The Elbert Files: Creating order from chaos
Friday, August 01, 2014 6:00 AM
If you’ve ever tried to rearrange a cluttered room, imagine what it was like for Tony Zika last fall when he agreed to bring order to the thousands of items, large and small, that fill four floors of the century-old warehouse at Ninth and Cherry streets where West End Architectural Salvage operates.
When Don Short started the business in 2006, it was a pure salvage operation, buying and selling old doors, windows, plumbing fixtures and such, most of which Short had pulled from homes he’d remodeled in Marshalltown and Des Moines.
Fast-forward eight years, and we find Short operating several businesses from his downtown warehouse. They include a manufacturing component that repurposes salvage into home furnishings, a coffeehouse, event space for wedding receptions and other parties, and the reality TV show “West End Salvage” for HGTV.
Overarching it all is the salvage operation, which spreads its wares across four floors of retail space in the old warehouse. Over the years, the reach of the salvage operation has grown from local and regional to national and international.
Zika, who grew up on the south side of Des Moines, worked for area Younkers stores from 1999 until 2005, creating sales displays. Later, he was an owner of The Garden Nightclub just south of downtown Des Moines until it was sold in May 2013.
“I took last summer off, and came here in October looking for part-time work serving coffee,” Zika said. “Don saw my background” at Younkers, which led to a discussion of how the warehouse space was used.
“There was some merchandizing, but especially on the third floor, stuff was just stacked in piles that people would have to claw over to get to what they wanted,” he said.
With help from Dori Austin, a salvage picker on the HGTV show who has her own weekend-shop in Boone, Zika began digging into the piles.
“I tried several different approaches,” he said. “What worked best was to push it all to the perimeter and then start pulling pieces out that are going to line my walls.”
His walls, Zika explained, were large pieces of furniture – dressers, wardrobes, hutches – that he positioned to create “rooms” in the wide-open floor space. Once a room was created, he would fill it with small and medium-sized pieces.
The rooms were filled with similar items or items of similar colors, but of varying sizes.
“I was taught at Younkers to pick a high point and build down from that, so that if you pour a glass of water at the top, it will flow down over everything,” Zika said.
His goal at West End Architectural Salvage is to give buyers ideas on how to use certain pieces. To do that, he created themed rooms. They include a black room, where everything is black, a farm implement room, a military room, a retro room stocked with pieces from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and a church room that features items salvaged from houses of worship.
Zika also began moving pieces around to find more effective locations. When an item in the garden room did not sell, he would move it to a different room and keep moving it until he found a space where it did sell.
Discovering new uses for old items is one of the most interesting aspects of his job, Zika said.
One of the most challenging involved four airplane wings that were brought in as scrap. Each wing was eight feet long. The store’s in-house artisans welded 42-inch legs on each wing, creating four rec-room bars. All four sold within two months.
The current challenge is a bowling ball return chute salvaged from a bowling alley in Winterset.
“We’re still working on what to do with it,” Zika said.
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