U.P. ReStore named best in state

The Restore has a variety of attractively priced items for every room in the home. Unusual and antique items can also be found at the store. ReStore Director Bob Howe can be seen in the mirror’s reflection.

Story and photos by Ron Carnell
Diminishing brick-and-mortar choices are a reality in the wake of online monoliths like Amazon and Netflix. U.P. consumers can see this reality in the empty stores and razed remains nearly dominating the landscape along Marquette’s retail stretch on US-41. In 2017, downtown’s Book World closed after over 41 years of business. And the loss of Younkers and Famous Footwear left the Westwood Mall clinging to what may be a vestige of a bygone consumer era. In 2019, Gander Outdoors, OfficeMax, and ShopKo (a nearly 50-year-old flagship store) closed their doors forever. This year, the Marquette Pier 1 store will paper its windows.
But just outside Harvey at M-28 and US 41 lies an oasis of customer service oriented resale success: The Marquette County Habitat for Humanity ReStore has served the area since 2003 and shows no signs of slipping away. Since its opening, the store has reported an increase in revenue over nearly every previous year, with the sharpest upticks occurring over the last five.
Vintage and gently used home and office furnishings, appliances, tools, construction materials and everything-even the kitchen sink are donated almost daily, then priced and resold by ReStore staff.
The first ReStore was launched in 1991 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and today there are 920 stores worldwide. The concept was simple: Following in part the long- established models of donation-supported resale centers, Habitat for Humanity would create stores that would collect household, office and construction items, clean and detail them, make any necessary repairs, and then resell them. Since the launch of the original Canadian ReStore, over $100 million has been raised to assist the Habitat for Humanity mission to build and repair homes for hardworking and disadvantaged families.
In recent years, the image of the organization has had a boost by coverage of former president Jimmy Carter as a hands-on volunteer. The 95-year-old is an undisputed example of how humanitarian efforts are possible for anyone. As a top-tier humanitarian relief organization, Habitat for Humanity has built or improved housing for over 22 million people worldwide since 1976.
On a local level, it appears that U.P. residents love secondhand and vintage items. Of 50 locations throughout Michigan, the Marquette store was selected by the Michigan ReStore Council as Top ReStore in Michigan for 2019. The U.P. boasts five additional locations: Houghton, Calumet, Kingsford, Manistique and Sault Ste. Marie.
“The council evaluates contending Michigan stores on profit margin and quality of merchandise,” said Marquette ReStore Director Bob Howe. “We were also evaluated on how much store square footage is designated to display merchandise. In our case, it was 100 percent.”
Howe arrived in Marquette from southern Florida in the early 2000s. His or store improvements, store overhead and equipment, merchandise transport, and our paid staff,” Howe said.
When the Marquette store opened in May 2003, it had a skeleton crew of just a post-Vietnam-service career included working in sales in Colorado and serving as a youth counselor for several years. It was roots on his wife’s side of the family and a slower pace of living that brought him from sunny Florida to snowy Marquette. In 2007, he became involved with the ReStore.
Although it’s a nonprofit, the ReStore is not a charitable organization.
Recipients of home improvements are required to put in 250 hours of work alongside Habitat for Humanity volunteers.
“Those we help learn a lot of things about home assembly and improvement, construction, and the use of power tools.
This affords homeowners the ability and receive an item, the warehouse coordinator makes touch-ups or repairs and does any necessary cleaning. The items are then priced and displayed. The tasks among staff range from positioning items on the floor, driving a truck to pick up donations, to delivery and cashiering.
Top customer service is the common thread for all staff.
“There isn’t a lot of turnover here, lots of staff longevity,” said Howe. “We have a paid staffer who’s been with us since 2008, and one of our volunteers started here before I came aboard.”
Regarding the Marquette ReStore’s award for number one in Michigan, Howe is eager to spread the accolades and credit. “The award is based on sales and the quality of donations. But you won’t get any of that without a community strongly in support of what can be made available, and strongly in support of our mission.
“This award is much more than a testament to how much money is brought in; it’s also a testament to the dedication of our staff and the community.”
Weekly phone meetings with the council and its stores are conducted to share best practices and donations of merchandise and to provide encouragement to one another. There is also a net work of semi-truck transport from ReStores all over Michigan for items to be swapped among them.
“I can get 30 rooms onto one truck,” said Howe between a friendly shout-out to an early arriving customer that the store would not be open until a few more minutes. “A ‘room’ signifies the amount of furniture that would outfit an ordinary sized bedroom or living room.”
Different stores across Michigan can attract many of the same donations that other areas seldom see. “Sometimes we get a lot of the same stuff donated. Part of the weekly meetings is discussing what’s needed where and who’s got it to ship out.” When entering the ReStore, customers are greeted by tastefully displayed and attractively priced items for every room of their homes. The look and feel are equal parts thrift store, antique gallery and flea market. Just past the front door is a short hallway entrance lined with vintage signage, a mounted deer trophy here, an old ornately framed portrait there. To the right and rear of the store, the well-lighted layout provides wide aisles with dining sets, living room furnishings, bed frames, vanity sets and mirrors. To the left of the front checkout are appliances and tools and construction materials.
All manner of lighting fixtures and ceiling fans hang from above, displayed not unlike a big box hardware store. And throughout are islands, endcaps, and glass cases of collectibles, including musical instruments and vintage books and magazines, all within a wild assortment of bric-a-brac. Doors, windows and household appliances line the walls.
For pricing, Howe spends a fair amount of time researching comparable goods on the internet. Ebay and Etsy are good reference points. “Pricing can be arbitrary,” said Howe. “But we must be doing it right, because pricing and sales have not been a problem. Occasionally, we get unused items, some things that are obviously brand-new. Those items are half of average retail.”
Occasionally, something inexplicably odd will arrive and be taken in out of curiosity and in keeping with the ReStore’s overarching goal of satisfying any need. “A while back, we had something come in called a ‘Yooper Sauna,’”
said Howe. “It’s a big plastic tub type thing that is fully enclosed up to the neck. The idea is that it’s lightweight and portable.
We didn’t think it would sell, but someone did pick it up. And later we heard it appeared in the Trenary Outhouse Classic.”
“Or sometimes, we’ll get one of a pair of something,” added cashier Jan Kidd, as she retrieved a single antique ice skate from a cabinet case. “I can understand the historical value, but c’mon, just one?”
At 10 a.m., in came the first wave of customers, along with an electrical technician there to make some basic tweaks and repairs. As is common in a tight-knit community, everyone seemed to know each other by first name. And another busy day at ReStore was in progress.
When asked what drew Bob Howe to ReStore, he didn’t miss a beat. “I was interested in the cause and the mission. Especially attractive to me is that Habitat for Humanity is a hand up, not a handout, and the proceeds stay local. We’re a nonprofit organization that raises funds for efforts to eradicate substandard housing.
“For me, there’s no bigger mission than to assist people in need of a safe living space, and to help those who want to help themselves.”

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