This longtime Berkeley job worried that the pandemic would be the end of him. Then sales increased

Entering the vast warehouse that is the Urban Ore Depot in Berkeley gives you the uncanny feeling of entering the subconscious of a well-organized hoarder. Visitors are greeted by neat rows of used clothes, metal and glass appliances from the past and favorite wooden furniture. High above, papier-mâché flying saucers, dragon heads, flags and faded placards adorn the rafters.

Keeping the place on its toes is Max Wechsler, Urban Ore’s operations manager whose ruddy beard, black cap and measured, brooding tone belie the intense commitment to the zero-waste ethos that keeps the store as vibrant as its tin walls.

But that structure was tested three years ago when the effects of the pandemic began to affect the economy. As the pandemic progressed, trade became a unique barometer for the turmoil surrounding it. But at first it seemed that he might not survive.

“At the beginning of 2020, we thought we were going down,” Wechsler said. Its books show sales down 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 exceeded $2.7 million in gross sales for the first time. It then hit $3.5 million in sales in 2021, a record that was reached again in 2022.

The extra money allowed the company to install a new roof in 2021, along with solar panels to reduce the electricity bill from $2,500 each month to $20. That made a big difference, Wechsler said, since the old roof leaked so much during the rainy season that it would ruin merchandise and reminded him of the famous indoor simulated rain at the Tonga Room in San Francisco.

“I think it’s fair to say that the financial stress caused by the pandemic has increased sales, as we are the most affordable game in town for many of the things people want and need,” Wechsler wrote in a statement. “I did a lot of work at the register during 2020 and noticed a lot of (California Employment Development Department) incentive (debit) cards being used to make purchases.”

The City of Berkeley also renewed its contract with Urban Ore in 2020 to pay them for items they salvage and repurpose from the city’s landfill.

Max Wechsler, operations manager, stands in the metalworking area at Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Max Wechsler, operations manager, stands in the metalworking area at Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Lea Suzuki / Chronicle

And while Urban Ore was capturing the traces of people’s daily lives, other companies in the same industry closed their doors, helping to steer business in its own direction. In 2021, the nonprofit Goodwill closed eight of its locations and laid off dozens of workers in the East Bay, saying at the time that store closings due to the pandemic forced the change. That cut through Wechsler’s competition.

Another Berkeley salvage yard, Ohmega Salvage, said this month that its sales are not strong enough to continue operating and that it will close soon.

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

“In the later stages of the pandemic with consumers facing economic disruption and inflation, the used industry is getting a second wind,” said Adam Minter, an author and columnist who has written extensively about the 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 year before.

“Buying used clothing instead of new is an easy way for consumers to save money and get better deals, especially when many feel pressured by inflation and are cutting back on discretionary spending,” thredUP vice president of integrated marketing Erin Wallace said in a statement. Wallace said the report found that nearly 60% of consumers said buying used products helped them weather a period of stubbornly high inflation.

“The clothes were huge for sales and donations,” Wechsler said.

Customers shop in the aisles at Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Customers shop in the aisles at Urban Ore in Berkeley.

Lea Suzuki / Chronicle

The waves of death brought by COVID-19 have also brought with them waves of things that people and their families no longer need.

“When people deliver a big load, we’ve often asked why, and sometimes the answer has been something like, ‘My grandmother died of COVID a few months ago and now we’re clearing out her house,'” Wechsler said. For him, one of the questions that death raises is how to reuse the objects that people leave behind. “How do we prevent them from becoming liabilities?”

In addition to being a receptacle for things that the pandemic has made homeless, Urban Ore has also been a haven for some people displaced by the pandemic.

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

Jennica Petersen works several days a week in the warehouse’s receiving department, where trucks filled with everything from toiletries to wood to jewelry are dropped off and sorted before pricing and going to the floor. She said she was laid off 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 also helped pickers during the pandemic, like culinary historian and artist Carolyn Tillie, who happened to be picking through Urban Ore’s vast collection of appliances that Friday in January.

Carolyn Tillie, culinary historian, inspects the vintage grinder at Urban Ore.  He is considering using it in an upcoming art exhibit.

Carolyn Tillie, culinary historian, inspects the vintage grinder at Urban Ore. He is considering using it in an upcoming art exhibit.

Lea Suzuki / Chronicle

Among the hundreds of pieces crammed on the shelves and under the glass, an old two-chamber coffee maker that looked like some kind of crazy glass lamp caught her eye. Tillie said she was looking for items for an art exhibit opening in March at Acci Gallery in Berkeley, where she will use settings and culinary objects left by people who succumbed to the virus, along with words and letters from cookbooks and other media to recreate a kind of dinner to honor the “unspoken things”.

The space had a quiet, calming atmosphere on that rainy working day. Jazz blared through invisible speakers as the occasional hunched-over figure rummaged through a box of wires or peered shrewdly at a slightly dented wardrobe.

“There are a lot of day pickers,” Wechsler said, and probably more during the pandemic when everything from thrift stores to restaurants were closed.

In the rain-smeared parking lot behind the warehouse, rows of toilets stood like silent sentinels that gave off the feeling of some wild copying and pasting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *