Years ago and far away – I’m talking a small town in northern California in the 1960s –an auto junkyard sat on the highway on property deemed not much good for anything else. It was owned and operated by a guy fondly called Junkie George. His personality was a bit odd, but he was embraced by counterculture types because of the emerging social push to reuse and recycle materials. Plus, we all drove marginally functional used cars that could still be worked on by non-professionals. Junkie George had the parts. He was an icon, if not a local hero.
A few years before that, my dad took me to another sort of junkyard to buy parts for a bicycle. I watched him pick fenders and cranks and handlebars from the milieu, take them home to the garage and assemble them into a new bike for me, which we painted royal blue. I was in kid heaven. Nobody else had a bike like mine, and I still hold fond memories of wandering around the junkyard with my Dad in search of the right components.
What is it about other people’s cast-off stuff that attracts us? It might be a matter of pricing. You can build a bicycle, or buy a used one, for a fraction of the cost of purchasing something new. Or buying used might be a matter of ecological integrity. Reusing material goods can accomplish two things: It can reduce consumer demand in a supply-and-demand economy and thereby lower the amount of refuse that goes into landfills (incrementally, that is).
Anyone who frequents yard sales and secondhand stores knows that something else is up. I’m talking about the welcome surprise of finding a great bargain on an item you really need – or on an item you didn’t know you needed until now, but can’t pass up because of the ridiculously low price. The fact that you kept this particular chandelier or commode out of a landfill is secondary. The real satisfaction lies in the appreciation you have for the item itself. It’s perfect. You’ve always wanted one like this.
In Kingston, Stanley Zaborski has amassed enough used goods to last multiple lifetimes. In fact, he has been in the salvage business for a long time, and admits to having had aspirations for the business when he was just a kid. “I dreamt of this business in grade school, doing something like this. Not this big, but…My father was a baker. He had a bakery shop on Wall Street Uptown, and when they raised his rent too high, he went to the Town of Ulster and opened up a bakery up there. And then the bakeries were dying, because Shop-Rite and Grand Union started putting their own bakeries in.”
The kicker, he tells me, was when the family doctor told his dad that he could buy his kids cheaper donuts in a box, and they wouldn’t know the difference. This revelation occurred in the day of house calls – another bygone practice: Doctors who would come treat your kids in your own home. The senior Stanley Zaborski “took that to heart” and began putting sale signs up for bicycles, baskets, you name it. He opened his antiques and salvage business on Albany Avenue in 1962.
The rest, as they say, comprises a history spread out over close to 40,000 square feet of warehouse storage. Zaborski’s Emporium in Kingston can hardly be called a “showroom,” but if you stroll up and down the jam-packed aisles long enough, you get a sense of organization. Each of the four floors is loosely designated by category to hold bathtubs, pedestal sinks, cast-iron kitchen sinks, vintage light fixtures (tons of these), doorknobs, porch columns, fireplace façades and accoutrements, sets of pocket doors, more hardware than imaginable, furniture, kitchenware, dishes, tools, library ladders, cast-iron radiators, memorabilia signage, framed artworks, weathervanes, wrought-iron railings and other architectural elements, knickknacks, geedunks.
Some of the aisles are difficult to navigate, with products leaning against shelves and stacked on top of each other – particularly if your eye has wandered skyward to behold the thousands of goodies hanging from the rafters: ice skates, pulleys, faucet parts. Zaborski says, “In the basement, there are thousands of doors, radiators and windows. I’ve been in Kingston for 22 years, and I bought the building in ’98, ’99. There were tenants here; Gateway Industries was here for five years, and a butcher-block company. I almost sold the building to the church in back of us, but they didn’t get their financing.”
I asked if turning the entire space into an “emporium” of antiques and salvage goods is what he has always had in mind. “Yes. In the beginning we went out and did the salvage, but it got to be too much. I find I can buy it from the guys doing the salvaging, and don’t have to worry about… you know, we’re insurance-broke now. It’s mind-boggling.”
I asked how he figured out how to organize the merchandise. “At first I was building shelves in there, and it turned out to be wrong. I had to put pallet racking in that was more substantial. It’s outta hand right now. I bought so much stuff in the past year. More or less, people call me and say, ‘Hey, we’re selling the house. We’ve got stuff we want to get rid of.’ I’ll go take a look at it. The lawyers call me to do appraisals on estates, and sometimes I can buy what I’ve appraised. Other dealers call me, saying, ‘We bought a whole load of stuff; we’ve got bathtubs, sinks – your kind of stuff.’
“My wife Sandy considers herself to be my ‘brake.’ She’s the one who tells me not to buy this, not to buy that; she is the emergency brake. But I go around her. The suppliers all know me; they know what I’ll buy. All I gotta do is give a little signal and it’s mine. They’ll bring it in when she’s gone. I always tell her, though; she knows.”
Zaborski doesn’t take just anything and everything, incriminating evidence aside. “I don’t take upholstered furniture. We don’t take a lot of the toilets anymore; it’s all different, the laws. That’s about it. The market has steered us away from antiques. Antiques are basically dead. The Depression glass, the carnival glass, brown furniture – it’s all dead. When my wife’s Mom died, she had beautiful antiques. We gave it to an auctioneer, and they got pennies. It was in Florida; the brown furniture doesn’t belong there. He even took some of it up to Boston. It’s just dead.”
Recalling when salvagers would drive out to the Midwest and bring truckloads of potential merchandise to New York or drive it out to dealers in California, he says, “It’s done. There’s nobody filling up the trucks. We used to buy containerloads – not me personally, but people would buy from Denmark, France and England and bring it in. Now we’ve got reproduction stuff from China, and that’s not even going anymore.” Pricing has become much easier for Zaborski, who no longer has to plow through books to find the value of an item. He’s computer-savvy enough to look up prices and sales amounts online, which gives him a much more accurate idea of an item’s resale value.
Before I leave, he takes me up a cargo elevator and leads me through a crowded aisle to a locked door. Inside is Zaborski’s playroom: a fully tricked-out display of standard-gauge train cars and a room-sized track. Light floods through a wall of windows where he can unwind from the stresses of accumulating and reselling the world’s junk. A man needs his hobbies.
Zaborski Emporium, Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday, 1-5 p.m., 27 Hoffman Street, Kingston; (845) 338-6465, stanthejunkman.com.