A "Salvage Love" sign, seen through a salvaged bubble gum machine.
Community Forklift, a construction salvage business with a legion of loyal customers, says it is being pushed out of its current home, a 40,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Prince George's County, and is struggling to find a new location.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," said shopper Sarah Elliot, when told of the news. She was packing on old window she'd bought for a DIY project into her cargo bike. "Every time I have a project, this is the first place I come."
Many customers, like Elliot, come with artistic endeavors in mind. Others, like Victor Etongwa just come looking for a good deal.
"My plumber said I should get this," said Etongwa, holding a pair of faucet supply lines. "I came to get it from here — it's much cheaper."
Sarah Elliot, with her one-year old daughter and newly purchased window.
There's vintage furniture, used power tools, antique doorknobs, toilets, stoves, and aisles and aisles of cabinets carpet. Also: a whole lot of weird. Like a white egg-shaped chair with red velvet cushions. Or what looks like a giant space-age safe door, apparently salvaged from a stage set.
"We want people to have fun when they come here, and if there's wacky stuff, we want them to enjoy it like we do," says Community Forklift CEO Nancy Meyer.
There are numerous similar architectural salvage businesses around the country, including several large ones in Baltimore, Portland, and in the San Francisco Bay Area. They're an important, if loosely organized, piece of the national effort to cut down on waste, keeping many tons of material out landfills. But in a post-COVID world, with warehouse rents soaring, some are struggling to stay open.
Community Forklift had a rough time during the pandemic, and they were forced to lay off workers. Now, the business says their landlord, Washington Gas, wants them out.
"We've been working with them as partners to figure out what to do. They would like us to leave the property, and so we're in a hunt to see if we can find a new home," says Meyer.
The warehouse sits on about 3 acres in Edmonston, MD, just over the District line, near Hyattsville. For the first half of the 20th century, it was the site of a coal gasification plant – where coal was turned into gas for heating and lighting. Later, there was also concrete manufacturing and an automobile factory on the property.
Antique door hardware.
The land was acquired by Washington Gas in the early 1990s. For years the company has given Community Forklift a good deal on rent, Meyer says. After all, the property is still contaminated with industrial waste, and considered a brownfield site. Washington Gas participated in a voluntary cleanup program with state environmental regulators to make the property safe for its current use.
There's no exact timeline on the move, and Meyer says she's hoping Washington Gas will give the business time to find somewhere new.
Debbi Jarvis, a spokesperson for Washington Gas, declined an interview and said in an email she couldn't comment "on these commercial matters," but added, "we do believe strongly that Community Forklift will continue to succeed in the future."
Jarvis continued: "Washington Gas is proud of our more than 15 years supporting Community Forklift. We know that they are a key asset for the community and provide a wonderful service for homeowners and businesses in the greater D.C. area."
"This place gave me my life back," says store manager Raymond Stroud.
The 'Highest Form Of Recycling'
Community Forklift opened in 2005 – the brainchild of a group of local contractors and architects.
"They really wanted to divert materials from their jobs, and part of the problem was what to do with the materials after they saved them," Meyer says.
Community Forklift has salvaged a staggering amount of material – 600 truckloads a year – donated by local residents and contractors. Last year, that included 8.2 miles of lumber, if you laid it out end to end. Also: 4,767 light fixtures, 3,990 doors, 1,114 windows, and 471 toilets.
It adds up to $45 million of material that's been repurposed instead of thrown out over the years, Meyer says.
Nationally, waste from construction and demolition is a big problem — there's twice as much of it generated each year than household garbage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. About a quarter of it is sent to landfills.
Neil Seldman co-founded the Institute for Local Self Reliance, and has been helping communities improve recycling for decades. He says salvage businesses like Community Forklift play an important role.
"Reuse is the highest form of recycling," Seldman says. "You're reusing a product, you're not taking aluminum or paper and having to process it and make a new product."
"Reuse is the highest form of recycling," says Seldman. Just make sure to clean the toilet before reusing it.
But unlike recycling paper or aluminum cans, recycling construction materials isn't mandated or regulated by the government. Rather, it's taken on voluntarily, and depends on local salvage businesses like Community Forklift. Seldman says there are various policies that could give these businesses a boost, and keep more construction and demolition material out of landfills.
Seldman advocates for a national waste surcharge, imposed on every ton of material sent to a landfill or incinerator, to incentivize recycling as much of everything as possible. Or, legislation mandating recycling a certain percentage of construction and demolition material. Though, he says, the building industry would probably put up a fight.
"You may have to drag these companies kicking and screaming to the to obey the legislation, but ultimately they're going to be saving money," he says.
Increased Pressure On Warehouse Real Estate
The hunt for a new home isn't an easy one.
"Right now it's particularly challenging," says Meyer, citing warehouse vacancy rates of 2% to 3% in the area. "Businesses like Amazon bought up a lot of the local warehouse space, of which there's not that much to begin with."
Warehouse space has been in high demand since the pandemic, with low vacancy rates and spiking rents.
"What we're looking at here is five or six times our current rent. That's the difference — the exponential increase in cost, and exponential decrease in availability," Meyer says.
Community Forklift is not the only salvage business to be forced out recently. In Philadelphia, Philly Reclaim is closing for good on Aug. 15.
"We're not opening up again elsewhere because we can't afford warehouse rent in Philadelphia anymore," the organization wrote on social media last month. "Now we're competing against self-storage facilities, warehouses being converted into apartments, and last mile distribution tech companies."
Meyer says Community Forklift has strong support in Prince George's County, and is working with numerous government entities, community groups and others to find a suitable space.
One supporter in government is Prince George's County Council Member Jolene Ivey.
Community Forklift rescued and reused nearly 4,000 doors last year.
"The county would definitely benefit by keeping them here, I know that there's a desire to do so," Ivey says. "We need to find money to help them move — it would be really detrimental to to our community to lose them."
Ivey is a not just a supporter, but also regular customer. She says she got a Christmas gift at Community Forklift last year for her husband (Glenn Ivey, the former Prince George's County state's attorney and current Democratic nominee for Maryland's 4th Congressional District.)
"I got a really nice rocking chair that, if I bought it retail, it would have been hundreds and hundreds of dollars," Ivey says.
'This Place Gave Me My Life Back'
The mission of Community Forklift, and other reuse businesses like it, transcends just the items that are being rescued from the waste stream.
Part of the goal is also to provide well-paying jobs with benefits for people who might otherwise have a hard time finding work. People like Raymond Stroud.
"This place gave me my life back," says Stroud, currently the store manager, running day-to-day operations in the warehouse. He's been at Community Forklift for just over five years, working his way up.
"When I came in, I was in a homeless shelter. From working here, I have my own place now. I have my vehicle – I own it. And now I'm in a program trying to find a house."
Salvage businesses are about more than just buying and selling, dollars and cents, Meyer says, getting philosophical.
"The vision is creating a place where people can see that there's other ways to live and do things," she says. "How can we appreciate material things but not become completely bogged down by them?"
Meyer is optimistic about the future, if a little daunted at the prospect of relocating.
"I think it'll all work out in the end, " Meyer says. But moving, she admits, will be "no small task."
"You think moving your house is difficult? Think about moving the place that gives you all the materials for your house," Meyer says.
"I think it'll work out in the end," says Community Forklift CEO Nancy Meyer.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.