This longtime Berkeley company feared the pandemic was its end. Then sales jumped


Stepping into the sprawling warehouse that is Urban Ore’s salvage yard in Berkeley feels oddly like stepping into the subconscious of a well-organized hoarder. Visitors are greeted by neat rows of second-hand clothing, old-fashioned metal and glass appliances, and much-loved wooden furniture. Above, papier-mâché flying saucers, dragon heads, flags and faded posters adorn the rafters.

Keeping the place standing is Max Wechsler, Urban Ore’s COO, whose red beard, black cap and measured, pensive tone belie an intense commitment to the zero-waste ethic that keeps the store standing as much as its walls. in jail.

But that edifice was tested three years ago when the effects of the pandemic began to ripple through the economy. As the pandemic progressed, the store became a unique barometer of the turmoil around it. But at first it looked like he might not survive.

“At the start of 2020, we thought we were going to go down,” Wechsler said. His books show that sales fell about 30% in March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, and nearly 40% from April 2020 to April 2019.

Then something unexpected happened.

By the end of that year, the store surpassed $2.7 million in gross sales for the first time. Then he hit $3.5 million in sales in 2021, a record he tied again in 2022.

The extra money allowed the company to install a new roof in 2021, complete with solar panels to reduce the electric bill from $2,500 a month to $20. It made a huge difference, Wechsler said, because the old roof leaked so much during the rainy season that it would ruin the merchandise and remind him of the famous simulated rain inside San Francisco’s Tonga Room.

“I think it’s fair to say that the financial stress caused by the pandemic has boosted sales because we’re the most affordable game in town for many of the things people want and need,” he said. Wechsler wrote in a statement. “I worked a lot on the register in 2020 and noticed a lot of stimulus (debit) cards (California Employment Development Department) being used to make purchases.”

The City of Berkeley also renewed a contract with Urban Ore in 2020 to pay them for items they salvage and reuse from the city-owned landfill.

Operations manager Max Wechsler stands in a metal processing area at Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Operations manager Max Wechsler stands in a metal processing area at Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

And while Urban Ore has taken over wreckage and wreckage from people’s daily lives, other companies in the same industry have closed, helping to drive business in their own way. In 2021, nonprofit Goodwill closed eight of its locations and laid off dozens of workers in the East Bay, saying at the time that pandemic-related store closures had forced change. This cut into Wechsler’s competition.

Another Berkeley salvage yard, Ohmega Salvage, said this month that its sales were not strong enough to keep operating and would close soon.

Despite these closures, parts of the second-hand industry, particularly clothing resale, have benefited immensely from the recent economic upheaval.

“In the latter stages of the pandemic, with consumers facing economic disruption and inflation, the second-hand industry is experiencing a second wind,” said Adam Minter, author and columnist who has written extensively on the subject. ‘industry.

A report by Oakland clothing retailer thredUP found that the US used clothing market was worth $35 billion in 2021, up from $27 billion the previous year.

“Buying second-hand clothes instead of new is an easy way for consumers to save money and get better deals, especially when many are feeling the pinch of inflation and cutting back on discretionary spending” , thredUP Vice President of Integrated Marketing Erin Wallace said in a statement. Wallace said the report found nearly 60% of consumers said second-hand shopping helped them weather a period of stubbornly high inflation.

“The clothes were huge to sell and give away,” Wechsler said.

Customers shop in the aisles of Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Customers shop in the aisles of Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

The waves of deaths caused by COVID-19 also brought waves of things that people and their families no longer needed.

“When people drop off a big load, we’d often ask why, and sometimes the answer was something like, ‘My grandma died of COVID a few months ago and now we’re emptying her house,'” Wechsler said. him, one of the questions posed by death is how to reuse the objects that people leave behind: “How can we prevent them from becoming liabilities?”

Beyond being a receptacle for things rendered placeless by the pandemic, Urban Ore has also been a haven for some people displaced by the pandemic.

Wechsler said it lost about half of its then 40 employees in 2020, but is now roughly back in full. The company pays its employees in part based on how well sales go and how many hours they work. The company is doing well enough that he was able to give his staff a $3 per hour raise this month, which will amount to about $3 per hour over the course of the year.

Jennica Petersen works a few days a week in the warehouse receiving department, where trucks full of everything from toilets to lumber to jewelry are dropped off and sorted before being appraised and taken out on the floor. She said she was fired from her job at an East Bay glass studio during the pandemic.

“Many of the employees were regulars” at the store before they started working there, she said.

The cavernous warehouse has also come to the rescue of pickers during the pandemic, like food historian and artist Carolyn Tillie, who sifted through Urban Ore’s vast collection of appliances this January Friday.

Food historian Carolyn Tillie inspects an antique grinder at Urban Ore.  She plans to use it in an upcoming art exhibition.

Food historian Carolyn Tillie inspects an antique grinder at Urban Ore. She plans to use it in an upcoming art exhibition.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

An old double-chambered coffee percolator that looked like some kind of demented glass lamp caught his eye among the hundreds of pieces piled on shelves and under glass. Tillie said she was looking for items for an art exhibit opening at Berkeley’s Acci Gallery in March, where she will use cutlery and cooking items left behind by people who have succumbed to the virus, as well as words and letters from cookbooks and other media to recreate a sort of dinner party to pay homage to the “unsaid things”.

The space on this rainy weekday afternoon had a calm and soothing atmosphere. Jazz tinkled through unseen speakers as the occasional hunched figure rummaged through a box of wires or peered discerningly at a slightly dented cabinet.

“There are a lot of daily pickers,” Wechsler said, and likely more during the pandemic when everything from non-essential stores to restaurants have been closed.

In the rain-soaked terrain behind the warehouse, rows of toilets stood like silent sentries that felt like cut-and-paste work gone mad.


Leave a Comment