Story and audio slides by CLARE MAJOR
A visit to the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse is an archaeological expedition. Customers dig through layers of inventory, both old and new — toys, furniture, paper, photographs, fabric. Bins of rubber bands and shelves of old VHS tapes sit next to projector slide trays, antique china, and mismatched earrings.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” said Oakland teacher Rickie Hannah, while combing the shelves for art class supplies. Hannah, who usually visits the Depot four times a week, said that he finds ideas and materials for his lessons — at prices he can afford, since he’s spending his own money for class supplies.
The Depot, founded almost 30 years ago by two teachers, moved from San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley to the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 47th Street in Oakland a year and a half ago. A nonprofit, its mission is to provide low-cost supplies for teachers and artists — and treasure hunts for the rest of us.
“We run it on a couple of different levels,” said director Linda Levitsky. “We have the low-cost art supplies — paper, toilet paper tubes, jars, berry baskets — and then we bring in a higher-end reused good to make it be possible to have this place be self-sustaining.”
The Depot operates on a limited number of grants, their “fee for service” activities (special events, crafts classes), income from a reuse program in central Contra Costa County, and the store’s sales. The Depot accepts both corporate donations — crates of glass test tubes, packages of tie silk, years ago a truckload of Star Wars toys from Lucasfilm — and also donations from individuals who have stuff they don’t need anymore but don’t want to send to a landfill.
The best donations often arise from the worst situations — death, divorce, and business failure frequently yield a wealth of family mementos, attic relics, and surplus stock. “When people just say, ‘I’ve got to get rid of all this stuff, you deal with it,’ real treasure can come in there,” said Depot employee Pete Glover.
The strangest items are often memorable bestsellers: body bags, embalming fluids, dentures, x-rays, and doll parts have all sold well. The storage room, however, has become a museum of curiosities for the bizarre donations that don’t quite make it to the store shelves. The walls are covered with old street signs and tattered posters, and the shelves contain a galaxy of oddities: dreadlocks, a ponytail, a plastic lobster, a paper-mâché alien, and a jar of dead bees.
“I like the ever-revolving inventory,” said Depot employee Nikola Clark. “People going, ‘Wow, oh my God, look what I found.’”
Oakland resident Kelly Bartlett, who had picked up file folders, envelopes, and a wooden-handled purse, shops with a parent’s eye. “I have two kids, so there’s always something we can use,” she said. “Little kitschy things that thrill the heck out of a kid for 50 cents.”
Glover, who spends much of his time sorting donations, says the Depot plays an important role in the arts and crafts communities. “The real reuse stuff — toilet paper tubes, yogurt containers, the stuff that would end up in a landfill — it’s something that you can’t buy anywhere else,” said Glover. “If you needed 100 toilet paper tubes, either you’re sifting around other people’s garbage, or buying 100 rolls of toilet paper and waiting a long time — or you’re getting it here.”
The Depot may need to rely on its unique services — crafts classes, cheap arts supplies in high volume, and troves of reused treasure — in order to stay open at a time when many businesses are closing. “I kept saying to everybody that this year was going to be our year,” said Levitsky. “And then all of a sudden the economy came around and just snapped us in the rear end, you know: boom!”
In addition to grants drying up, local businesses that were reliable donors are closing or relocating, Levitsky said. “Big furniture store companies that would donate to us have left the area,” she said. “People who make rubber stamps have left the area. People that donate tie silk to us have sold their company and left the area. Cody’s Bookstore — always a strong donor — closed down.”
The Depot’s dependence on new, “clean” donated items, such as a bookstore’s unsold stock of calendars, makes for an uncertain future. The constantly changing flow of used goods, however, remains reliably unpredictable.
“We just happened to walk by,” said Nell Ziroli, visiting from Atlanta, Georgia. “I’ve just never seen anything like this kind of selection,” she said as she wandered through the aisles, flipping through stacks of old photographs and magazines from the 80s. “I mean, this is crazy. Good. Good crazy.”
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