Helping the environment one purchase at a time

Florida Keys homeowners, renters and do-it-yourself aficionados take note: if you’re in the market for affordable household furnishings, appliances or remodeling supplies, you need not drive to the mainland to score a bargain. Chances are good that your friendly neighborhood thrift shop, outlet, secondhand store or recycling group has just what you’re looking for, and at a price that won’t require you to seek a government bailout.

Buying, selling, trading or giving away used furnishings and appliances not only make good fiscal sense in these troubled economic times, but it also helps the environment. It’s a form of recycling that reduces the amount of goods that have to be trucked out of the Keys and hauled to incinerators and landfills each year.

According to Monroe County Public Works director Dent Pierce, taxpayers shelled out over $7.2 million to haul nearly 95,000 tons of solid waste — including discarded household goods — from the county’s transfer stations to the mainland in the period from Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008. That tonnage does not include waste hauled from Key West, nor does the dollar amount include the tab for curbside pickup.

One way to divert items from the waste stream is to donate them to area thrift stores run by non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army. The local Habitat for Humanity affiliate groups build affordable housing for low-income families in the Keys. The Salvation Army provides disaster relief and works to alleviate hunger, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and much more. Sales revenues from the stores support each group’s mission.

Tom Greenwood, store manager at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore on Big Pine Key, says his shop has everything from collectible antiques to lightly used or new furniture to remodeling supplies — all at bargain prices.

“We currently have a Tommy Bahama-like sleeper sofa, chair and ottoman that you’d probably pay from $3,500 to $4,000 for new,” Greenwood said. “We have the sofa marked at $650 and the chair and ottoman at $450. We also have a leather sleeper sofa in good condition for only $250. Those are substantial savings.”

When an item is donated – and donations are tax deductible – Greenwood and his staff assess the item’s condition and value. They thoroughly clean each piece before placing it on the floor for sale. Furniture covered in fabric receives a careful steam cleaning. If a piece needs light cosmetic repairs, the staff will sometimes tackle that, too.

In addition, Greenwood’s store has building and remodeling supplies, including new wood flooring, new cast iron bathtubs, spa tubs, tile, doors, windows, shower stalls, sinks, toilets, lighting fixtures and more. Contractors typically donate these types of items, which are usually leftovers from job sites.

At the Habitat for Humanity HomeStore of the Upper Keys, manager Michelle Carnohan also has a variety of home furnishings in stock. But she also has something else that will help make a house a home — artwork.

A donor gave the HomeStore approximately 300 signed, numbered prints by renowned Key West photographer Alan Maltz. Carnohan said an unframed 12X18 Maltz print generally retails for $950, but at the HomeStore, the same piece — framed — is only $240. Other larger framed prints by Maltz that retail for $1,750 are marked at $440 at Carnohan’s store.

“We also have a rare, limited edition serigraph by Thomas McKnight, and an Erté plate,” Carnohan said. “People who collect art will really appreciate the value of those pieces.”

People who appreciate value also shop at Byars Used Furniture and Appliance, 2797 Overseas Highway in Marathon. Owners Bob and Linda Lee Byars say folks might be surprised at the financial standing of some of the cost-conscious shoppers who frequent their store.

“People who are wealthy come in here looking for bargains, they sure do. Maybe that’s why they’re wealthy, because they watch their money,” said Linda Lee Byars. “We have people of all income levels. With the economy like it is, everybody’s thinking about finances. And lots of people don’t want to put new things in their house because they’re afraid of hurricane damage, or they need to furnish a vacation rental and don’t want to fill it with expensive things.”

The Byarses said their store has a wide selection of living room, dining room and bedroom furniture. They typically have mattresses, lamps, televisions and small appliances in stock too, in addition to stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers and dishwashers, which are backed up with a 30-day replacement agreement. The items usually come from local residents who are moving and cannot take the pieces with them, or those who are redecorating and simply can’t use them anymore.

“They call the store and I go to their house and make an offer,” Bob Byars said. “Then I haul it off for them.”

“Sometimes we get absolutely beautiful furniture from wealthy people who are redecorating,” added Linda Lee. “You just have to check in frequently because the stock changes all the time.”

At Half Buck Freddie’s, 920 Caroline in Key West, general manager John Muhly agreed with Byars’ advice to visit the same store often. He said many of his budget-conscious customers make a habit of stopping by regularly to see what’s new.

“Our shoppers know how this works,” Muhly said. “They know the inventory changes frequently so a lot of them drop in every couple of weeks to make sure they don’t miss anything.”

Muhly’s inventory includes home accessories — some in first-quality condition and others with minor dents and dings — all at deep discounts. Much of it is overstock merchandise from Half Buck’s full-price partner store in Key West, Fast Buck Freddie’s.

Habitat for Humanity ReStore manager Greenwood encourages shoppers to” keep an open mind and have a sense of play” when foraging for previously owned or less-than-perfect household goods. He cited the example of some groovy 1970s American-made chairs he has available.

“Now if those chairs were in an urban shop and we were setting them up to be eye candy, you’d pay a ton of money for them,” Greenwood said. “You’re not going to pay boutique prices here. You can look for period-specific items and really have some fun. Just pick a decade you like and start shopping.”

But Greenwood believes there’s more to thrift shopping than just having fun and saving money. He says that if thrift shoppers stop to think about what they’re doing, they can’t help but be changed by the experience.

“As an American culture, I think we’re learning to value things that are used. So maybe they’re not antiques, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dumped,” Greenwood said. “People who donate and buy here are helping to keep things out of the waste stream that don’t really belong there. Not only that, but by shopping in a place like this you become more aware of the wealth in this society. You really start to rethink what’s disposable and what’s valuable.”