September 11, 2017
Community Forklift is part of a vital, growing industry, that of reuse and architectural salvage. Ruthie Mundell, the current Director of Outreach and Education and one of Community Forklift’s first employees is here to share with us her own origin story, as well as share about the amazing work that the group is doing today. Stick around to learn how green thinking and the preservation of historic building materials can save the environment, and save you money on your next home improvement project. This is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today, we’re joined in studio by Ruthie Mundell, who is the Director of Outreach and Education at Community Forklift, which is the Washington D.C. region’s non-profit reuse center for home improvement and architectural salvage. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland’s studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Ruthie, welcome to PreserveCast.
[Ruthie Mundell] Thank you.
[NR] Great to have you here. The question we normally open up with in these interviews is to get a sense about who you are, where you came from, and perhaps, how you followed this path to this unique niche in preservation, which is what you’re doing today at Community Forklift. So how did you get there?
[RM] Sure. Well, I like to call it my origin story like a superhero. We all wear t-shirts at work that say, “Salvage Superheroes.” This is my salvage origin story.
I grew up down in Southern Maryland. Right on the water in this beautiful, old brick cottage and it was an idyllic childhood. And then when I was 16, our landlord decided to sell the property. We’d done some home improvement on it even though we were renters. They didn’t charge us much rent in exchange for not complaining if it was falling down around our ears. So I’d spent my childhood with my mom in hardware stores and we’ve even put an addition on the house. We’d added a room onto the house. So I was so upset when they decided they were going to tear this house down. And I actually snuck over after dark. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet but I borrowed my mother’s station wagon after we’d moved out. And they’d started demolishing this little cottage and I took a whole bunch of bricks from the job site [laughter]. So that was maybe – I didn’t know it then, but that was foreshadowing for my future life.
So then I went off to college. I studied political science, environmental studies. I knew I wanted to be a treehugger. I wasn’t sure if law school was right for me but I thought, perhaps, environmental law. I ended up doing environmental education for a while. I was putting off law school. And I decided to keep putting it off [laughter]. And I did fundraising.
My mother passed away. I went home to take care of her. I’d been living in the D.C. area. I went back to Southern Maryland to take care of her. And after she died, I realized, “I don’t want to go back to an office and fundraise. I don’t want to wear pantyhose and sit at the computer all day. I’d like to do something that’s just more fun day-to-day.” And I was at a job fair. It was sponsored by Green America, used to be called Co-op America, for sustainable businesses. And I stumbled on this fellow who was sitting at a table and I didn’t really know what his display was about. I wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t been job hunting. It had some odds and ends, some pieces of old houses and old bricks and things on the table. So I stopped to talk to him, he explained to me, “Oh, it’s this new place that’s about to open up. It’s going to be a warehouse for old house parts. Sort of like a Goodwill crossed with a Home Depot.” And I said, “Oh, that’s perfect for me! Okay, you need to hire me!” And I was like 24. And he said, “Well, we’re hiring for a CEO.”
“So, okay. Maybe I’m not CEO-level yet but why don’t you hire me until you find one?” And so then I’ve been there ever since. It’s been 12 years this November. And I’ve done just about everything. I haven’t driven a truck and I haven’t done the books but I’ve done just about every other job at Community Forklift.
[NR] Well, that’s really awesome. That’s a great origin story and I like that you were a 16-year-old doing deconstruction, which is kind of neat. What is Community Forklift? I mean, you kind of gave an interesting little snapshot of it calling it sort of the cross between a Goodwill and a Home Depot. But if someone were to walk into your store, what is it, when you go in there? What is it that you guys do? What is the service that you provide?
[RM] The easiest way to explain it is that we’re a thrift store and instead of taking dishes or clothing, we take home improvement supplies and antiques. We’re a little bit more than that, I don’t always use the word thrift store. It’s a good shorthand but we call ourselves a reuse center because we’re all about making reuse happen. And whether that means that we’re accepting donations of building materials and home improvement supplies or it means that we are giving away free materials, selling them in the warehouse or finding interesting artistic uses for materials, developing new ways for people to use things or encouraging artists, we’re just about making reuse happen. So we’ve got this 40,000-square-foot building; it’s full of house parts from every era. We didn’t use to take furniture but we’ve started to take furniture. We realized that the same person who is interested in the clawfoot tub or a cool, old chandelier might also be interested in a 1920s wardrobe. So we do take antique and solid wood furniture pieces as well. So you walk in and there’s this dazzling array of light fixtures. We’ve got 1,500 doors, probably 600 windows at any given time. We’ve got brand new stuff still in the package. Every time a contractor messes up their measurements, we end up with some cool donation. In addition, actually, in the construction industry, it’s pretty standard for contractors to over-order by about ten percent when they’re ordering supplies. And so at the end of a renovation we might get cool, old things they’ve taken out but we’ll also get some surplus stuff.
[NR] Well, and that kind of leads me. You’re saying that you might get things. You get the Goodwill model of thrift store that you might be familiar with is sort of the idea that “I’ve dropped clothes off or dishes” or things like that. How do you get your material? Where does it come from? Because you just named a couple of different things. Does it come from consumers, contractors, everything? And how does it come in?
[RM] It comes from all over. So we do have two big trucks now, big box trucks. We go all over the D.C. region, Central Maryland, even into Northern Virginia, and we pick up items at job sites. So let’s say somebody’s renovating their kitchen, when they’re taking out their old cabinets they still might be in great shape so we’ll go pick them up. They get a nice tax deduction for the donation and then we get some cool materials to bring back to our warehouse. We also have a ton of people that drop things off. So it’s everything from somebody who’s doing a spring cleaning of their garage to someone whose parent has passed away or is moving to a retirement home and they’re trying to clean out the workshop and there’s grandpa’s tools. And you don’t really need 15 hammers… “Well, let’s take a few over to the Forklift.” So we’re open seven days a week and we have people pulling up to our donation stock seven days a week dropping off all sorts of cool stuff. So it’s homeowners, it’s individuals, it’s contractors. We even get entire buildings donated to us through deconstructions.
[NR] Entire buildings?
[RM] Yes, instead of bulldozing an old house… Let’s say, you buy a property and it’s going to cost more money to renovate and improve that little house than it would be to tear it down and build something bigger, so you’re typically just going to bulldoze it. And all that gorgeous material from the little, old house just goes to the landfill. It goes to ruin all the beautiful, old-growth lumber, the bricks that were made here in Maryland, all of those pieces, even if it was a house just built in the 1960s and very modest, not particularly stylish, it still has really good guts in it. It’s got neat materials and it’s a shame that all that’s just going to be sent to a landfill to create nothing and cause climate change. Instead, we’d rather that you hire a deconstruction crew. We work with a couple of different companies and nonprofits that do deconstruction.
[NR] So you don’t do it yourself, but you can help someone get in touch with a crew to deconstruct the building?
[RM] At the moment, we don’t do it ourselves. We’d like to. That’s one area we’d like to grow into. But, yeah, so we’ve got a bunch of different partners that do. And so it can be anywhere from just a typical renovation company that might just be doing the inner part of a house. Maybe you’re just redoing your kitchen and so they come in and they use more care than an ordinary – they don’t take a sledgehammer to your cabinets. Instead, they’ll pull up your floorboards carefully and remove all the materials carefully and arrange for the donation. Or it can be a full-scale deconstruction company that’s taking a building all the way down to the ground. And if it was built by hand, it’s actually not that hard to do. Sure, if it was built in the 1990’s and it’s all made of particle boarding glue, yeah, it’s not easy to deconstruct it. There’s not much of value, it’s all plastic and glue. But if it’s an older home that was built by hand with real materials, then it’s easy enough to take it apart by hand. It might take a few weeks instead of a few days –
[NR] And there’s a cost associated with it? Is there cost difference than demo?
[RM] Well, there is in that if you’re bulldozing you’re just paying a few people a few days to come and wreck everything. But then you’re paying landfilling fees. If you’re throwing out the whole house, you’re having to pay by the ton to throw it out. But if you’re doing deconstruction, you have the cost of it being a few weeks of labor. You’ve got a crew, maybe a dozen people for a couple of weeks for taking it down to the ground. Labor is expensive. But if you’re only throwing out 20 percent of the building, if they’re saving 80 percent of it either to be recycled or to be reused, you’re basically paying people to work instead of paying landfilling fees.
[NR] So the cost is similar in reality?
[RM] Well, it depends on the building. It depends on the materials that are in the building because the big thing that makes it worthwhile is the tax deduction. You’re donating all of these great materials to a non-profit like us and so you’re getting a tax deduction for all these materials you’re donating. And that’s where it really makes the difference. So yes, you’re paying more in labor but depending on your tax bracket, depending on how much the materials are worth, you can be getting this huge tax savings because you’ve just made this generous donation of materials. So that’s what makes it worthwhile for most people who choose to deconstruct.
[NR] Hmm. So now once the materials get to you, you’ve got them in your hands, do you have to do much prep work with them? I mean I know people who work around old homes, you know, there’s concerns about lead and asbestos and things like that. Do you get worried about that kind of stuff? Do you prep that? How does it go from “it’s been dropped off from the station wagon in front of Community Forklift” to “it’s for sale”?
[RM] Yeah, so it’s been a real learning process for us. The hardest job is actually sometimes before we take the materials, it’s in figuring out what can we or should we be taking and what should we be turning down. So over the years we’ve learned that certain things we shouldn’t take.
[NR] What’s that? What shouldn’t you take?
[RM] Oh, gosh. It can be something as simple as dishwashers. I don’t know why, dishwashers must just be badly designed. But often people will take them out of one house, you try to put them in another, they just leak. One out of every three dishwashers used to come back to us so we finally just stopped taking them. It can be things like lumber that has a significant amount of lead paint on it. If a door is a beautiful historic door and we know that it’s going to be worth enough to somebody that they’ll be willing to strip the lead paint safely and do it in an approved way, then yes, we’d be interested in the door. But if the door is already pretty damaged, it’s got a lot of lead paint flaking off of it, and we know that somebody’s just going to take it and use it to make a cute, chippy craft project and then have all that lead paint laying on their floor for their toddler, no, we don’t want to keep that in use. We know that somebody’s not likely to handle it appropriately so we’re going to turn that down. So there’s a lot of training we have to do with our employees. And the cool part about taking such interesting stuff from every era, and from taking grandpa’s junk drawer, all those little hardware and do-dads, is that it does create work. It’s a lot of work to sort through it, and then it’s a lot of work to research and figuring out, “What the heck, should we put a price on it? How much should we charge for this? How should we display it? How can we safely display things like glass in a way that they won’t be damaged in our warehouse?” And so because that takes a lot of labor, it’s good because it means we’re creating jobs at our warehouse.
[NR] So there is a significant amount of work you are doing before it ends up in the consumer’s hands?
[RM] Yeah… even if it’s just researching what it is. Even if it’s and perfect, pristine [crosstalk] condition.
[NR] And figuring out what price to put on it?
[RM] Yeah. Researching. What is it? What should we charge for it? And how do we store it safely so that the customer can come and find what they need? It takes a lot of work let alone something like cleaning or repairing. We do some very basic repairs to older cabinets, things like that. We might tighten a hinge, but we’re not yet at the level where we have a whole repair shop. We’d like to get there.
[NR]Yeah. And you’re not abating lead or anything like that?
[NR] So you’re just advising people on how they should take care of that?
[RM] Yeah. We have handouts. We try to give resources to people as much as we can. We also do educational workshops throughout the year about different aspects of old home repair and when lead comes into it we mention that. We’re trying to build up our resources list too, not just around lead, but around all sorts of home repair issues, so we’ve got a bunch of binders full of business cards from tradespeople who handle everything from how to repair rattan furniture to how to repair old wood windows.
[NR] Okay, and give me a sense on the pricing. Is it a better deal to shop with a reuse center like Community Forklift, than it is to go to Home Depot? Am guessing the answer is yes?
[RM] Oh, yes. So from modern items that you could find an equivalent at Home Depot, we generally are 40 to 70 percent cheaper. Depending on condition of the item, demand for it, that sort of it. So home depot you might buy a cheap hollow core door for $25. You’re going to come to us and get it for $2 or maybe it’ll be in the free pile. We’ve got garbage disposals for $10 or $15, so there’s some significant savings on the modern stuff. But even the vintage items that we carry, we look up what it might cost in an antique store, and we’re still trying to price it at least 10 maybe 20 or 30 percent less than what the market would bear. Because we want to make those cool, old materials affordable for people who have them .Not all the vintage stuff has to go into the nicest houses in town. Some of it we’d like it to go into the more modest houses too.
[NR] Yeah. No, I think that makes a lot of sense. Well, this has been really fascinating, so far. Why don’t we take a quick break and then when we come back maybe start talking a little bit about the ethics of all of this work. Because there’s a lot of questions around this and I’d love to pick your brain about where you stand in all of that, and how that the field that you’re involved is shifting? And how it’s changing, and what’s ahead for places like Community Forklift? So we’ll do that when we come back right here on Preserve Cast.
[RM] Sounds good.
[Stephen Israel] Last week saw the conclusion of what many Marylanders know are the eleven best days of summer, The Maryland State Fair. Maryland’s State Fair has operated from the same fairgrounds in Lutherville since 1879 when fair goers arrived via wagons and carts driven along the York Turnpike (now York Road) to celebrate what was then called the Timonium Estate. In the early days, popular attractions consisted of sideshows, sack races, and greased pole climbing, and concessions were provided by the farmers’ wives. Initially, the fair was intended just for residents of Baltimore County, but it was so much fun it naturally grew over time. One big moment was the 1906 merger with the Pimlico Fair, which also laid a claim to the title State Fair. I think in the end both groups were happy with the result – one massive indisputable state fair. Other notable moments in the fairs history including brief period of three years when the fair was cancelled during World War II because the fairgrounds were being rented to the army.
The fair quickly returned, but then, in the 1950s the fairgrounds themselves were nearly sold to developers. But luckily, a grass-roots group of business and community leaders as well as horse and agricultural enthusiasts, joined together and raised $600,000 to buy the grounds and to keep the fair alive. In some ways, the fair has changed over the years. But it still remains a showcase for the state’s agricultural heritage and an opportunity for Marylanders to enter the champion livestock, giant produce, and homemade food, and baked goods into competition. Or if you’re looking for more of a thrill every year there are carnival rides like the Zipper featured all along the midway. And there’s always refreshment at the Maryland Foods Pavilion and Dairy Bar. Oh well, guess it’s one more year until the fair comes again. But in the meantime let’s get back to Preserve Cast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you’ve thought of a question that you have for us, or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to email@example.com and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of Preserve Cast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to Preserve Cast and we’re joined in studio today by Ruthie Mundell, who is the director of Outreach in Education at Community Forklift, which is the Washington D.C. region’s non-profit reuse center for home improvement architectural salvage. Before we took our break we heard a lot of really good stuff about the background of how Community Forklift works, and what you can do when you go there, what you can expect to find, that it’s a great deal to shop at reuse places like Community Forklift. Before we left off, I was setting up this next segment in talking about the ethics of all this. So for some preservationists, architectural salvage can be seen as sort of walking this fine line between true salvage and taking things that are destined for the landfill and diverting them from that and saving these wonderful resources. And then there sort of like this, “Is that looting historical resources? Are people going out and stripping old buildings and just trying to get the good stuff out of them, and then selling that?” Where are you guys on all that? Is there a lot of ethical questions involved in your work? And how do you navigate all that?
[RM] I think it’s really important thing to talk about. When I – 12 years ago – first started working at the Forklift, we’d just opened, and I was hanging out with a friend here in Baltimore and met her neighbor. I was explaining what I did and just gave her a brief explanation and then she laid into me. She was so upset. She said, “Well, my family had a house. My grandmother passed away and before we could sell the house, thieves came in. Addicts came in and stripped up the mantle piece. They stripped out the stained glass and the door and the sold them to a place like you just to make money for drugs. And our family history and the value that our family had inherited was gone because all these beautiful things were gone from the house. How can you defend what you do?”
And I was, “Oh, my gosh.” That was horrifying to hear that sad story. I felt so bad for the woman, and I said, “Well, you know, that’s true. If we were a place that bought only really high end, really beautiful, significant, cute pieces, and we’d paid lots of money for it, then, yeah, we’d be motivating addicts to steal things.” But we’re a very different model and the whole industry that we’re part of – of reuse centers and deconstruction companies – most of us are not taking materials out of buildings where folks don’t want the pieces taken out of. Most of what we’re getting is stuff that was going to be going to the landfill. The owner of that building has decided for however many reasons, financial, maybe it’s just aesthetic reasons, maybe they just don’t like that era of building, but they have bound and determined they’re going to be getting rid of that. And so we’re providing another option. Instead of sending that beautiful material to the landfill, we’re saying, “Hey, we’ll give you a tax deduction if you take a little bit of time and take it out carefully. That might be worth your while and you’ll be helping your community. You’ll be a good citizen.” So we’re providing some incentive for people to not do the worst thing, to not just waste materials. But we’re not necessarily creating a market for stolen goods for people to just pull out material that shouldn’t be pulled out.
[NR] Right, and because you’re not buying it that really kind of cuts down on that because people who are looking to make a big profit don’t just want a tax –
[RM] Yeah, nobody’s going to pull something out of a building just to get a tax deduction. That’s not going to motivate them. But, perhaps, it will motivate them to at least not throw it in the dump. The other thing that I think is really a benefit – and overall, most preservationists I’ve run into have been big fans of Community Forklift–
[NR] Myself included.
[RM] Yes, and come visit us often because we’re making it easier for people to preserve old buildings. If we have the heart pine flooring or the old true dimensional joists. Then it means that it’s easier to repair an old building, and so you can keep that building in use longer. It’s not, “Oh, it’s so expensive to repair this. We might as well just rip it all down.” Instead, it’s like, “Well, no, we can keep up with the repairs for a little while longer. We can keep this building in use.” If we’re keeping lots of buildings in use then it means neighborhoods are cleaner and safer, people are investing more in the neighborhoods, you’re attracting more investment to neighborhoods.
I’m the daughter of a community college professor who is the first person in his family to go to college. He grew up in a converted chicken shack, actually, after the Great Depression. So I have a real orientation. I’m very interested in the places where working people have lived over the years and that history. So it’s easier to preserve – it’s still a fight – but it’s easier to preserve houses of famous and important people and beautiful mansions and things. But a lot of the history of African Americans, a lot of the history of poor people has just been destroyed over the years because it’s nothing incredibly beautiful. It’s very prosaic – places where people lived and worked – but if we make it easier for their descendants, who may also still not have very much resources, or their neighborhoods, their community development corporations… If we make it easier for somebody to preserve the home where a former enslaved person had lived, then that means that history’s preserved too.
[NR] Yeah, yeah. I think that the reuse centers are playing a critical role in all of this. I mean, I see them as one cog in the wheel kind of moving things around, and you have to have this because not only is it more expensive to maybe find these pieces or heart pine flooring elsewhere. Oftentimes it’s just impossible. You just can’t find the materials. The only places you’re going to find it is in a reuse center, and it’s much better that it ends up there than the landfill. Any guidelines that there are in the world of reuse? I mean, are there things that you guys sort of all agree to? Or are there things that when people are looking to go out, perhaps someone listening to this, and we have an audience around the whole country, so someone who can’t make it to Community Forklift because they live a thousand miles away, anything that they should be thinking about or looking for in a reuse center to make sure it’s legit and they’re supporting a good player in the industry?
[RM] Yeah, so we’re actually a member of the Building Materials Reuse Association, which is small, little non-profit. But it’s sort of a trade group for stores like ours, for deconstruction companies, for anybody who deals and reclaims wood or other building materials. And it’s still a pretty young industry in some ways. Yes, we’ve always had the fancy antique stores who preserve the claw-foot tubs. But, in terms of places that want to preserve everything, even the floor joists, even the guts of the house, that’s a little bit newer in some ways. We’ve gotten away from it for the last few generations. And so it’s only been the last 20 or 30 years that places like Community Forklift have been springing up. So we’re still figuring out who we are as an industry. The BMRA’s an awesome resource. We have a conference every year where we can discuss issues and learn from each other. The hot issue right now is: who is being a good player with the tax appraisals? That’s our most controversial issue. If you tell somebody this building is worth millions of dollars for tax deduction, but the materials aren’t worth that much, that can endanger our whole industry. Because the IRS can come crack down and say, “Sorry, you don’t get tax deductions for donating building materials anymore.”
[RM] Right. And some of the preservation community may remember when that happened with the value of easements. So there was a whole sort of scandal around this idea of over-valuing easements. And so people were donating architectural easements on buildings, particularly in Washington D.C., and creating this giant mess. And then the whole thing came crashing down. And now, everybody’s still terrified of them. So we don’t want people to be terrified of donating stuff to Community Forklift. So, you’re right, that’s sort of a scary thing out there, I guess.
[RM] Yeah. So there’s a bit of self-policing happening. There’s arguing within the industry. There’s talking heatedly to each other to try to make sure that none of us are poisoning the well for all of us. And so we’re trying to work, coming up with, over time, guidelines for people with appraisal. I’m hoping that’s something that will happen in the next five years or so. Sooner rather than later would be great if we could all come to more consensus on that as an industry.
But in terms of the ethics of it, there’s so much out there going to waste that there’s not necessarily a need for any of us to go pillaging historic buildings. There’s still so much coming to us from buildings that would just rot. They’re either going to be bulldozed or they’re going to be bulldozed by neglect. It’s a really cool cooperative industry in a lot of ways. Here, in Maryland, we’ve got Community Forklift, but we’ve got several places operating in the Baltimore area. And we’re just getting to the point where it’s possible to make a living as a reuse professional who can go from what – we’ve got one employee now who’s leaving us. He wants to move to Baltimore. He loves Baltimore. And so he’s going to find a job at another place. He’s just gotten hired. And that’s really cool to see that we’re maturing to the point where there’s valued expertise that were really excited to have him because he had more knowledge of reuse than any old Joe off the street.
[NR] Yeah. And I imagine that we haven’t hit close to a saturation point because there’s still a lot of building waste going into landfills and not all of it was something that was built in the 1990s out of particleboard and glue. To me, that suggests there’s still work to be done. So there’s still a need for probably even more of these places or the places that we have to expand and take on more. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff still headed to the landfill.
[RM] The one thing I will say, probably uniformly frustrates all of us in the reuse industry: the trend of reclaimed wood and the rustic look that “schoolhouse industrial,” that kind of thing. It’s awesome that so many bars, and cafes, and interior designers have embraced the thought of reclaimed material giving character to a place. And when it’s done right, it’s amazing. When you’ve got a cool, old building where they’ve still retained elements. They found a new purpose for a building, like where we’re sitting right here. I walked in the door to come into the Preservation Maryland office, and it looks like this cool, old mill building with beautiful, old wood floors. And yes, it wasn’t useful as a mill anymore, but now it’s being used by all these non-profit profits and businesses. And it’s a thriving workplace, but there’s still Maryland bricks, there’s still heart pine that may have been cut down nearby used in this building. It’s really fun to see, and so I love that. But the thing that drives us nuts is when folks wanting to make a quick buck. Large, big box, international retailers, are selling things that are supposedly reclaimed lumber. “Oh, this coffee table, made out of reclaimed lumber.” But guess what? It may have actually been made out of reinforced lumber, not sustainably harvested, and then just given a chemical treatment to make it look old.
[NR] Right. Or even worse yet, if they don’t even say it’s from reclaimed. It’s just made to look reclaimed. This is a piece of pine that has been beaten with – a piece of brand-new pine that’s been beaten with a pipe or a chain, and we slap some lacquer on it. And it’s –
[RM] Exactly. And I know it’s happening, yes.
[NR] It gives you that look, and you don’t have to get your fingers dirty.
[RM] Yeah. My main role at Community Forklift as the outreach and education person is to spread the gospel of what we do, spread the gospel of reuse. And so the more I can let folks know, “Hey, we have the real stuff. You don’t have to make it pretend. You don’t have to recreate it. It actually still exists!” I happened to run into a friend of a friend in Annapolis who loves building. He started building really beautiful tables for bars. And he didn’t know where to get old lumber, so he’d been going to the big box warehouses and buying stuff and beating it up with hammers. I said, “No, no, come visit me,” and he did. And so now all of his stuff is authentically reclaimed, and it’s been very cheap for him. He’s 45 cents a foot for some of these cool old boards. It’s actually cheaper than going and buying new from Home Depot or Lowes. So –
[NR] There you go.
[RM] –he’s grateful. I’m excited that he’s now authentic reclaimed wood [laughter].
[NR] That’s awesome. So you’ve been at Community Forklift from the beginning. You precede the CEO, it sounded like from your explanation.
[RM] Just barely, yeah.
[NR] Just barely [laughter]. How’s it changed over the years? What’s changing, and where are you guys headed?
[RM] Oh, it’s really fun. So when I came on board, it was like the second week after we’d opened our doors. I think I was the fourth employee. We’ve now grown to 40 employees plus a bunch of part-time contractors and partners who also make revenue. We have some consignment partners who have some really cool stuff. So it’s really neat to see that here are all these jobs that have been created out of trash basically. When we first started, each of us did everything. Researching what something was, and then you’d go out on the truck. And our president was also our truck driver [laughter]. That’s the way it is with a lot of start-ups. But because the mission was so cool and because it made so much financial sense for everyone– it’s a win for the folks who are donating and getting the taxes and the builders who are reducing waste. Even the trash haulers – there’s trash haulers who will go to pick up something. They’ll help somebody clean out a garage or a house, and then they will stop off at us before they go to the landfill. And they’ll try to give us as much as they can because then it’s reducing their landfilling fees. So it’s a great deal for all of these folks who are donating. It’s a great deal for the people that are shopping. And so then it’s lead to very loyal fans. We call them our Forklift fans, all the folks who love our warehouse. And so what that means is we’ve been able to attract really cool employees, people who have really interesting backgrounds and skills. And so we’ve been able to grow fast.
We attracted our CEO, Nancy Meyer. She had, way back in her career – early on, she’d been one of the first female carpenters in the D.C. Carpenters’ Union – she’d then run other non-profits. She ran a domestic violence shelter. She worked for Whitman Walker in D.C. So she knew a lot about how to run a non-profit and she came on board. My favorite story to tell is she walked in and said, “Wait. Why don’t we take credit cards?” It was still the first year of operation, and we just hadn’t picked a credit card processing company and figured out the paperwork. So within a week, we had a credit card machine and sales jumped 70 percent. Oh, my goodness!
[NR] I bet [laughter].
[RM] And so within the first few years of attracting folks like Nancy and some other really hardworking people, we were able to stop going into debt. We weren’t at say quite a lot of debt at the beginning to run to huge warehouse with such an expense. But we started then paying off our debt.
[NR] Yeah. I was going to ask you about funding. How does that work? How do you fund this?
[RM] Well, we were lucky in some ways. The port town’s neighborhood, which is in the Anacostia Heritage Area just outside northeast D.C., a lot of local activists in the port town’s local officials, they have heard that this place called Community Forklift was looking for a warehouse. And we initially thought we would be in D.C. but the port town’s officials and activists said, “No, no. We want to agree in business. We want something like you where we are.” So they found a warehouse for us that was empty and then they helped us get a low-interest loan from a state fund. So we did have a pool of money at the beginning, at least to be able to go into debt with [laughter]. We, unfortunately, used a few credit cards in the early years. But then we grew quickly. Like I said, we attracted lots of people. We attracted so much grassroots support. I could always tell a new customer the second they walked into the warehouse, they pick up their cell phone and call their cousin or their co-worker and say, “You got to get down here.” So we started attracting really loyal people. And now, we are 97 percent self-funded just from the revenue from the store, from our online sales on eBay and Etsy. We’re able to pay our rent, and our insurance, and our employees, and even benefits for our employees. That’s been a nice way that we’ve grown. We did not use to- early on, there were not many benefits and now, we have health insurance and paid days-off. We really want this to be good, real jobs, career jobs. So most of our revenue just comes through the sales in the store. But there’s still so many other things we want to do. We’ve got a lot of dreams of expansion.
We’d like to do deconstruction. We’d like to have a crew for that. That’s going to be expensive for the equipment and the insurance. We would like to explore some other reuse options. We’ve helped to nurture a few small reuse entrepreneurs start-up businesses. There’s a business that kind of upcycled broken things and made them into cool furniture and gifts. And she’s grown like crazy. There’s an upholster who has grown and he takes some of our scraps and broken stuff and makes them into beautiful pieces. So we’d like to help more small businesses locate in our area, business that do reuse and upcycling. But to do that, I think we’re going to need grants. We’ve started to go after… putting a lot of grant applications and –
[NR] Back to the fund-raising of your earlier career.
[RM] Yes, so we’re starting to do more fund-raising. We put a lot in. We’ve started to get a few things. The county executive, the local Prince George’s County government’s been wonderful. They’ve been really supportive of us. We have a lot of champions in the environmental division there. Prince George’s County for those who don’t know, I just got to brag, it’s actually diverting more waste from the landfill than any other county in the state. So they’ve got composting going on and they’re really hoping that we’ll continue to grow. They had just a press conference a month ago announcing that our whole industrial district where we’re located – we want to become an eco-district – so they will be offering tax credits for green businesses located there, reuse businesses. They’re really supportive. But, yeah, we’re definitely going to have to keep going after money from private foundations. We do have some funding too. There’s going to be a sustainable parking lot and park – an art park with upcycled art across the street from us to sort of transform a kind of ugly, scrubby area where a lot of trash currently goes into the Anacostia. It will now become a beautiful place. So little by little, we’re getting there.
[NR] Yeah, pretty cool. If people wanted to go in touch with Community Forklift or they want to find more information on you or get in touch with you, how do they do it?
[RM] Well, the easiest way you can find us on social media. Community Forklift’s on Facebook, we’re on Instagram, we’re on Twitter. And you can also just go to CommunityForklift.org, go to our website. We’ve got all sorts of information.
[NR] So do you have any cool upcoming events that you want to tell anyone all about?
[RM] Oh, yeah. So we do a lot of fun stuff at Community Forklift. We try to keep it interesting. We always have something quirky going on. This summer, we’ve got a concert series. And coming up this fall, on October 21st, we’re going to have the Funkyard Festival. It’s sort of a celebration of local history and creative culture. So we’re going to have some funk bands from the D.C. area playing. We’re going to have, possibly, some local art cars that will show up that you can climb into. We’re going to have all sorts of activities and workshops on things like how to repair your old house. So you get to enjoy a little art, we’re going to have food trucks, live funk. It will be a fun celebration.
[NR] Awesome. And final question. We don’t let anyone PreserveCast without answering it. And since you’re a Marylander, we’re going to make you answer it with a Maryland answer which is, where is your favorite historic place in Maryland?
[RM] So funny enough, my favorite historic place is actually younger than I am. I was born in 1978. And in 1979, The Dee of Saint Mary’s was built. And so that’s a skipjack. It’s owned by Captain Jack Russell down Saint Mary’s County. And in the early 80’s, he did a lot of tonging for oysters, undersailed the historic way of doing it. And then he started operating it as an educational lab. And so when I was in school and summer camp, I took a couple of trips out on the skipjack and tonged up oysters and ate them on the spot. And he taught me and a lot of other schoolkids about the connection between taking care of our environment and taking care of our history. It’s over at the Calvert Marine Museum. You can go and take a private charter if you want. They still have the educational tours. So it was definitely an informative spot in my childhood. And I still love it today.
[NR] Yeah, that’s awesome. And maybe the most Maryland answer we’ve ever gotten: an oyster-tonging skipjack. That’s awesome, love it. And we really appreciate having you on today. And thanks for all the good work that you’re doing to help out preservationists here in the D.C. region.
[RM] Thank you.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
Community Forklift is a contributor to Preservation Maryland’s PreserveList resource — it’s a fast-growing online website of pro-preservation professionals providing services from financing to roofing.