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A visit to Recyclique, a different kind of reuse shop

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When visitors pull up to the quaint, lime-green building that houses Recyclique in Durham, it's abundantly clear just how fitting the store's hippie-chic name is. At first glance, the racks of vintage clothing and wicker furniture lining the porch tell us that we're at a reuse store.

But this is an unusual one. For starters, if you walk past the plots of fresh spearmint, oregano, beets and broccoli sprouting from a garden in the front, and continue to the overgrown space behind the building, you'll also see a gazebo, another garden and dozens of recycled water jugs ready to be reused and repurposed. And inside the building, you'll encounter the work of local artisans and environmental activists, eager to repurpose their lives.

Last month, Recyclique celebrated its second anniversary. Volunteers use the space to host events about green issues such as local lending and the politics of fracking. They also run workshops that teach skills like recaning chairs or growing spring vegetable gardens.

Sandy Smith-Nonini, one of the space's founders, thinks this kind of reskilling of a workforce is particularly important. "We strongly believe that people need to learn how to do things themselves," she says.

"We're tinkerers by nature, and we've lost our skill sets in the last two generations ... It makes us feel helpless."

As she sits with resident volunteer Joshua Runnels and CommunEcos board members in Recyclique's "EcoLounge," a backroom sporting a kitchen, shelves of used books, and a seating area, laughter rings out amid the reggae playing from the stereo and the heartfelt conversation about how to build self-sufficient communities. The EcoLounge is in the final phases of a process of interior renovation and expansion that will double its size.

Smith-Nonini, an assistant adjunct professor of anthropology at UNC and a self-proclaimed "activist in the environmental movement," says that Recyclique sprang out of her work with YIKES! (Youth Involved in Keeping Earth Sustainable), an environmental club and green training program for high school students she cofounded in 2007. Today, she coordinates Recyclique and CommunEcos, the shop's nonprofit parent organization.

The popularity of a rain barrel painting workshop with students gave Smith-Nonini an idea about upcycling—the repurposing of found objects, trash and recycled materials into affordable products.

"I thought, hmm, this a form of upcycling that appeals to people. These barrels are lovely, they're cute. Someone who needs a job could learn to convert and paint these rain barrels."

This led Smith-Nonini to begin Recyclique in 2009 as an informal group that worked on repurposing the barrels and selling them.

But Smith-Nonini wanted a physical space to serve as a marketplace for these barrels and other upcycled products. She also wanted a place that could host workshops and grassroots conferences about environmental issues. She convinced Kim Shuffler, the owner of the antique and vintage shop Everything But Grannies Panties, to contribute a building that Shuffler was using as a storage space.

In addition to these events and the sale of painted rain barrels, Recyclique works with local vendors who provide upcycled, refurbished products or crafted goods and volunteer their time in the shop for four hours a month, in a cooperative model similar to the one employed by The Scrap Exchange. In return, these vendors receive 70 percent of the profits that Recyclique makes on sales; vendors who can't volunteer their time make a 60 percent return.

There are currently 15 active vendors who contribute products to the shop, including Robert Wilson, who lives in a tent near Ninth Street and makes jewelry that Recyclique then sells. Smith-Nonini buys all other inventory out of pocket.

"It's been a struggle to create a place that can sell crafted goods at a fair price," she says. "We're always having to figure out some kind of middle road between being fair to crafters but also creating something that the public wants to buy that's not too expensive."

Most products—like the duct-tape wallets and the safety pin watches—have a decidedly DIY vibe, and that's intentional. "We don't want to be an upscale artistic place in town," Smith-Nonini says. "There are plenty of other places like that."

Instead, Smith-Nonini wants Recyclique to provide a platform for underemployed artisans and craftspeople to combine equities. This way, she says, "people get their needs met without having to have dollars in their pockets."

Runnels, a former contractor and Greenpeace activist, similarly benefits from this cooperative model. In exchange for his volunteer work around the shop, which eventually will allow Recyclique to expand its hours (currently, it's open on Fridays and Saturdays), Runnels lives rent-free in the back of the building.

"My life is really simple," Runnels says. "The key for people doing this kind of stuff is that money is not a motivation."

It's true that working for Recyclique seems to be entirely a passion-project for Smith-Nonini. She lights up describing the "voluntary simplicity lifestyle" panel taking place in the EcoLounge later that evening.

"There's something magical happening here," Smith-Nonini says. "I'm hoping tonight's session can be a kind of support group for survivors of Western culture."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Repurpose-driven lives."

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