Doors of Opportunity
When Darcy Ratti was living in Southern Connecticut, she heard about EcoBuilding Bargains — shortly after she completely refinished her basement.
“I was so angry,” she recalled. “I would have saved so much money, and it would have looked so much cooler.”
These days, as store manager at the Springfield-based seller of reclaimed building materials, Ratti is sharing that enthusiasm with customers both near and, increasingly, far away.
“We get a lot of higher-quality materials now than we did four or five years ago as word has spread,” Ratti said, explaining how the store procures its ever-shifting stock of used building materials and also new items taken off contractors’ and wholesalers’ hands. “We’ve got brand-new Samson doors that have never been installed — an overstock. I’ve got a lot of brand-new windows that were a misorder.
“In general, people want to save some dollars here and there, and they want to buy something that will help out the environment a little bit,” she went on. “You can get better quality here for the price than you would at a big-box store. Instead of getting a pressboard cabinet set IKEA or Home Depot, for the same price, you can come here and get a full plywood set with all the bells and whistles.”
“People want to save some dollars here and there, and they want to buy something that will help out the environment a little bit.”
The Center for EcoTechnology (CET) launched EcoBuilding Bargains more than a decade ago as a way to repurpose materials that otherwise might be headed for landfills, but the past few years have seen the store expand beyond in-person sales and into an online presence, first on eBay in 2019 and then, last spring, onto its own e-commerce website (ecobuildingbargains.org), making it one of the few sellers of reclaimed materials with a national (and global) online platform.
“We started our e-commerce on eBay two and a half years ago, selling doorknobs, hinges, more of the antique, rare items that folks look for specifically,” Ratti explained. “Then we branched out with a broader range of items.”
From there, the store launched its own web store last May. “Basically, anything that gets posted to our eBay store also gets posted to our web store, and vice versa,” she noted. “But we’ve expanded the types of stuff that people can buy online. You can buy cabinets online now. You can buy a door online and ship it. We’ve got an extremely large chandelier we’re selling to someone from Texas, waiting to be shipped. We’ve sold and shipped to every state, as well as places like Italy, Australia, and Japan.”
That’s a boon for people searching for very specific, hard-to-find items, and now don’t have to travel to Massachusetts for them. “Maybe it’s faucets you can’t find or brass hardware or an Anderson window sash that’s very specific to a certain model or a Velux skylight kit or a mid-century-modern Legomatic chair. We get into reclaimed items that are very specific. A customer who knows the exact model number can go online and type it in, and if we have it, we’re going to come up.”
An online store made even more sense during the pandemic, said Emily Gaylord, CET’s director of Communications and Engagement. “One, we wanted a safe way for customers to shop. Two, there was all this renewed interest in home spaces, and a lot of people had to make a home office out of nothing. Subsequently, we saw a lot of supply-chain issues. Honestly, I think, with the direction retail is going, online stores are inevitable.”
EcoBuilding Bargains also launched virtual shopping appointments for far-flung shoppers.
“Yes, you’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping us with our mission, but you’ll also find something you won’t be able to find anywhere else.”
“That was a really cool, important piece,” Gaylord said. “If you’re searching for a cabinet set, you can book a virtual appointment, send the measurements ahead of time, and we can walk you through them in a video call. Looking for a new front door? Here are six doors with the finish and size you want. Virtual shopping experiences are a huge time saver.”
Two Ways to Save Green
The clientele at EcoBuilding Bargains, both in person and online, has been broad, Gaylord told BusinessWest.
“We definitely get people who say, ‘I just need a window, something affordable; what do you have?’ And there are some people making sustainable choices, people who really care about their environmental impact and carbon footprint; they’re shopping with us as well. Then, over the last few years, the DIY space exploded, and we have trendy and unique materials for your space. We serve all those people.”
She noted that buying secondhand items has a sort of double environmental impact, keeping materials out of landfills while reducing the impact of what would have been made and purchased new instead.
“We’re dealing with some serious issues. We’re at a moment right now where people are understanding climate and environmental issues in a way they haven’t ever before,” Gaylord went on. “But making sustainable choices has so many benefits. Yes, you’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping us with our mission, but you’ll also find something you won’t be able to find anywhere else. Or you can have a much higher-quality item than you could otherwise afford. When you start thinking in a sustainable way, it’s not just for the earth, but for you as a business owner or homeowner.”
Items arrive in the store from a variety of sources, Ratti explained.
“We’re looking for the person who has that overstock or a contractor that has done a bunch of remodels, and they’re finding good, reusable materials and taking them to their shop or their garage and just hanging onto them because they know they’re good. We’re helping them defray the costs on their end so they don’t have to dispose of it, and they get a tax donation receipt.”
Homeowners are bringing in materials as well — after replacing an old vanity or lighting fixtures, for instance.
“What we saw during the pandemic was people coming up with unique ways to put together home offices, and they’d come in here for different pieces,” Ratti said.
She’s often surprised by the quality of items that wind up at EcoBuilding Bargains, like a striking, solid chestnut front door, nine feet tall and three inches thick.
“When you’re shopping more sustainably, you’re going to find better alternatives, not just your run-of-the-mill thing. You’re buying a door like that, and you’re spending less than you would somewhere else. We’ve got a marble mantel from 1867; it came out of a brownstone on Newbury Street in Boston. You’re not going to find that someplace else.”
Gaylord agreed. “It’s not a salvage yard; it’s high-quality materials. That’s really important for us and our mission; we don’t want to push stuff back into the world that’s not going to meet that mission. We want to make sure we’re selling good-quality doors, low-flow toilets, fixtures that don’t have any lead in them. We’re always thinking of the quality of the materials, not just the quantity.”
“We want to make sure we’re selling good-quality doors, low-flow toilets, fixtures that don’t have any lead in them. We’re always thinking of the quality of the materials, not just the quantity.”
Even the packing materials used to ship items are recycled, Ratti noted. “Here, you’re saving some money but also helping with the environment. By being a little more frugal, there’s less production happening in the world.”
City of Home Improvement
Gaylord feels like EcoBuilding Bargains, through its national presence online, is just one more way Springfield is being put on the map.
“To see our store in Springfield start to have a national reach, and people be exposed to us from all over the country, is amazing,” she said. “Springfield is really special, and our store is really special. Seeing people fall in love with it is great to see.”
And the reasons they are seeking out sustainable options aren’t going away.
“How we work and how we use buildings is in flux right now,” she told BusinessWest. “The world looks a lot different than it did two years ago. It’s really exciting to see our business in Springfield not slow down, but, in fact, innovate and grow. People are getting more exposed to the Western Mass. region through this. It’s more than just selling a reclaimed door.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]