Certainly a glut of HGTV reality shows about home renovation has given salvage items a new shelf life - homeowners are more confident incorporating an old high school locker as a broom closet, or laying 100-year-old pine floors in a newly built house.
But when Philadelphia Salvage opens on Carpenter Lane April 1, it will join an industry with a long tradition of flux. To succeed is to understand that not everything old is new - changing tastes and economic swings require store owners to constantly adjust to new trends, despite century-old inventory.
Of the Philadelphia-area salvage stores, the mainstays are Architectural Antiques Exchange, which has been in the same location on Second Street in Northern Liberties since the 1970s. ReStore opened in 2003 in Port Richmond, and Provenance was created in 2005, first located in Fairmount and now in a bigger space on Canal Street near Columbus Boulevard.
When Architectural Antiques Exchange owner Mark Charry entered the business full time in 1971, he bought mantels and tile from the wreckers tearing down Victorian homes for Temple University's campus expansion.
"That set the stage for a lot of beautiful wrecked material," he said. Victorian design was just becoming popular again, and Charry was easily able to resell what he salvaged.
For years, many of his biggest customers were theme restaurants like the Spaghetti Warehouse seeking to create a nostalgic, quirky atmosphere by decorating with antiques and kitsch.
But in the late 1980s, the number of Charry's restaurant clients declined, and he began to notice an uptick in interest from homeowners. Magazines popularized the idea of using one or two antique pieces to spice up an otherwise bland new space, and the eventual housing boom fueled even more demand for home decor items. When the bubble burst, many of Charry's smaller customers were eliminated.
Still, Charry always manages to find buyers for his best sellers - doors, mantels, and antique bars. "Everybody needs a door, and some people need 30 or 40 doors."
These days, buyers are especially looking for pieces to complement modern interiors, or antiques to create a 1920s Hollywood glamour look. Lately, Charry has noticed a growing market for industrial antiques.
The inventory at Stock's Philadelphia Salvage is likely to reflect this trend as well. In addition to decorative elements from Victorian homes, Stock is planning to offer industrial objects such as a line of coat racks, mirrors, and other accent pieces made by artist Terry McCall's company, GearForms, out of antique sewer grate covers, giant gears, and foundry patterns. Stock will also sell raw building materials like heart pine joists, doors, and flooring.
The store will double as an event space, hosting regular art shows featuring pieces with a recycled look, and classes for homeowners and builders. Topics will include green roof design, straw-bale construction, and how to make paint out of natural ingredients like flour or clay.
"I'm never going to rely on one thing," said Stock, who is expecting his many business interests to help sustain one another. "The architectural salvage business will supply materials and clients to the construction business."
Bob Beaty, who owns Provenance with Scott Lash and Chris Donna, got interested in the salvage world in 1965 when he worked as a timekeeper for a construction company in Center City. Beaty used a friend's pickup truck to salvage granite floor tiles from an old department store and sold them to a stone company. Just like that, he was hooked.
Provenance's survival strategy: mastering the art of the up-sell. Want to buy an antique door? Donna will refinish it for you for a fee. Want to figure out how to tie salvaged items into the design of a new house? Provenance can help you work out a complete interior design plan. Don't have a contractor? Provenance will install what it sells.
And Beaty is something of an evangelist, promoting the use of reclaimed materials to people like Gray Hansen and his wife, Justine.
The couple had been planning to build an environmentally friendly new home on a vacant lot near 20th and Poplar. "We both consider ourselves relatively green people, and we had this opportunity to apply that to something larger than just putting our aluminum cans in a blue bucket," he said.
But the idea of using salvaged material on a large scale didn't seem possible until the Hansens met Beaty two years ago. With his help, they included salvage in nearly every room of their new house - floors, baseboards, light fixtures, sinks, vanity tops, bathtubs, windows, and tiles.
The finished house looks modern on the outside, Hansen said, but inside, "it feels dreamy."
Last summer, Beaty's company doubled its square footage by moving to new digs in Northern Liberties. Customers at Provenance are all over the map - homeowners with a do-it-yourself bent; contractors whose customers like the aesthetic of mixing old and new materials; architects; retail chains and restaurants.
Most of ReStore's customers are homeowners, says owner Linda Mellish, who sees her shoppers becoming interested in reclaimed items after shunning cheap building materials like laminates, plastics, and hollow-core doors. "There's a much greater interest in doing things green and environmentally sound," she said.
Yet often the main motivation behind customers' love of the salvage is respect for their home's history. The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia expects more than 1,000 people to show up at its annual Old House Fair - this year March 26 at Germantown Friends School. Vendors include contractors, designers, architects, and, yes, architectural salvage dealers.
"Visitors to the Old House Fair aren't tire-kickers," wrote fair coordinator George Hoessel in an e-mail. They are mostly homeowners, "motivated to preserve, protect, and upgrade the old house that they love."
Not surprisingly, the dramatic peaks and valleys in the real estate market have had a big impact on the architectural salvage business. Since the recession, Mellish said, customers are more likely to bargain. "People used to come in and buy 15 doors and 12 lights, and now they consternate over one," she said.
Now Mellish is putting ReStore and the building it occupies on the market. She believes it's a business poised for growth (Mellish still does a brisk trade in Victorian tiles and ornate hardware from the 19th century), but, close to retirement, she doesn't have the energy to take the business to the next level. "I love my customers," she said, but the store "needs fresh eyes, and a fresh outlook."
Customers, after all, still are looking for a bargain, and most salvage stores have strategies for keeping their material reasonably priced. Take a used Ikea kitchen Stock was offering: "I got the kitchenette for free, and I'm going to sell it for $400, and we're going to keep it out of a Dumpster," he said.
Mellish and Stock both offer to deconstruct salvageable materials for free, keeping the choice pieces for resale. The owners of Provenance deliberately chose a location that's not prime retail. They get more space for their money and the store's prices reflect that, Lash said.
But in the long run, is it cheaper for property owners to renovate using salvaged materials?
Yes. And no.
While you can get great reclaimed wood flooring for $2 per square foot (compared with about $3.50 for new wood flooring), the cost of installing it usually eclipses the cost savings of buying older material.
Still, Stock said, the superior quality of antique wood means it will last longer than cheap, new flooring.
"Cheaper doesn't necessarily mean cheaper," Lash agreed. "We build hundred-year floors."