Salvaging the Past

The Old House Web

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Appliances are among the bargains at ReStore, a salvage yard

By Rose Thornton

Our modest 1904 home in Southern Illinois had been for sale for more than two yearswhen we found it.

Sitting on a dead end street, adjacent to a large patch of woods, it looked pretty goodfrom the outside. It was attractive, solid and spacious.

So why hadn't it sold? Like so many old houses, it had been victimized by too manyowners and had served as a rental unit for two decades. Worse still, some of the best oldhouse features -- millwork, plumbing and electrical fixtures -- had been destroyed.

40,000 square feet of treasures

As we began to restore our home, I went to the local Mega-Monster hardware store. Ifound aisle after aisle of mass produced fixtures. I just couldn't talk myself intobuying these for my century-old house.

And then a little snippet in the local paper caught my eye. ReStore, a new kind ofsalvage yard, had opened in neighboring St. Louis. The store is an outgrowth of Habitatfor Humanity, a non-profit organization that builds affordable housing. Proceeds from thesale of merchandise at ReStore fund Habitat building projects.

We made the one-hour drive to the store on South Vaneventer Avenue, near downtown St.Louis.

I was in love the moment I walked through the door.

The building itself was enormous -- 40,000 square feet of brick and cinder block builtin the 1940s. Other than the modern counter by the front entrance, everything about theplace was old and basic.

Gazing upwards (as old house lovers tend to do) I saw beautifully aged pine plankslining the tall ceiling, interspersed with glass skylights, now only slightly darkened bythe peeling black paint covering the panes. In some places, the old cranks, gears andlevers for the skylights in the 25' ceiling were still in place.

Sensory overload

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Need paint? ReStore probably has your color

Rows and rows of old and new construction materials and architectural salvage yawnedbefore me.

They beckoned me to come closer -- but it was nearly a sensory overload.

I found myself almost running through the aisles. I would pause for a moment to examinesome treasure until a twinkle of light glanced off another gleaming jewel in the distance.Distracted, I had to run off again -- to inspect yet another shelf filled witharchitectural goodies.

My husband, who had accompanied me to the store, wasn't moving fast enough so I lefthim behind in the "miscellaneous and indescribable electrical items" aisle.

Some time later, (was it hours or days?) I ran into him again by the wooden windowsashes. He was clutching a 24" x 26" lower window sash tightly to his chest andrepeating in a monotone, "this will fit our living room window."

I think he was drooling, ever so slightly.

According to ReStore Director Kathleen Schweitzer, this is a common response. Customersdon't just like Restore; they love it, said Schweitzer. "We have thousands ofcustomers, some phenomenally loyal. Some folks come a couple of times every week."

From customer to employee

Roy Bland, a Restore staffer and deconstruction supervisor, started out as a loyalcustomer. Between paint jobs, he'd run in to grab a quart of paint for a small job andspend the next three hours roaming the aisles, looking through merchandise.

"I'd see all these great things and then see other people getting all excitedbecause they'd find what they needed for their own homes," said Bland. "Then Igot into helping people load things up and move things around. And then I was workinghere."

Bland still works as a painting contractor, but he puts in 40 hours a week at ReStore,too.

Bland "deconstructs" houses -- taking them apart for salvage forReStore.

Mouldings, lumber, mantels, windows, electrical and plumbing fixtures, heating and airconditioning equipment are all salvaged and sold at the store.

Last year, ReStore deconstructed 15 houses, but has the capacity to do many more.According to Schweitzer, 75% of the merchandise at ReStore is used and about 25% is new.Donations come from a variety of places, including building contractors, hardware storesand individual homeowners.

Better than new

St. Louis resident Irvin Hudson is shopping at ReStore with his brother, DavidEmmanuel. Hudson, a full time real estate investor and landlord, is searching for windowsfor his own home.

How to shop at a salvage yard

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1) Sort through merchandise. A second pair of hands is helpful. Above, David Emmanuel and Irvin Hudson sort through windows

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2) Closely inspect prospective purchases

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3) Buy!

"The first time I came here, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," Hudsonsays with a hearty laugh as he pushes his cart through the aisles and headed for thewindows.

"I can buy windows here for $100 each or less," he said. "Sometimes, youcan get them brand new. At a hardware store, these windows could cost you $400 each. I'vegotten some good deals here. And you can buy stuff here that you just can't find anywhereelse. Old things, like a single part or a special piece of trim."

Passing the appliance aisle, he paused and pointed to a water heater with a $40 pricetag. "What would that water heater cost new? Probably $150. I'll take that and stickit in my rental property. It will work great and I'll save more than half off the cost ofnew."

Back to the future

Just beyond the water heaters are built-in dishwashers and ranges, refrigerators,stoves, freezers, washers and dryers, with a couple of space heaters at the very end ofthe row.

For $350, you can buy a 1940s 40" General Electric cook stove, which was instorage for several decades. It's in excellent condition and from the looks of the pushbuttons on the control panel and the oven walls, this stove was rarely used.

Most appliances appear to be 10 to 20 years old and all are purported to be in workingcondition. Some are new or nearly new and a few are very old.

Appliances are somewhat of a gamble to the purchaser, as all are sold as is, which nowarranty and no return allowed. ReStore largely takes the word of the donor as to theworking condition of the appliance. Electrical appliances are simply plugged in fortesting. Gas appliances are not tested at all.

Other merchandise may be returned within 14 days for store credit.

A veritable museum of "pottyology"

Walking down the plumbing aisle, you'll find toilets in every color of the rainbow.Need a robin's egg blue triangular toilet tank for a corner toilet? You'll find it here.

It is a veritable museum of pottyology, going back 80+ years to the so-called"pregnant" toilets to brand new toilets and modern bidets. "Pregnant"toilets were so named because of the round protrusion on the front of the bowl.

In addition to the ubiquitous harvest gold and avocado green plumbing fixtures, you'llfind lavender, toast, beige, black, shocking pink, lime green, dark green and teal.

You can also find a mop sink, which looks like a toilet with a square bowl.

Further down, you'll find matching sinks and vanities and tops. There are a few antiquepedestal sinks, but most are in need of reglazing. Old style wall hung sinks -- halfrounds and square ones -- are also for sale, but many are missing the corresponding wallbrackets.

One long row full of kitchen sinks has many stainless steel sinks and cast iron doublesinks. There are a few acrylic sinks here.

Towards the back, I spot a 1930s metal kitchen cabinet with a double sink and a slidingdrain board. The two door cabinet and sink are in pristine condition. The price tag onthis vintage find is $160.

Solid wood -- oak, maple and walnut -- kitchen cabinet sets are also for sale.

"We've had complete kitchens donated," said Schweitzer. "We had onekitchen that had 27 cabinets. We sold that set for $2300. I know that set must have costnearly $20,000 brand new."

The store contains almost everything you'd find at a regular hardware store andanything you'd find inside a house.

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This solid oak interior door has its original finish

There is an impressive amount of salvaged lumber, and also delicate mouldings,staircase balustrades, newel posts, doors and windows. Window weights and all that curiouslittle hardware you can't find anywhere else is here too.

While replacing the sash cord in our own 100-year-old windows, we discovered one of thewindow pulleys, where the cord rides, was bent and distorted. We found a replacementpulley at ReStore. The price was under one dollar.

A large glass case near the front of the store displays antique door hardware, such asdoorknobs and locksets, hinges and pins and other cabinet hardware.

There are not many electrical fixtures for sale and the stock seems to change prettyquickly.

This is shopping at its most basic. ReStore is a working warehouse with a forkliftdarting about, moving things around. And in the wintertime, the place gets downrightfrigid. Public restrooms were recently added because most folks don't come to ReStore justto "grab something." They come for the day.

Moving toward the black hole

Like many salvage yards, the closer you move toward the black hole -- the darkened,distant void in the furthest reaches of the warehouse -- the more disorganized thingsbecome.

On a recent visit, my husband emerged from the black hole toting an 8-foot four-lightfluorescent fixture.

"Look what I found" he joyously proclaimed. "Finally, I won't have towork in the dark when I'm out in the shed."

I didn't want to damper his spontaneous outpouring of pure happiness, but the fact is,our shed is 10 feet long. With that huge light in our shed, I was afraid we'd be accusedof testing super novas without a permit.

"Isn't that a little too big?" I asked, hoping he'd think through thedimensions of the light and the size of our little shed.

"No, it's just right. I hate working in my own shadows all the time," hesaid, tenderly stroking his newfound treasure.

No one in Upper Alton will need to worry about working in their own shadows after thatthing is hooked up, I muttered under my breath.

At the front counter, they rang up our purchases and he showed the light to the clerk,explaining that he couldn't find a price on it.

"Sir, where did you get that?" the clerk inquired.

"Way back in the back," came his reply.

"Sir, that is one of our store lights," the clerk responded, in a calm butfirm voice. "And we can't start selling off the fixtures."

"Oops," hubby quietly replied. "I'll go put it back."

"Hallelujah," I thought to myself.

About ReStore and Habitat for Humanity

One of the goals of ReStore is to recycle reusable resources and provide low costbuilding materials to neighboring communities. This in turn supports activities of Habitatfor Humanity. Since 1976, the organization has built more than 85,000 simple, decenthouses worldwide.

There are more than 50 ReStores in the United States and Canada. All merchandise atReStore is donated and profits from ReStore go towards funding Habitat homes. According tothe Habitat for Humanity website, successful stores will create enough revenue to fund theconstruction of ten (or more) Habitat Houses each year.

Merchandise donations to ReStore are tax deductible. Purchases are nottax-deductible.

To learn more about Habitat for Humanity, click here: http://www.habitat.org/

For locations of the ReStores throughout the country, click here: http://www.habitat.org/env/restoreusa.html

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