- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Community Forklift, a surplus, salvage and “green building” store near Hyattsville, wants to be all things to all people who are interested in saving money while helping save the environment.

A full-time crew of four does this by collecting surplus building materials, some of which have historic value, and then selling them to the public for half or less what they would cost new. The result is a neighborhood yard sale a thousand times over.

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” is the familiar line quoted on the Web site (www.communityforklift.com). “Expect the unexpected” might be a better choice because the items on hand are just about everything in the way of building materials the imagination can supply.

Begun late last year by non-practicing architect Jim Schulman, Community Forklift is located in a 40,000-square-foot facility rented from Washington Gas in an industrial area near the railroad tracks just off Route 295 south. Its operations are conducted under its sponsoring organization, a D.C.-based nonprofit called Sustainable Community Initiatives, of which Mr. Schulman is executive director.

Mr. Schulman — whose official title is president of Community Forklift — drives the rented truck picking up donations around the Greater Washington area. The store manager is lawyer Jon Zeidler, who says he grew “tired of the K Street life” and gave it up in favor of working on environmental issues.

Typical products available at the store, said to be the only one of its kind in the Washington area, are doors, windows, ceramic and vinyl tiles, flooring, lumber, masonry, plumbing and electrical fixtures, carpeting and paints.

Not so typical — a reflection of the eclectic nature of the business — are mantelpieces, glass bricks, ornamental radiators, brass chandeliers and a 1,400-square-foot 80-year-old log cabin from West Virginia parked for the moment in two steel containers on the parking lot. Valued at $15,000, the cabin is said to have cost $100,000 when it was new. An organic farmer even found a rolling ladder for his home library, according to Ruthie Mundell, the organization’s outreach director, who takes pride in the “funky stuff” she handles daily.

The parking lot also holds half of a large shed and a collection of standard flat-bottom bathtubs. “Keeps them clean anyway,” says Ms. Mundell, whose job includes recruiting volunteers to help sort goods and mark prices and then turning work sessions into a potluck or a singles party scene.

Artist Marlene Belgrove rents some front office space for a gallery called Art Tribute Enterprises and allows the Forklift staff members to use it for the social gatherings they host for volunteers. One such volunteer is an electrician who comes twice weekly to check on the wiring of items for sale.

Among other long-term goals, the organization hopes to foster community revitalization by making available a host of low-cost materials for home remodeling; to reduce the amount of landfill by rescuing reusable building materials; to develop training and career opportunities for low-income residents; and to educate the public about green building materials and methods, especially reuse. (Sample green building materials are cotton insulation, nontoxic paints and bamboo flooring.)

Meanwhile, too, the store is cooperating with the recycling program manager in the Office of the Architect of the Capitol to collect the bricks people across the country have sent to their congressional representatives on behalf of legislation mandating construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Community Forklift has agreed to pick up the bricks when the campaign ends — and take a few other items the office needs to get rid of as well.

The motley array of goods found in the Community Forklift building is so enticing that a Northern Virginia company called Wraith Films chose it as the setting for a rock video. Also, an auction to benefit the Pentagon Memorial Fund was held on-site, hosted by Community Forklift with items for sale contributed from the renovation of Wedge 3 in the Pentagon.

Ken Graham, 58, of Hyattsville, a semiretired structural engineer, is a typical customer, many of whom visit several times a week. The outlet provides what he calls the “opportunity to scrounge.” He already has a claw-foot bathtub and some tin ceiling tiles he found there, and he is considering buying the log cabin to make into a garage in the back of his house.

“I bought some old sinks on EBay that cost me a ton of money. I went to Community Forklift and found the same thing for half price without shipping,” he says.

“I can always come up with ideas,” he says. “Things I may not need, but I can fit into the scheme of my house. They had some pieces of curved wood, and what I’ll try to do is make them into my porch brackets. Sometimes I go with a blank slate to see what can fit into my house, which is Victorian-style with wood siding circa 1910. I’m now sanding the tiles to get rid of the old lead paint.

“It is a very nice venture for the community as a whole,” he adds.

Community Forklift began late last year, but the official opening took place over three days in April. Business hours are noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The rest of the time, the staff is busy with the backstage operations, including pickup and placement of the thousands of items carried around by a donated forklift. The organization does not accept donations of household goods, old TVs, exercise equipment, computer components or furniture. Donors of new and old goods are eligible for a tax deduction.

Warren Tilghman, 67, of Capitol Heights, another satisfied customer, calls the facility “a fantastic source of supplies. Every time you go there, you find something new. I’m a single guy, and it is a fantastic way to combine volunteering with meeting people. Being retired, it keeps me occupied and gives me a real sense of fulfillment.

“Go with an open mind. And don’t go in your Sunday dress,” he advises.

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