SUGARHOUSE — Every day, commerce, capitalism and a dash of socialism meet here on the front steps of Deseret Industries.
In a scene replicated at D.I.s up and down the Wasatch Front, as well as numerous other area thrift stores, serious students of secondhand gather daily for the starting bell.
When the doors are unlocked at 10 a.m. these sidewalk entrepreneurs are the first to enter the store, the first to scope out the mountains of stuff that wasn’t there yesterday – brought in overnight by those who no longer wanted it but didn’t throw it away and instead drove it here, to the great recycling depository.
Everything at D.I. is a bargain, but the biggest bargains go fast. If you’re there when the doors open you never know what you might find – a Sony flat screen maybe, or a Honda lawnmower, or perhaps a Hugo Boss suit.
Some of the early birds are shopping for themselves, but most aren’t. Most are looking to buy ridiculously low and sell a little higher. This morning D.I., this afternoon eBay, or craigslist, or KSL.com, or the garage sale in their front yard.
They’re the middlemen in a middleman marketplace.
And somewhere John Maynard Keynes is smiling.
Some people might see it as an abuse somehow of the system. Wasn’t that used but perfectly usable suit supposed to go on the back of someone in serious need? Wasn’t that DVD player meant to wind up hosting movie night at the rest home? Isn’t it blasphemous to make a profit on charity?
But check out who’s doing the wheeling and dealing. The traders lined up in the starting blocks at the front door aren’t on vacation from their job at Goldman Sachs. They’re not on morning break from the law firm. Not one of them has a per diem or a company car. This is what they do. This is their self-employment. They’re really no different than the trader on Wall Street or the buyer at Bergdorf Goodman. And they’re miles ahead of the guy on the fun bus to Wendover.
This is their way of tackling the age-old problem of too much month at the end of the money.
When the doors open, the crowd of 15 or 20 – and triple that on Saturday – rushes in like it’s Christmas morning. In a way it is. Overnight, unseen hands have laid out new merchandise in every corner of the store.
Those unseen hands belong, of course, to the D.I. workers who pull the bed frames and the clothes and the TV sets and the boxes of books and all else from the pickups and SUVS and VW bugs and take it inside and sort it out in the warehouse before it makes its way to the retail floor.
These employees are the heartbeat of the business – what it’s all about, if you ask the overseers. More than 100 are employed at the Sugarhouse store alone – a mixture of grateful immigrants, ex-cons, addicts scrambling to get back on the wagon, people who went south when the economy did too; the other one percent. Not only does Deseret Industries get them paying jobs, but more importantly, it trains them so they can move on and get better paying jobs.
“We touch so many lives,” observes Ben Maradiaga, manager of the Sugarhouse D.I., as he motions at the workforce emptying the bins and sorting the merchandise.
Then he sweeps his hand in the direction of the retail operation on the other side of the warehouse doors.
“What happens out there,” he says, “just pays for what we spend in here.”
Out there, the morning merchants are holding court. Stay out of their way. This is their domain. With practiced eyes they inspect the new used stuff, load what they deem marketable into their carts and head for the checkout stands to pay pennies on the dollar. If all goes well, one man’s junk will soon become another man’s treasure, with a little something in it for he who brokered the deal.
Supply and demand. Supply and demand. It never gets old.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org