed. It is very cool how you can adjust the levels of the shelves once the tracking is in place, and we even added a pull-out drawer thing to shove mismatched socks into. The ghost family doesn’t own socks, so you might forget about them when you’re shopping — don’t! All things must be contained.

Also, the ghosts only own about 14 total shirts, and they have several inches between them on the shelf; not exactly how it is in my closet, where clothes on hangers are packed so tight you could shuffle them like playing cards. I’d say a closet shelving setup is a definite do. All the Elfa system is lacking is a tiny elf to fold all the clothes you mountain inside it.

Hanging things: An over-the-door shoe organizer is your best bet. The ones that hang on the closet bar take up precious space for things that need to hang to avoid wrinkling. If you have a huge closet, this may not apply to you, but my closet bar is about 36 inches. To deal with sneaker overflow, I also have these baskets stashed under my dresser with more shoes.

Drawer organizers: I have an Ikea bed with storage drawers beneath it, where these organizers were necessary. Underwear in one, socks in another, bras in a third, envelopes of cash in a fourth… you get it.

Storage boxes: For long-term storage — like for the collection of nostalgic sweatshirts I can’t get rid of (the time Halliburton sponsored the Houston Half-Marathon!) — and a comforter I’m not using right now, I’m a big fan of these cheap, soft, zippable boxes you can shove and stack a lot easier than hard plastic boxes. If they’re not hidden in a closet, I like this Martha Stewart-y “farmhouse” series.

Things You Don’t

Whatever a handbag shaper is: There are so many hard plastic organizers with insanely specific purposes in The Container Store. Anything that specific is suspect. Also: Use newspaper or recycle bubble wrap?

Shoe shelves: Are never big enough, despite what the ghost lady who owns two pairs of the same brandless black pumps seems to think. And they take up way more space than they need to. It’s an outdated mode of organization, if you ask me.

Boxes and baskets without lids: You want to hide your mess, right? Lids will literally do that. I made the mistake of getting a big, soft woven basket once and not only did it lose its shape, but I’m forced to look at the mess within every time I see it.

Anything mesh: I wrote this in my notebook while shopping and can’t remember what it means but I STAND BY IT.

Those plastic stacking drawers: You know the ones, the temporary dresser you set up in your dorm, the colorful ones found packed with Happy Meal toys in kids’ bedrooms. There’s a time and a place for those things, and it’s not adulthood.

When life feels chaotic and out of control, there’s no medicine like filling your cart in The Container Store (okay, there is, Xanax). But on a recent trip to the Upper East Side location, the ceiling was leaking and employees had blocked off an aisle, using the store’s own plastic tub containers to catch water. Plastic sheeting was set up in an attempt to hide the splatter, and employees kept looking over nervously to see when the water would stop.

Even the ghosts — who keep their bad report cards stowed in matching woven baskets, who might have something serious to hide in those padlocked file cabinets — get messy sometimes.