Sam McManis

Discoveries: Patrons prowl for more stuff for cheap in Oakland

OAKLAND – At first sight of this most unusual shop on Telegraph Avenue, called the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, your mind cycles through its mental playlist and cues George Carlin's classic comedic "Place for Your Stuff" bit.

"All your house is," Carlin quipped, "is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff."

Stuff abounds here.

Stuff for almost every imaginable use and adornment.

Dirt-cheap stuff. Stuff such as wine corks and toilet paper tubes for crafts purposes. Stuff like bottle caps and brooches for artistic reimagining. Stuff like macrame belts, rusted saws and cigar boxes, to be used for who knows what.

Pricy stuff, too. Stuff like a $1,500 dusty, paint-splattered, leather-cracked barber chair. Stuff like a $100 discarded newspaper rack, a sad sarcophagus for the once-mighty print medium.

Stuff you may not think is valuable but turns out actually is, like the rare $900 fountain pen that a casual shopper once picked up for 5 cents.

All kinds of stuff is to be had at the nonprofit Depot, which for 30 years has stuffed customers' houses with stuff and, organizers boast, diverted more than 200 tons of stuff each year from Bay Area landfills.

What started with modest means by a few teachers wanting to provide a clearing house for school supplies for fellow educators has grown into a thriving, eco-friendly emporium for donating and reselling detritus that annually draws 36,000 people through its doors.

One recent lunch hour, the place was hopping. People filled plastic boxes with all manner of stuff – rolls of yarn, stacks of candles, slightly broken blenders, cracked CD cases. Most took a leisurely approach to their shopping, like cows grazing in a fertile field.

Not Aaron Reavon, a middle school science teacher in Richmond. He made a beeline straight to a box brimming with what must have been 50 athletic trophies. He pawed the contents, caring little about what the inscriptions read or even what the faux-golden figures represented. He, rather, was searching for trophies with heavy, fake marble bases, and when he found them, he unscrewed the base and tossed it in his basket.

"This is a great find, perfect," Reavon said. "I'm going to use these for students for threshing wheat. You have the wheat stalk and I need something to crush them out. It's a lesson on whole grains, so I'm showing them where the wheat comes from. They grind it and see the difference between the whole-wheat flour and white flour."

Reavon had been in haste to pay and go, lest he be late after the lunch bell. But before leaving, he made this pronouncement: "This place is heaven for teachers."

True, that. But one not need be a molder of young minds to take pleasure in the East Bay Depot.

Cheri Owens of Oakland has been browsing since the place first opened.

"It was tiny then, by a fire station," she recalled.

This time she had a basket full of toys for her grandkids and CDs for her mother.

There was that fateful day a few years ago when Owens picked up a few fountain pens for 5 cents each and ended up winning a jackpot.

At first, she was hesitant to share her story, because "If I say things and you print it, then, like, everybody's going to be trying to get it, you know."

Then, she relented.

"It was a rare pen and it was a fluke," she said. "I just picked up a whole bunch of pens. I had no idea it was worth anything. I buy and sell stuff on eBay, and somebody I knew, another seller, said, 'Hey, I collect fountain pens,' so I sent him a bunch, and he was so honest. He called me really early in the morning and said, 'Listen, I'm just going to tell you. You sent me something really valuable. I'm going to list it on eBay and whatever it gets, we'll split it.' It sold for $900."

Don't expect to get rich coming here, longtime customer Marc Teitelbaum said. He's an electronics buff, likes to pick up discarded, broken DVD and Blu-ray players – and there's good reason they are discarded. But he just likes to tinker with them, he said.

On this day, he carried stacks of empty DVD cases, 10 cents each. Teitelbaum said that if you make it a point to come at least a few times each week, you can get the good stuff before it's taken.

"They (once) had a whole collection of photos given to them by UC Berkeley's art (museum). Literally thousands of them. They disappeared (were bought) in the course of about a month. But all the good stuff was gone in three days."

One fascinating aspect of browsing the aisles, aside from the tactile pleasure of handling things like feathers and wooden beads, is checking out the "not good" stuff.

I made a game of assigning fictional backstories to some of the more personal items.

In a bin of old amber pill bottles, I read the labels (names were blacked out for privacy) and found several marked "Allopurinol, 30 MG, take one tablet by mouth one time daily." I pictured a corpulent middle-aged regional sales manager for a plumbing supply company, a modern-day Willy Loman, who just can't lay off the red meat and red wine on the road and must gag down these pills for the painful gout he experiences.

In a cardboard box of random glossy photos I snagged an 8-by-10 headshot, obviously a publicity still, for someone named Amber Hollibaugh. It looked decades old. Gazing at her smiling face, I imagined Amber as a struggling actress, fresh off the farm in Iowa, come to California to make it big. Only later, Googling her name, did I see this Wikipedia entry for someone I assume is the same Amber, quoting her publisher's wesbite: "Amber L. Hollibaugh is a lesbian sex radical, ex-hooker, incest survivor, gypsy child, poor-white-trash, high femme dyke."

OK, so, maybe I was a tad off on that imagining. But I spent a pleasant hour browsing the depot and really had to hold back from purchasing a trophy for myself. Instead, I bought a retro-looking Macanudo cigar box for six bucks. I'll use it to store more stuff.


The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse is at 4695 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. It is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. More information: (510) 547-6470;

The Bee's Sam McManis takes "Discoveries" requests. Call (916) 321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis.