Before moving to Bellingham in 2002, I ran a nonprofit reuse business in Appalachian Ohio. Before that, I was the director of a food bank, also in Ohio. Through both of these experiences, I came into direct contact with the wastefulness of our society. Since then, promoting a reuse economy has become my passion.
So, naturally, when I arrived in Bellingham, my first stop was The RE Store. At that time, it was located on Holly Street at the mouth of Whatcom Creek. Like most stores of its kind, it was a huge nest of building materials, tools, furnishings and sundries that any bargain hunter would love. I immediately felt at home.
Everyone knows the slogan, “Reduce, reuse and recycle,” but in reality, we pay little or no attention to reducing or reusing. In spite of efforts like The RE Store, landfill waste continues to grow. How often have you heard, “They don’t make things like they used to”? For so much of what we own today, repair and/or reuse is not a practical or cost-effective option. With an overwhelming amount of materials being tossed out, a reuse organization needs to be smart to survive. Even nonprofits with a mission have to run like a business, or you’re out of business.
An old junk man once told me that the secret to his business was knowing what not to collect. It takes experience to know what’s quality, what’s the right price, and how to display things so they move.
This brings me back to The RE Store, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I was recently hired as the interim executive director of RE Sources, The RE Store’s parent nonprofit. In this capacity, I’ve had an inside look at the store’s operations. Having been in the salvage business for years myself, I came to The RE Store with a critical eye. And I can honestly say that today’s RE Store has perfected its game.
Every year, they divert over three million pounds of waste, contribute over $1 million to the local economy, and save their customers an estimated $2 million on building materials. Here are some of the secrets to their success.
Perhaps most critical to The RE Store’s success has been its flexible business model. The first thing The RE Store Director Kurt Gisclair will tell you is that space costs money. Sales are monitored to inform both receiving and stocking. Gisclair tracks revenue by department, by square foot, by turnover time. To him, it’s a science. Inventory selection is strategic.
For artists and tinkerers, the place is a paradise. The Revision Division, a team of in-house artists fabricate gorgeous furniture from repurposed parts — great fodder for reuse shoppers’ imaginations. The Manufacturing Waste Diversion program secures a continuous supply of industrial by-products; and the licensed salvage crew scores a stream of vintage items and cabinetry from both residential and commercial buildings. Remodel contractors are always looking for that rare matching piece, and home improvement enthusiasts look for bargains. There’s something for everyone.
The store also has a job training program that partners with over a dozen social service agencies. While trainees learn skills in material handling, customer service, use of tools, etc., The RE Store benefits by engaging workers whose wages are subsidized by the partner agencies.
In my career, I’ve toured, studied and created a number of reuse operations, but Bellingham has a special treasure in The RE Store. It feels good just to walk through the place and know that this important work has a 25-year history of inspiration and innovation. They’ve created a model for other communities to help us remember that stuff has value.