Chapter 6: Tales From the Field (1995-1997)
By: David Spangler
In my first stint working for the RE Store from 1995 to 1997, we all worked as sales staff and salvagers. Because of this arrangement, I had the opportunity to participate in many interesting salvage projects during the mid-1990s (see My RE Store Memories, Chapter Five). Due to the materials, location, chemistry of my co-workers, the age of the structure, the owners, the weather, the contractor’s deadline, and dozens of other nuanced factors, each project had a unique feel and mood. Below are a few more tales from those early years in the field.
Old Warehouse, State Street
I was walking on my day off when I strolled past a huge construction waste container parked in an alley outside an old, two-storied warehouse. I heard something thrown into it that crashed. Curious, I climbed up to peer over its edge and noticed many usable items like mirrors, doors, and a colored glass chandelier. I found the contractor I asked if the RE Store could come over to save anything they were tossing out. They answered, “Yes—so long as it happens now.” I found a quarter in my pocket and ran to the nearest pay phone to call the RE Store. It was a slow day at the store, so Rick was sent over immediately to fill the truck with a growing pile of goodies I was setting aside.
The contractor invited us back the next day to scurry about the building and the one next door to see what else we could save. Dave Bennink and I found a tight stairwell to the forgotten realm of the second story, a dim place chock full of dusty old wood shelving and wooden racks, their original purpose lost to time. I don’t remember what items we rescued, but we were relieved to discover an ancient, massive platform elevator we could use for the bigger items we found. This odd elevator had only wood railings for walls and was roofless, and it worked! There were no buttons to push to operate this creature. The user needed to only gently tug on one of the cables to go up or down in near silence. Dave and I marveled at that industrial contraption with its silent operation, slowly spinning, large spoked steel cable wheels, and heavy wood construction. It was sad that it was not feasible for us to dismantle that old technology and take it with us—it was doomed to be pulverized with the rest of the building.
After we had saved many truckloads of items, the time had come when that building and its two-story neighbor were smashed into a pile and hauled away. Those lots, including the alley, were scraped clean, and two new buildings were erected. The rest was paved. Today, this is the site of Kona Bike Shop and an unoccupied retail building that once housed Seattle Lighting. Even though those buildings disappeared twenty-eight years ago, I will never forget that odd, old elevator. In all my years of salvaging, I have not seen another elevator like it—it was a beautiful thing to use.
National Guard Building, Bellingham, WA
Remember the National Guard building that once stood at the corner of Roeder and Hilton Avenues? No one does, but we were all excited about it since it was the next big job since the Amtrak station and Fairhaven Middle School. I believe this was the first time Dave Bennink had filmed a salvage walk-through with a Camcorder onto a VHS tape, and we were all invited to his house to watch it on his television to see it for ourselves. We oohed and awed as corn chips crunched in our mouths.
When Dave and I arrived with the truck and tools, the site was still in the dewy shadows of that morning’s still-rising sunlight. The building was a rambling, one-storied wood structure from the early 1950s, with a floor plan as orderly and spartan as expected from the military. It sat on a concrete pad and was painted a no-nonsense white with dark green trim and a white flag pole outside the central main entrance. Inside were hallways and cross hallways, offices, and an equipment garage, all well-lighted by many windows, outside and in. In the center of the entire building was an odd, small concrete courtyard baking in the sun with no access door. Several thick-stalked blackberry vines had sprung out of any crack they could with berries as big as golf balls. We clamored out a window to have a taste. They tasted mighty fine.
When demolition day came, we had not quite finished, but the contractor allowed us to remain inside adjacent halls and rooms to take out what we could—so long as we stayed out of the rooms being demolished. I know, crazy, right? Not back then. When the crunching and smashing began in earnest, I will never forget the image of the polished teeth of the excavator’s jawed bucket crashing down through the ceiling just inside the doorway of the next room. As we discussed which of the last items on the list to remove over the racket of crunching sounds, we were only about ten feet away from the machine’s jaws. We both looked at each other and laughed. “Yep, just another regular day working at The RE Store!” We knew what we were doing was absurd. We were just as hell-bent on taking every last thing as the operator was tearing down the building. It was almost like pulling salvageable items from the jaws of the excavator. But times have changed—I don’t think we would be allowed to remain in a building during demolition today. And though I was young and bold back then, I would never pick a fight with an excavator today.
I remember one more thing about that building. When the excavator ripped through one roof section, a reciprocating saw fell from the rafters and dangled from its cord. Whoops! Someone had left behind their expensive tool! The operator stepped out onto the pile to grab it. How many months or years it had been up there, I did not know. But, since all our work happened below the ceiling, I knew that at least it wasn’t ours.
Today, nothing remains of that building except its often-used parking lot along Roeder Avenue, with a smaller round gravel section in the middle where the flagpole once stood. Part of the building site beyond is a pasture of weeds and mushy, green goose dung, but the rest of the lot was taken by the construction of a massive new industrial building for the shipbuilder, All American Marine. That old courtyard, now devoid of its concrete lid, exploded with a small patch of blackberries that were later cut down by lawnmowers.
Burlington High School, Burlington, WA
As the saying goes, you win a few, and you lose a few. Sometimes it is both.
It may have been in the summer of 1996 when we stepped out of Whatcom County to salvage and haul home many cabinets from two or three old science and home economics buildings at Burlington High School. These were shallow-gabled, one-story buildings built in the late 1950s or 1960s. A run of windows ran the entire length of the buildings on both sides. Aside from some restrooms on either end, the floor plans were open with no walls.
On our last afternoon, demolition crews parked their excavators nearby. Unfortunately, we had salvaged too many cabinets to take back to Bellingham by the end of our day. Based on our information, we smartly surmised that demolition would begin with one of the other buildings the following morning. With this in mind, we staged our mountain of cabinets in the safest spot inside the last likely building to be razed, in hopes of keeping our cabinet treasures safely away from the machines until we returned early the next day. The following morning we left Bellingham with our fingers crossed. I am sure you know where this is going. When we arrived, our chosen “safe” place for the cabinets was already a smashed pile of glass, wood, and twisted steel baking in the morning sun. Our cabinets had died a splintery death right where we had left them—all that work, fuel, and time for nothing. Ironically, the other end of the building was still standing while the operators took a smoke break. We wondered, “Didn’t they know our cabinets were there? Was that on purpose??” It felt like the operators of the excavators were passive-aggressively flipping us lowly salvagers the bird. Still, it may have been a simple miscommunication, as wires do get crossed on job sites. One couldn’t be sure. Either way, we shook our heads in disbelief, called Bruce by pay phone with the sad news, and returned to Bellingham with empty trucks. In the construction and demolition industries, we were tiny people with little sway, and such moments were already familiar to Bruce. He reminded me occasionally of how steep the hill was for the RE Store and how low we stood in the hierarchy in the world of big construction. To me, it seemed we were lower in rank than even the unappreciated saints who service the portable toilets.
Despite our disappointment, at least we could claim success in previous days, having hauled away many other sets of cabinets to sell. We had done all we could and moved on.