Eleanor Ray stands in her shop, The WasteShed.

One person’s trash may hold another person’s treasure

By Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Eleanor Ray weaves through rows of picture frames, thread, yarn and oil paints as she walks through her shop, pointing to miles of fabric, a mountain of art supplies and decorations for all seasons.

Her store, the WasteShed, 2842 W. Chicago Ave., sells the fixings of any arts-and-crafts store, along with more eclectic items such as microfiche, sombreros, vintage scarves and old kimono fabric. There’s one key difference, however, between a Hobby Lobby and Ray’s venture — everything here is secondhand.

“The cool thing about art is that you can really make it out of anything,” Ray says, a soft smile on her face. “If you put your mind to it there’s no reason to buy new stuff.”

To produce a single new item, component parts must be extracted. After production, it’s shipped, stored and then shipped again before it’s placed on shelves. Goods not purchased by consumers are often thrown away without being repurposed.

Ray’s store, on the other hand, takes donated secondhand items and sells them at a discounted price. It’s a win-win situation: customers get affordable materials, and otherwise unwanted goods are kept out of trash heaps and landfills.

Though the price varies by the item’s condition, a ball of wool yarn goes for about $3, a used board game for about $10 and a tube of acrylic paint for $5.

The WasteShed prices most items at one-quarter to one-half of their original costs. If it’s nearly new or a rare vintage find, it’s more expensive, and if it’s in not-so-great shape, it costs less.

Ray’s goal, besides providing for the community, is to implement a miniature “circular economy,” keeping already produced items in use and repurposing them rather than just discarding or recycling them.

Nestled between gray train tracks and the greenery of nearby Humboldt Park, the WasteShed has served community members and customers from much farther away since 2014.

Ray views the shop as both a reuse center and an environmental education hub, and it’s grown so big in recent months that the team has had to put a temporary suspension on new donations. This, to her, is a win — not a loss.

“We’re taking stuff that would be going to rot in a landfill and using it to replace things that people would buy new,” Rays says. “We’re carbon negative — that’s about as sustainable as you can get.”

The WasteShed offers a variety of goods.
The WasteShed, in addition to selling art store staples like paint, pens and thread, also sells odds and ends. Some of these quirkier items include “foam bits,” old photographs and loose sequins. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

Getting off the ground

Ray, who is in her mid-30s, dons a blue and green polka dot sweater, rose-patterned tweed pants and fuzzy moccasins. Her jet-black hair frames a face with a close-lipped smile and beachwood glasses.

She estimates the shop kept $412,000 worth of material out of landfills in 2019. That same year, the WasteShed diverted and repurposed over 45,000 pounds of materials, or about 23 tons.

Creatives and people looking for quirky art supplies buy there. But Ray pursues ways to give back to the community as well. Last year, goods from The WasteShed made their way into at least one school in each of Chicago’s 50 wards.

“We’re growing 50% year over year,” Rays says, noting the store passed the $1 million in sales mark last fall. “Change and growth is our norm now.”

A Chicago transplant originally from Boston, Ray founded the shop after stints at other creative reuse centers across the country. She graduated from Portland’s Reed College in 2007 and stayed local to volunteer at Scrap, where she first gained exposure to creative reuse shops.

After moving to Chicago, Ray took the foundation she had gained at Scrap and used her knowledge to serve local communities here.

“Chicago is enormously wasteful relative to some East and West Coast cities that have more awareness and infrastructure over the reuse and recycling of materials,” Ray says.

While some creative reuse centers operate on a free-to-free basis — giving donated items for free to community members — the WasteShed follows a more revenue traditional model. Ray’s shop derives around 75% of its funds from in-store transactions and another 25% from grants and private monetary donations.

Ray says the average donation is around seven pounds.

“We’re providing people a service by absorbing these materials, and we don’t get paid when people drop things off,” Ray says. “We get paid when people buy them.”

The entrance to The WasteShed.
The store received so many items over the holiday season that it has had to place a hold on the donation of new materials. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

It takes a village

Emily Saiter, the store’s administrative assistant, carefully arranges a spread of vintage stencils, making sure the table looks just right. She hums as the light jazz of Poolside’s “Next to You” wafts from the overhead speakers.

Saiter is setting up the spread to post on Instagram. Unlike a traditional arts store, where customers can look online to have a rough idea of what kinds of items it carries, WasteShed patrons rely on word of mouth and social media posts to know what hot items are in stock.

“We post pictures to our Instagram in the hope that we can boost our business,” Saiter says, holding up one of the vintage stencils to the light. “Paints and standard art supplies, [as well as] quirky items like this, go before the end of the day.”

Because the team consists of only three full-time employees, the WasteShed relies on volunteers to help sort through its high volume of donations.

Krysta Williams, an artist from Albany Park, on the city’s Northwest Side, donates to and buys from the WasteShed whenever she’s in the area.

“I’ve been wanting to volunteer more in general this year,” Williams says, organizing a bin of donated colored pencils and sorting them into different displays. “And with the climate crisis, the world burning, that whole thing … this just felt in alignment with what’s important to me.”

Volunteering, however, isn’t the only form of community engagement baked into the WasteShed’s operating model. Ray and her team cordon off a section of the shop specifically for teachers. Educators, many of whom work in cash-strapped Chicago schools with little art funding from the city, can take goods for free and use them within their classrooms.

To date, educators from more than 300 schools in the Chicago area and across the U.S. have made use of the WasteShed’s free teacher section, Ray says. She estimates the shop gives around $1,300 of free material away per month.

In addition to community building, though, Rays says the shop seeks to address problems caused by the way capitalism functions in the United States today. She views her shop as a small piece in a larger resistance to the “abundance of stuff out in the world.”

“What kind of society can we build without Amazon?” Ray asks, furrowing her brow. “How can we construct an economy and a culture around things that already exist rather than creating demand for and extracting more crap for things nobody needs?”

Ray says her shop isn’t the answer, but rather a start.

The free section for teachers.
The WasteShed offers free art supplies and educational materials to educators. Ray says this is a way of giving back to the community while also addressing the underfunding in many Chicago Public Schools. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

Making art accessible — and sustainable

Samantha Johnson, a freshman at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says she appreciates the sustainability aspect of the WasteShed. But the real draw to her is the store’s affordability, and she says she’s able to buy good quality materials for her school and personal artwork without breaking the bank.

“My teachers [at SAIC] recommend this place highly,” Johnson says. “There’s not been one time I’ve come here where I didn’t get what I needed.”

Allegra Harvard, also an SAIC student, says she heads to the WasteShed before going to more high-end retailers like Blick.

“I like poking around and seeing what’s new,” Harvard says. “There’s little treasures and things you wouldn’t normally expect.”

Indeed, the WasteShed has some oddities, like 4H trophies, ceramic angels, vintage fashion magazines and foam stickers. Adrian Jacobs, the shop’s marketing assistant, says she works primarily in multimedia and finds it rewarding to repurpose odds and ends into something beautiful.

“I’ve always used cheaper materials in my artwork because it’s all I can afford,” Jacobs says. “To be able to get that all here is incredible.”

The shop offers many eclectic items.
The secondary sorting area is flanked by quirkier finds like ceramic angels and vintage typewriters. Volunteers from the community, Ray says, help the WasteShed process the sheer amount of donated goods that people drop off every week. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)

The path forward

Ray says she was approached last summer by the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, which sells reclaimed building materials and uses the proceeds to support education and job training in Evanston.

The Evanston nonprofit plans on moving to a larger space this spring, Ray says, and will use part of that space as a “reuse hub” and “reuse incubator” that will feature the WasteShed and other green groups.

The collaboration will provide an opportunity for the WasteShed to develop a presence on the North Side, Ray says. The shop is beginning its fundraising efforts to launch a second location there.

“We want to have small spaces across the city that respond to the needs of that neighborhood,” Ray says. “It’s more sustainable and more useful than having one giant warehouse full of junk.”

In the end, Ray says she hopes her shop does more than keep goods out of landfills. She wants to teach people how to repurpose the items already in their lives.

A century ago, Americans would mend clothing and repurpose packaging into household goods. But today people buy, consume and discard without much thought. Now, Ray says, is the time to educate and deal with our overabundance of things — before it’s too late.

“We’re trying to move the window on our cultural priorities for things that will exist after a potential climate collapse,” Ray says. “Stuff. Lots of stuff.”

Photo at top: Eleanor Ray, owner of the WasteShed, stands in front of donated fabrics. The store kept 45,000 pounds of material out of landfills last year, Ray says. (Jake Holland/MEDILL)