Manager of resale store helps Westmoreland Community Action's anti-poverty work
On an overcast, unseasonably warm and humid morning last week, the air inside the warehouse of the Mt. Pleasant Borough-based American Architectural Salvage was crisp and cold.
Despite the chill, the cavernous but well-lit space was friendly and inviting. Rock hits from the 1970s played on a radio. About a dozen eye-catching light fixtures hung from the ceiling, prompting patrons to look up at posters bearing the words “reuse, recycle, reclaim, reduce,” summarizing the nonprofit's mission.
Three old church pews, part of a set of about 10 that recently arrived at the warehouse, occupied space near the front of the store. A few more steps into the labyrinth revealed displays of kitchen fixtures: a green sink, stacks and buckets of candy-colored tiles. A vintage stretcher used in coal mines. Around the corner, there were desk chairs and filing cabinets.
“You never know when you come in on a day to work, you never know what's going to come through the door,” said Ken Czerpak, store manager at American Architectural Salvage, one of several nonprofit programs managed by Westmoreland Community Action.
Czerpak works with a team of four other staff members to take whatever comes through the door — be it lumber from a barn built in the early 1800s, pieces of delicate milk glass or disembodied doll heads — and figure out how to present it in a way that helps shoppers see the history and potential in what at first might look like an old, dusty piece of junk.
American Architectural Salvage, previously known as Shop Demo Depot, is best described as “charity by doing business,” said Jack Brown, director of community services at Westmoreland Community Action.
The nonprofit accepts donations of surplus building materials, furniture and home accessories and resells the items. Then, the profits are returned to Westmoreland Community Action and used to support the organization's several initiatives focused on eliminating poverty.
Efforts to protect the environment take place in tandem with the program's second goal, to fight underemployment and poverty, said Jeffrey Diehl, chief financial officer at Westmoreland Community Action. Programs offering on-the-job training to youth and adults are hosted at the facility.
Czerpak said that working to fulfill the dual mission of protecting the environment and supporting the community is one of the best parts of his job.
“At the end of the day, I know that I'm making a difference,” said Czerpak, who joined the team at American Architectural Salvage from a job in big-box retail four years ago. The 29-year-old Greensburg native started working in retail when he was 15 years old.
But he also said that it took him some time to develop an eye for how donated items could be repurposed, saying that he relies on the talents of his teammates to make the operation run smoothly. He recalled an incident involving a sign that was donated to the store when he first started working there.
It didn't look like much, Czerpak said: bold, black lettering spelled “LILAC” against a white background. There were dents and scratches here and there. But Czerpak thought this chunk of metal — worth about $50, he guessed — was going to get him fired.
“I saw a piece of scrap metal, not knowing that from somebody else's point of view — maybe that's what they nicknamed their daughter, or a significant piece they could use in a collection of theirs,” Czerpak said, describing the sign.
Thinking it was trash, Czerpak tossed it in the scrap pile. Luckily, a co-worker tucked the sign away in a safe place and was able to produce it when Czerpak's boss came looking for it. As it turned out, they were all in on the joke.
That was the moment Czerpak said that he truly understood the concept of repurposing and the missions of American Architectural Salvage. Years later, standing among the displays of odds and ends he meticulously designed, Czerpak summarized what makes his work meaningful.
“That sense of, that we're here for a purpose,” he said. “Because you can't find that stuff at your everyday store.”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer.