Environmental engineer John Harrison well recalls that magic moment last year when he spied -- amid the second-hand toilets, used sofas and rejected gallons of paint -- an entire, high-end kitchen easily worth $45,000.
He drove straight home to tell his girlfriend, Evalyn Tyson, the owner of a Victorian townhouse they are rehabbing in Baltimore. By morning she happily shelled out $2,000 for what Harrison dubbed "the deal of a lifetime" at Renovation Station, a building supply and home furnishings resale shop opened last June by the Anne Arundel County chapter of Habitat for Humanity in Pasadena, Md.
Evalyn Tyson and boyfriend John Harrison in their Renovation Station bargain kitchen.
(Grant L. Gursky For The Washington Post)
The deal included 13 Wood-Mode maple cabinets; a KitchenAid dishwasher, double oven, electric stovetop and built-in toaster; a GE Monogram refrigerator; and a Kohler sink with brass fixtures.
"To have just one other cabinet made to match what we got would cost $1,600 and take four months," says Tyson.
Although her kitchen coup was an extreme bargain, it reflects the "win-win-win-win" ethos behind Habitat-run thrift shops, including three in this area:
Local chapters of Habitat, the international organization that has built nearly 200,000 affordable homes for needy families since 1976, raise much-needed cash to continue their good works. Donors to the charity receive tax deductions for giving unwanted merchandise -- some used, some new and still in boxes. Remodeling homeowners and landlords find bargains. And last but not least, landfills are spared countless tons of usable goods.
The stores' inventory comes from builders, retailers and distributors as well as individuals donating everything from bathtubs, vanities, floor tile and shutters to ceiling fans, wall sconces, patio doors and replacement windows.
"A plumbing company was doing a large apartment complex and put in the wrong faucets, so they gave us $34,000 worth of bathroom faucets. We sold them for half price," says Brent Bohne, manager of the ReStore in Manassas that the Prince William County chapter of Habitat opened last spring. A nearby "over-55 community" is selling homes with builder-grade carpet, he said. "But people want wood flooring put in, so I go out and pick up a whole house full of new carpet."
Customers, he says, range from "very poor people living in trailers to doctors to young couples fixing up their whole houses. I have people from as far away as West Virginia."
Managers have become quite creative at moving merchandise. Herb Campbell, who runs the ReStore in Alexandria, puts donations from Dominion Lighting -- new-in-the-box chandeliers, sconces and lamps -- on eBay.
Bohne went the silent auction route to sell $15,000 worth of kitchen cabinetry donated by a contractor who used the wrong color for a client. (The winning bid was $7,500.)
There are even occasional great buys for furniture lovers.
Health club consultant Phil Hepburn, who hits the Alexandria ReStore at least twice a month to equip his rental properties, waxes rhapsodic about pieces he bought for his own Federalist home in Old Town: "The most beautiful armoire I'd ever seen in my life" ($1,500) and the "gorgeous, absolutely magnificent" highboy, lowboy, end table and desk ($2,000).
One Renovation Station regular buys inexpensive chests and tables, then primes and paints them with shiny, scratch-resistant car paint at the auto body shop where he works.
The original ReStore -- a name Habitat officials prefer but do not require of the thrift shops -- opened in the Canadian city of Winnipeg in 1989, and the idea spread.
Because each of the 1,700 U.S. Habitat chapters raises and spends money autonomously, there are no overall figures on how much the 100 or so stores in this country and Canada have netted since the first two U.S. shops opened in Austin and San Antonio in the early 1990s.
Kevin Crawley manages Renovation Station (which clearly ignored the official branding suggestion) in Anne Arundel County. He estimates profits in that one store at $12,000 to $15,000 over the past 10 months.
Bohne would not give precise figures but says his ReStore has generated enough money to pay for itself as well as cover the overhead of Prince William's Habitat chapter.
It would seem logical for Habitat to use, rather than sell, the high-end donations in the homes it builds. But local laws and the chapters' own guidelines often require that everything in houses the group constructs be new and of uniform design, says Robin Sparks, spokeswoman for Habitat's Northern Virginia chapter, which opened the Alexandria ReStore in October. (Less expensive electric stoves are used instead of high-powered gas models, for example; countertops are laminate, not granite.)
"We build more than one house at a time, and they have to be consistent. We rarely receive new donations in a quantity that works," says Sparks of the merchandise at the 16,000-square-foot Alexandria ReStore, the largest in this area.
Many donations to this branch come from people remodeling their own homes who want to recycle whatever they can, says manager Herb Campbell. But ReStores do not want to become junkyards, so volunteers try to be clear about what they will not accept (mattresses, bedding, clothing) while directing donors with those items to other local charities.
At the same time, Habitat officials are focusing their efforts on bringing in more commercial donors: builders, contractors, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and professional "deconstructors."
"You'd be surprised what goes into a trash bin," says Karen Cleveland, executive director of Northern Virginia's Habitat chapter. "We get things like shingles, bricks, scrap wood, windows. Suppliers often have discontinued products like paint, tile, windows."
She is currently working with a Georgia-based development company that is converting Northern Virginia apartment houses to condos.
One such project involves a new, 400-unit building in which only 80 flats were ever occupied. As each apartment sells (and is upgraded with stone countertops and upscale appliances and cabinetry), ReStore will pick up the "new or very gently used" existing kitchens, equipped with low-end appliances and cabinets, says Cleveland.
Tami Niblett, a decorator in Vienna, doesn't much care about the provenance of things she buys at the Alexandria ReStore. For under $1,000, she has performed a creative makeover on the family getaway cabin in Woodstock, Va.
"I made a big list of things I needed and just started shopping," says Niblett. Less than $400 went into the kitchen, including $185 for nine builder-grade white laminate cabinets and $99 for a two-year-old refrigerator. She created a butcher-block countertop by paying a millwork shop $75 to join together $3 worth of ReStore lumber, and added jazzy stripes to simple vinyl flooring with paint she bought there for $2.50 a gallon.
Although Niblett says several decorator friends have become ReStore regulars, she doesn't think her clients would be eager to feather their own nests with such finds. "To tell you the truth, they want new. They don't have a vision or they don't want to do it on their own."
But others do have a vision, says Bohne in Manassas, who runs the smallest of the three local stores: 1,400 square feet plus two 40-foot trailers parked nearby.
"There is a lady in here every week who thinks outside the box, using things in a unique way." Take that stack of semicircular ornamental fanlights that usually go above windows, he says. "She's making headboards for twin beds. Another company donated a lot of matching cabinet doors -- just the fronts. I had one person who covered a basement circuit-breaker box with one of those doors."
Evalyn Tyson returns often to Renovation Station, and loves to brag about her finds: $95 for a $750 brass-and-alabaster chandelier donated by Annapolis Lighting; $25 for an "awesome" 4-by-5 foot framed abstract oil painting; and $150 for a "like new," five-foot long granite bathroom countertop complete with scalloped-edge Kohler sink.
She is even willing to share her strategy: "My trick is to go to the back first to see who's bringing what in."
Renovation Station, 8101 Fort Smallwood Rd., Pasadena, Md. 410-437-7754 www.arundelhabitat.org.
Habitat ReStore, 7770-G Richmond Highway (behind Gold's Gym), Alexandria, Va. 703-360-6700 www.restorenova.org.
Habitat ReStore, 10043 Nokesville Rd., Manassas, Va. 703-369-6145. www.habitatpwc.org.