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Creative Re-Use Thrives in Weak Economy

By Lydia Gans
Wednesday January 12, 2011 - 11:45:00 AM

There can't be many Berkeleyans who've never been to East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. This unique store was started in Berkeley 30 years ago. It was located on San Pablo near University until recently when it moved to 4695 Telegraph in Oakland - but according to Executive Director Linda Levitsky the staff still think of themselves as a Berkeley institution. The original mission, Levitsky explains, was “to provide low cost materials to teachers and artists”. They soon expanded to serve the general public and a wide diversity of people patronize the store. 

The quantity and variety of the materials to be found there are amazing. There are countless bins filled with corks, bottle tops, plastic containers, picnic supplies; there are shelves loaded with paper goods and writing materials of all kinds, fabrics and yarns, dishes, hardware and paints; and manufacturers' overstocks of all sorts of unexpected oddities. Right now they have boxes full of Troll dolls. It would be impossible to make a list. The wares are donated by a number of local businesses as well as by the public. 

This is not your ordinary thrift shop and the point is not just to recycle or reuse objects to keep them out of the landfill but to use them creatively. The challenge is to create something beautiful or interesting out of all the myriads of items that appear in households that we are accustomed to throwing away.  

It began as a place for teachers to get materials for art projects for kids in the schools. That concept has been expanded to organized field trips where teachers can bring kids to the Depot to create something out of their own imaginations. The kids each get a bag which they fill with things for the project they've decided to make. Experienced Depot staff members are there to help them. Staff people also go out to fairs and events with materials and do art projects with children. 

It's not only teachers who come to the Depot. “What goes on here is really remarkable,” Levitsky says. We get an average of about 200 paying customers a day. Our average sales are 8 or 9 dollars. I like to think of this as a community place where people can come and talk about what's going on. We're very supportive of all art events.” 

It is interesting to hear how the downturn in the economy has affected the store. Levitsky says donations from businesses and manufacturers have decreased sharply. “The harsh reality is the economy has forced everybody to not have over stock, not to have inventory that they can give away. … (And) so many people who donated to us have gone out of business. That's on one level. On the other level. Our sales here at the store increased dramatically last year. I think that's a combination of people seeking out things that were less expensive but not so much that but here in the Bay Area, we are a hip community, and people understand that they don't want to spend their money on stuff that's just junk. Maybe they need something and they'll come here for that kind of stuff. Or they'll come here to make something beautiful, come here to create something out of what we have. People are really very knowledgeable about reusing materials. And our donations from our customers, or clients or friends have dramatically picked up - the donations that come through our back door. Sometimes there's 27 -30 cars a day coming, donating. So businesses went down, manufacturers went down, our business went up, donations went up. And there's a whole arts and crafts movement that's getting very instilled in people. People like to make stuff, to have things for kids to do.” 

There is another story here that is not as well known. Besides promoting art activities the Depot makes donations of all sorts of supplies to numerous non profits. And for the past 8 years they have been a partner with Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority and several other agencies in a most impressive recycling program. West Contra Costa County designates a special Reuse and Cleanup day when residents put recyclable items out for curbside pickup. The materials are taken to a warehouse in Benicia to be picked up by the partner agencies for distribution. The Depot helped develop that program. Levitsky explains “... from that program we've been able to glean enough material to (for example), this year, make about 15 trips to the farm workers up in Stockton with jackets and blankets. We also donate to Harrison House, the homeless shelter in Berkeley, we donate heavily to Emeryville Community Action Program with clothing, pots and pans, and anything that is gleaned …” Altogether they donate to as many as 20 different non profit organizations. 

Most people don't know about this program. Levitsky says, “We received a legislative award from the legislature for this program and we've tried to bring it into Alameda County and into Berkeley. … [but] have not been able to do it. We diverted something like 60 tons of stuff to non profits.” East Bay Depot is a shining example of creative solutions to a host of problems.