George GamesterSure, Michael's got this stuff hanging around his house from the old days. Who hasn't? Heirlooms, some call them. Keepsakes. Little chunks of his life. Funny thing is, Michael's been making a good living lately, helping folks who've held on to the past too long. But let's not get into that just yet. Let's look at his stuff first. Now you take that old shoehorn there. Sold brass, stamped with the merchant's name: ABC Shoes. That really takes Michael Liepner back. All the way to his youth in South Africa where he went to work at a Johannesburg shoe store after losing interest in school at age 18. Even now, he'll tell you he learned a lot at ABC. Patience, for instance, from dealing with people who try on 30 pairs, hem and haw, then walk away. Family dynamics, for another. "The wife tells the guy what size he wears, what colour he wants and what style to buy. All he gets to do is pay. He also learned how to get along with all sorts. That would be important later on. Yeah, he's got a few old things there at his Etobicoke home. Such as his lifeguard swimsuit from the beach at Durban, early '60s. Nice job, but he got bored. Lit out on a cruise to England on the SS Southern Cross, wound up working in London awhile. Bought this Vespa scooter, bummed around the continent. Hey, it was the '60s. Right? So he meets this Canadian in Venice. Lawrence Laing. Turns out his old man owns this resort hotel north of Montreal. Place called Ste-Agathe. Lawrence gets him a job there. There's a photo of him in those days, decked out in his white jacket with the green trim, black pants, bow tie, big smile. Bellhop at the Manor House Hotel, 52 rooms. In Mordecai Richler's famous novel, Duddy Kravitz works there. Odd, the little things that determine your fate. One day, Michael is tending bar for these bigwigs from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at a conference at the Manor. "Why aren't you in university?" Dr. Alan Thomas of Toronto asks him. "You can do it." Weeks later, we find Michael in the registrar's office at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in Montreal. "Your marks from South Africa aren't so good," sighs the admissions official. "But tell me more about your competitive swimming experience." Turns out the registrar is also the swim coach. Michael is in. Does pretty well, too. Until he graduates with a science degree, hops back to South Africa and discovers more boredom. After the multicultural stimulation of life in Canada, the repressive apartheid social system is not for him. Within three years, he buys a one-way ticket to Toronto. Mind you, he doesn't come alone. You see, he's fallen in love with a well-built French lady. A car, we mean. What were you thinking? It's a Hotchkiss sedan bought new by his dad, Robert, back in '39 when he was doing well. But after Robert went broke, he'd left the old girl in the garage for decades. Restoring the car becomes Michael's hobby. And when he returns to Canada in '68. he brings the old flivver along, little suspecting his antique-on-wheels would one day open the door to a whole new livelihood. So what happens to an ex-shoe salesman and hotel bellman in his late 20s, landing in T.O. without a job? "In a million years, I'd never have guessed," he marvels, "that I'd become a teacher." Yup. It happens. After qualifying via U of T, Michael gets his pedagogical papers, lands a job at the Central High School of Commerce on Shaw St., marries and settles into life in the classroom. Then, armed with only an introductory course he'd taken years before, he begins to specialize: teaching the rudiments of business law. Before long, the former teen dropout is writing textbooks on finance and law that sell in the tens of thousands. Many are still in use today, five years after his retirement from Thornlea Secondary School in Thornhill. Which brings us to his new career: Helping people deal with the accumulated flotsam of their lives. It all began with that old car. You see, when he couldn't get insurance and parts for it here, he opted to sell the old Hotchkiss to a collector who drove up from New York. What to do with this windfall? Well, he decides to build a cottage near Honey Harbour. Seeking furniture for it, he winds up attending estate sales, shaking his head at how poorly they're run. "I can do this," he says. And so he has, as proprietor of Your Next Move, an auction and sales service for mature people trying to simplify their lives, getting rid of stuff so they can move from their too-big family homes to city condos or country retreats. Organizing and selling household goods right from the vendor's home sounds straightforward. But as Michael has learned, there's a lot of mental anguish for seniors forced to make sudden decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Michael hears lots of tales and sees plenty of tears from elderly individuals, who find themselves with minimal family support during this difficult time. "I never inquire about the background stories," says the soft-spoken 65-year-old. "But people are often anxious to tell me. I become their best friend for a week." Which leads to some interesting situations, such as his encounter with an elderly woman who'd kept her 60-year-old daughter's childhood room intact - from baby booties to a 40-year-old wedding cake, preserved in a tin. And what can he tell all of us who've been thinking we really should consider downsizing ... someday? That social history and life experiences often determine priorities. Those who grew up in the Depression or suffered tough times in war find it hard to give up that "not-quite junk" they've been squirreling away for decades. That grown-up children are seldom interested in acquiring family treasures prized by mom and dad. The kids have different tastes, wants and needs, and often live a long way off. So heirlooms go to strangers. And that despite those hidden gems featured on TV's Antiques Roadshow, there are few fortunes to be uncovered in dusty china, art and "antiques." "Usually, it's just the opposite," says Michael. Seniors tend to overvalue stuff just because it's old and has emotional attachments. Still, things generally work out. Items that don't sell go to charity, and most empty nesters experience a tremendous sense of relief once it's all gone. "I tell them to keep stuff they love, some favourite books and coffee mugs and leave the rest," concludes Michael. "Their lives are simplified. They're happy to let go." Thanks, teacher. We learned something today. But you haven't thrown away that old shoehorn, have you?