Cindy Kuhn and Nancy Foster were at the Scott Area Landfill, talking to the director about their plans to start a resale shop for building materials, stretching the life of usable goods and helping to reduce waste.
As they stood at the scales where people drive in with their loads, they spotted a vehicle carrying a wood door with glass knobs.
Their impulse was to yank it off the truck, but at the time there was nothing they could do.
“It was killing us,” Kuhn recalls, standing on the floor of Habitat ReStore, the nonprofit Davenport business that has blossomed from the two women’s shared vision for better care of the Earth.
As ReStore observes its 10th anniversary this week, it has much to celebrate, including 80 million pounds of material diverted from the landfill and $652,000 raised from sales that have gone to Habitat for Humanity-Quad-Cities, enough to build nine decent homes for needy people.
Along the way, the store at 3629 Mississippi Ave. has become a fixture in the community. It is a place where people who are remodeling can find
discounts and — on the other side of the coin — where people who are remodeling can take still-useable items that they no longer want, such as mint-green bathtubs.
Some people have redone entire rooms with ReStore items while others go for specialties. Jim Wristen of Davenport, for example, buys scrap pieces of walnut lumber to make fish lures. Steve Scott of Moline has purchased truckloads of building materials for his own house and rental properties.
Bill Burress, the owner of Seiffert Lumber Co. in Davenport, regularly donates items to ReStore that have proven hard to sell or are what he describes as “odds and ends.” Examples include doors, small quantities of trim, hardware, countertop samples and even older furniture. “This benefits their cause and vision and is a useful outlet for us,” he said.
The beginning: a life-changing mission trip
ReStore and its no-waste mission are rooted in a life-changing mission trip that Kuhn made to Guatemala in 2001.
Returning home, she was overwhelmed by the contrast between the two countries — the U.S., “where we have so much and throw away stuff that hasn’t even started to wear out,” and Guatemala, where poverty is intense and everything is used to the end, she said.
A mechanical engineer who worked for Alcoa until her children were born, Kuhn was at a point in her life where she was looking for something to do with deeper meaning, something that would make a positive impact on the world.
Foster, an accountant, was a longtime friend and like-minded fellow church member with similar goals.
Kuhn got the idea for a building materials resale shop and the two began doing research, including visiting stores in Chicago, Madison and Kansas City. Two were ReStores affiliated with Habitat for Humanity.
Energized and brimming with information, Kuhn and Foster decided Habitat would be a good beneficiary. With some trepidation, they approached the Quad-City Habitat board for permission. They weren’t asking for money, but “they (the board) didn’t know us and we could hurt their reputation if we did a bad job,” Kuhn explained.
But they got the go-ahead to become the first ReStore in Iowa, and Kathy Morris, the director of the Waste Commission of Scott County, put them in touch with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, from which they secured a $50,000 grant to help them get started.
And once the word got out that a building materials resale shop was in the offing, the women began getting donations. For a time, they stored doors and other materials in the old Eagle’s supermarket building in Bettendorf.
Getting their permanent location was another brush with trepidation. Kuhn remembers sitting in her car, working up the nerve to get out and ask the owner of the vacant space whether he would rent it and maybe give them a break on the first payments.
The place was “really dark and dingy and dirty,” but it would work, she said.
Their soft opening was in December 2002 and Kuhn was worried at first that “people would have trouble finding us.” The building is off Kimberly Road, a heavily traveled highway, but it is tucked back behind the businesses that front Kimberly.
Yet ReStore obviously filled a need. That very first month, it took in more money than it spent, and it’s been that way ever since.
Growth: appliances, furniture, home health equipment
And opportunities kept coming. They soon got a truck to pick up donations and began “harvesting” useable items such as woodwork and fixtures from buildings scheduled for demolition.
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n In 2005, the store began offering classes in such topics as faux stained glass that reused donated items.
n In 2006, landfill employees began setting aside items that they thought ReStore could sell.
n In 2007, appliances were added to the inventory, followed by furniture in 2010 and home health equipment in 2012.
The store’s space has expanded from 12,000 to 27,000 square feet, the staff has grown to the equivalent of nine full-time positions and there have been 600 volunteers, including 13 who have been with the organization since the beginning.
Through it all, the environmental goal of reducing waste has remained paramount.
That component is not found in all of the 776 ReStore shops around the country, Kuhn said. Some simply buy new materials and resell them, making greater profit than the Davenport store, whose employees and volunteers must handle each and every piece of material that comes in and decide how to price it, she added.
The Davenport location buys a line of recycled paint and paint accessories such as brushes and rollers. Otherwise, everything is donated. Through the years, big box stores have decreased their donations and smaller, locally owned businesses have increased them, Kuhn said.
The difference may be because there are more wholesalers approaching the big box stores or perhaps just a change in policy, she said.
The store tries not to take items that won’t sell, but after the passage of time and deep markdowns, even ReStore has to throw some things away. Not much, though. Any throwaway containing metal is taken apart and sorted for resale as scrap, for example.
“They are nice people doing a good thing,” customer Steve Scott said of the ReStore staff one recent day. “They are helping everyone out — the people who volunteer, the people who donate, the people who buy.
“It’s just all good.”