Mark Patton (left), executive director of ReStore, and VISTA volunteer Erika Frank help customers like Brian Christianson find great deals of surplus building items. (Photo by Lin Mullenneaux)
The ride is pretty bumpy as I negotiate my minivan past construction equipment and over the frequent dips and rises of the gravel road. But as I reach the peak of a small hill, the landscape-in-transition spreads out before my eyes—the nearly completed hotel and convention center on the banks of the Iowa River, surrounded by acres of brown razed land of the old Coralville industrial park at the intersection of I-80 and First Avenue. Except one lone metal-frame building sits down the hill to my right with a big simple sign proudly announcing my destination: “ReStore.”
It was a bit of an adventure to get here, but plenty of others have made the journey, too, this early Saturday afternoon. A buzz of activity surrounds me as I am greeted by Erika Frank, an Americorps VISTA volunteer and recent University of Iowa graduate who spends her days running the Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity ReStore. We enter a small office at the front of the warehouse-like building. With clear dedication and enthusiasm, Erika shares with me ReStore’s mission and operations.
New Life for Surplus Goods
Most everyone probably knows about Habitat for Humanity, an international volunteer organization that provides housing for low-income families. ReStore is one of HFH’s most innovative ways of raising funds. The store accepts donations of new and gently used building materials, hardware, and housewares from individuals, businesses, contractors, and remodelers—anyone who has something appropriate to give—and resells them at deep discounts to the public. Over 150 ReStores operate in the U.S. and Canada, eight of them in Iowa. One hundred percent of sales go right into Habitat for Humanity homes. And ReStore is also an environmental organization, with one of its major goals being to divert usable building materials from the waste stream. In fact, Coralville’s ReStore started out a little over a year ago with a $75,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to help keep as much as possible out of the landfill. And everyone can benefit by saving big bucks on materials for home improvement projects.
Boxes, Bins & Shelves of Treasures
Erika and I tour the large warehouse space, a building donated by the City of Coralville and shared with other nonprofit organizations. Within the next year, however, the structure will be razed for the ongoing Iowa River Landing redevelopment project, and ReStore will move to a new home (undetermined as of yet). But today there is no sign of impending demolition. A family arrives to volunteer, and the two small girls eagerly commence sweeping out the empty ReStore truck. A couple rummage through some bins of hinges and other door and window hardware, marveling at the prices. A lone man with a bushy white mustache and large dark-rimmed glasses earnestly examines some plumbing supplies. I mention to Erika that it must be fun to come back often just to see what new merchandise is in. She chuckles and says that, yes, there are regulars who even have their self-designated times and show up every week like clockwork. A doorbell rings—someone is here to drop off a donation. Erika opens the garage door, and an elderly gentleman standing outside wonders if he can drop off some paint. Erika says as long as it is unopened or just barely used, that’s okay. The man laughs a little and says, “Yeah, I’ve got three cans of the wrong color.”
The cavernous ReStore space is filled with doors, windows, cabinets, hardware, flooring, shelving, and raw materials like lumber. A few bathtubs sit at the ends of aisles. Chandeliers and more modest lighting fixtures dangle from a makeshift shelving unit. Boxes of new tile sit atop a multi-level display area. A row of stoves awaits future days of preparing macaroni and cheese. Although many ReStores don’t accept appliances, the landlord and college student market is so robust in the area that reselling them easily is feasible. At one end of the store sits a large display of different types of Stanley shelving units, all new and in their original boxes. Dozens of new cans of spray paint are perched atop some shelves at the end of an aisle. ReStore is often the destination of retail store and contractor over-orders, misorders, slow-moving inventory, and merchandise returns. A brand-new Anderson window waits for a new home at a bargain price because it was just a bit too small for its intended space.
Although never ungrateful for the generous impulse to donate, ReStore does not accept every item. Used materials must be used only gently, undamaged, and pretty much ready to be installed. Anything that might be a health hazard cannot be resold. That is why new but not used carpet is accepted. The store strongly recommends that donors call ahead and discuss a possible donation. This is exactly what I did myself a couple of months ago when I had two sinks we had replaced taking up space in our garage. I couldn’t bring myself to dump them in the landfill, so I called up the ReStore. I have to admit they were a bit skeptical, as they tend to get overloaded with certain types of sinks, but luckily what I had fit fine into their inventory.
Volunteers are Always Needed
There are plenty of other ways to give back to the community through ReStore. Volunteer time is just as important as item contributions. There is plenty of opportunity to serve in sales and cashiering, customer support, checking and cleaning donations, setting up displays, marketing and outreach, building and exterior maintenance, and donation pickup. An internship (unpaid) is available for someone with the skills to help research and apply for grants. ReStore is always grateful for sponsorship and publicity—something as simple as posting a flier in your office up to full sponsorship of events and advertisements. Monetary and equipment donations are always welcome. In fact, partnerships with ReStore are growing. For example, Century Farm Harvest Heat has donated a corn-burning stove to the store, helping create a toasty corner for volunteers on cold winter days when the unheated building just doesn’t keep them warm enough. (Even today, on a chilly spring afternoon, Erika keeps her stocking cap and jacket on.) With the black stove displayed prominently and promotional materials available to passersby, Century Farm also benefits from having the public see just how effective this increasingly popular, efficient, and clean heating source can be.
After wandering the store on my own for awhile, sometimes wondering if that light fixture might look nice outside our back door, or if I need a new (and cheap!) supply of tub and tile grout, I’m ready to leave, albeit empty-handed today. I’ll certainly be back, though, before I head off to the retail hardware or home improvement store. If I can save a few (or many!) dollars, and if I can help those struggling to own their own homes, the adventurous trek over a few hundred feet of bumpy gravel road is worth it. Besides, the adventure of not knowing exactly what you’ll find within the unfinished walls of ReStore is fun. And certainly next time I pull out a lighting fixture or a door at home, I’ll see if I can move it from my garage, not to the landfill, but to ReStore.
I thank Erika again for so generously sharing her time with me. As I get into my van, a carful of new re-storation adventurers arrives. Whether giving or taking, they are part of an active stream of doing good on this early spring Saturday afternoon.
All About ReStore
ReStore is located at 2401 Scott Blvd SE in Iowa City. Shopping hours are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 9:00-3:00, and donation hours are Monday through Saturday from 9:00-4:00 (donations are 100 percent tax deductible!). Calling ahead about possible donations is recommended. Call (319) 338-5687, visit their website: www.ivhfh.org, or email ReStore@ivhfh.org.