Thursday, July 27, 2006
JOHN ROLFE: ShopTalk
Salvage stuff 'has a lot of soul'
Copyright 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Q: What was your other business?
A: Mission Cycle, in San Francisco.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I've been in Maine off and on for about 30 years. I moved back for good in the early '90s.
Q: How did the business get started?
A: I've always been very attached to architecture. My grandfather (Thomas Dunn) was an ecclesiastical architect in New York. But basically, I bought a group of buildings down near India Street and wanted to start getting them back to the condition they were meant to be in. And I realized that there was not a resource you could go to when you wanted to replace the ugly metal doors with wood, or rip out the shower stall and put a clawfoot tub back in. In San Francisco, there was a company in the Mission District, with a huge fenced-in area of nothing but used house parts.
Q: So, here -
A: When I restored a beautiful summer house in Casco with my partner at the time, I had my first taste of life at the dump on Saturdays. I went in and couldn't believe what people were throwing away - doors and windows, things there was a need for. I started to develop a relationship with guys in Limerick, Casco, all over, at the dump. I tried to say, take the doorknobs and put them in a bucket and I'll buy them once a week. But they didn't want money. It was more about building relationships with people.
One day in Uncle Henry's I saw a "for sale" under building materials, a center chimney Cape in Wilton. I drove up to Livermore Falls and met an old couple and we drove up in a snowstorm. I climbed the mountain and thought, "How sad that this, a 200-year-old house in a 45-acre orchard, needs to come down . . . " Wood from the 1700s, the color of that paint - it can't be replaced. The borning room, the pantry, (had) so much history. So many people passed through there.
I figured out who wanted wide pine flooring, how to take out the doors, who I should hire. I rented a place on Presumpscot Street and started pack-ratting, and then opened up the first store at 249 Congress St., at the base of Munjoy Hill. Eventually the business grew so I bought the block, then a warehouse on Grant Street, then 919 Congress St., down where the old Sportsman's Grill was.
I was there for six years, when this building became available, and the gentlest, kindest, sweetest man in Portland (Crandall Toothaker) came to me and said, "Bayside needs you and you need it."
Q: How old is your new building?
A: About 110 years old. I hear different stories about what it was originally. I went back to 1923 photos and at that time it was a pine coffin company, with a garage in back. There were several businesses, including one that made church candles. Over the last 40 years it was bedding, furniture, that kind of thing.
Q: How much did you spend to bring it back?
A: It might be $350,000 now. It needed wiring, insulation, new windows. The big nut now is putting in an elevator. By the time that's done there'll be quite a bit more in. I get nervous, because the market's softened quite a bit. Two or three years ago it was very trendy, but I think the trend is on the downside at this point.
Q: How much business do you do?
A: At the old store, $900,000 a year. My goal is like to break $1 million this year, in this location, with this much inventory. We had an OK start in June, and July's been strong. I deal with 50 percent interior designers and people from away, who find us through the Web site. People who fly in at 11 and leave at 3.
Q: Isn't there a limited amount of material?
A: Well, I get calls all the time. I got a call yesterday from an inn in Bristol, where they're taking an inn apart and have 10 doors and a handrail. I got a call about a house in Cape you would not believe. They were taking it down and said they wanted me to come out. My integrity said, don't touch anything in that house. It was on a point, built by a sea captain in 1910. I said, "Listen, you've got to have someone restore this. I'd be feeling like a thief going in and ripping out doors and the copper sink." The home needed to be sold in its entirety.
Q: People don't steal the stuff you put out in the sidewalk?
A: I've been in business a long time and had two or three incidents in 13 years. The other day I got a call, "We've got your carriage down at Wild Oats on Marginal Way." The carriage is from the Maine State Prison, late 1800s - we couldn't fit it in the building, so it's outside. Drunks had jumped in it, and someone became the "horse." So, the occasional thing happens.
Q: What's challenging about the business?
A: What's challenging is that you can't just be architectural salvage. You have to appeal to people who can access only $25, and people willing to spend $2,500. Back in the day I was buying doors for $10 and selling them for $30, and I don't want this to be a place where you can't come down and pick up a Mother's Day present for $65. But the market has changed, and you've got to spend more to make more. But what's nice about people that deal in architectural salvage and are attached to it, is that they have souls. The stuff all has a lot of soul (Photo: Alice Dunn, owner of Portland Architectural Salvage, is surrounded by an assortment of items, including two Civil War-era ship lanterns and a painted country bowl with copper rings on a pumpkin wood shelving piece.).
Owner/operator, Portland Architectural Salvage
131 Preble St., Portland 04101
HOW LONG IN THIS JOB: About 12 years
PREVIOUS JOB: Bought and sold vintage motorcycles
IN ANOTHER LIFE SHE'D BE: Writing
FAVORITE MUSICIAN: Van Morrison