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North Hills Monthly

Salvage Stores: Where Sustainability Meets Creativity

Aug 29, 2019 08:28AM ● By Kathleen Ganster

A fish made of recycled materials. Photo provided by Construction Junction.

Laura Stuart enjoys shopping in salvage and thrift shops. 

“I often purchase old windows and random furniture. I like to redo these pieces and create new items from them for the garden or as household décor,” she said.

As an artist and the director of Creative Services/Activities for Studio Forget-Me-Not, a nonprofit art center for disabled adults, Stuart not only uses her finds for her own home, but for the studio and for clients. “I often pick up random pieces for Forget-Me-Not; we create a lot of art out of reuse,” she said. 

Construction Junction is one of her frequent haunts. 

“My favorite pieces are old barn wood and old windows—I like to paint on the old windows and hang them in the house and garden,” Stuart said.

Construction Junction (CJ) is western Pennsylvania’s first nonprofit retailer that specializes in used and surplus building material, according to General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Melissa Mongelli. The store is located in Pittsburgh’s East End and is open seven days a week. 

Items are donated to Construction Junction from individuals, companies and builders, and customers can visit the warehouse and purchase these items, usually at reduced prices. Like Stuart, they may find a variety of items for a myriad of uses.  

“Whether you like to build things on your own, create art with reusable items or you like to window shop and hope you find a hidden treasure, CJ has mass appeal for Pittsburghers and people in the surrounding areas,” Mongelli said.

Part of the appeal of salvage shops is that no two items are alike. “Everything has a history or path that led it here. It might be a remodel of a kitchen or bathroom or a full deconstruction of a church or building," Mongelli said. “Everything here has a previous life and is just waiting to be reborn, cleaned, refinished, reinstalled and loved again.” 

Because everything is different, so are the purposes for the purchases. Mongelli said that they have seen couples remodeling their bedrooms and purchasing old doors for their headboards, as well as businesses and nonprofits buying office furniture. Young children shopping with their parents search for items for inventions they hope to build. 

“It truly is amazing to see how we affect so many different people daily,” she said. 

Another of Stuart’s favorite spots is the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, a nonprofit that “inspires creativity, conservation, and community engagement through reuse,” according to Executive Director Ash Andrews.

The center is located right around the corner from Construction Junction at the intersection of Wilkinsburg, Homewood, and Point Breeze, and is a “nontraditional arts supply store,” Andrews said. 

Just like its nearby neighbor, people can donate items to be reused by others at this nonprofit organization.

 “We also facilitate hands-on creative programming that educates the public about the benefits of reuse for the environment, community, and self,” said Andrews. “We see reuse as a vehicle for boosting self-confidence, learning new skills, and creating opportunity for all.” 

Many of their customers are local artists, crafters and creative people who may be using items for their own crafts or home decor. Others are teachers, like Stuart, who may use the supplies for crafts with their students.  

Andrews enjoys the variety of items that are donated to the Center. 

“I love our wild and expansive array of vintage doll heads and faces, with expressions ranging from happy to mad to crying and laughing,” she said. “I also enjoy the hundreds and hundreds of trophies that Pittsburghers have donated to us over the years.” 

For Stuart, the odds and ends are fun for making jewelry. 

“I like some of their vintage material finds. I also like to get their vintage wallpaper books and make paper beads out of them,” she said.

Many customers walk through the door just for inspiration. 

“We are more than just a retail store—we are a community creativity hub,” Andrews said. 

A valuable component of purchasing from salvage and thrift stores is the plus for the environment. 

“We believe that reuse is key to solving many of our world's sustainability problems while boosting creativity, confidence, and skills in the people who engage with it,” Andrews said.

Salvaged PGH is an architectural salvage company that specializes in barn reclamation and is located in Wexford. 

“We are committed to the rescue and the recycling of sustainable and green building materials, while preserving history and valuable resources that no longer exist today,” explained owner Brian Cooper, who added that Salvaged PGH is always looking for opportunities to acquire or recycle good quality architectural salvage.

Cooper said that Salvaged PGH customers range from general contractors and interior designers to everyday DIYers and crafters who are looking for that perfect item to add a conversation piece to their décor. And customers love to share their stories about their finds. 

“One of the most recent projects was an old diner sign that the people upcycled into a table,” said Cooper. 

A fun aspect of operating—and shopping--salvage stores are the historical aspects of some of the items. 

“We have come across some great items over the years,” said Cooper. “One was a small journal whose first entry was dated 1895 with the last entry in 1984; it chronicled a family’s important events—everything from when someone gave birth, married, or entered the service, to wisdom teeth being pulled and even when cows and horses gave birth.” Salvaged PGH managed to track down a family member and return the journal. 

The Vintage Market is part of the Blessing Board, a nonprofit located in Oakmont. Home furnishings and other items are donated to the Blessing Board for needy families. Some donated items, which may be antiques or other items that are unusual and not considered essential for their clients, may be found for sale in the Vintage Market which was created to take advantage of these goods to raise funds. 

“We take about three percent of our total items to sell. One hundred percent of those sales are used to help offset our operating costs,” said Vintage Market Coordinator Karen Fischetti. 

Over the three years that Fischetti has volunteered at the Market, they have expanded from a small room to a large area where furniture is sold as is, or as projects that she has refurbished or painted. As with the other organizations, customers come from all over, including a buyer for a professional movie production company and another looking to rent items for plays. 

“It’s amazing the things that we have found and been able to sell,” she said.

Fischetti has expanded her own knowledge of the value of items and has not only been able to share that knowledge with their customers, but has learned from them. “We had a bed from the Civil War Era and a woman asked, ‘Do you know what this is? This is way underpriced!’” laughed Fischetti.

The Vintage Market has been a real success for the Blessing Board, helping to raise funds to help their day-to-day operations. “Plus, our customers have found real treasures,” Fischetti said.