Hoping for a blender, we locate the sale by all the U-Hauls and pickups parked in front. An incessant pounding booms from deep within the big Evanston house; a woman emerges carrying a banister. She passes a huge sign on the stoop that reads:
Deconstruction in progress
Enter at your own risk
Unattended kids will be sold as slaves
The house itself has already been stripped of its address numbers.
Inside the scene is like a Bob Vila tape played backward, or maybe a kicked anthill where most of the ants sport tool belts and carry saws and drills. In the center of it all stand a man and a woman directing traffic. Holding walkie-talkies and wearing yellow T-shirts that say Talk to Me, they point out the Magic Marker graffiti scribbled all over the house--"How about a dimmer, honey?" above a light switch, "Organize your life" on a wall beside some shelving. These, we discover, are the Murphys of Murco, as in "Recycling Murco Style." Their fliers are strewn about the house. "Know your measurements," they say. "Bring your own tools, cash only, and let's clear this baby out!!!!"
In the foyer, two would-be plumbers with Popeye-sized forearms and sagging pants are sweating over some marble tiles. The one on his knees is whacking the floor with a rubber mallet; his partner, standing, asking every four or five whacks, "Is it looser?" Whack-whack-whack-whack. "Is it looser?" Behind them, a slim man struggles with a marble radiator cover (it matches the floor tile).
In the living room, a tireless Murphy (Patrick) points to a row of track lights and exhorts the milling crowd to bid. Of the ten or so men and women he speaks to, there are at least four in loafers, a few in running shoes, and only one in anything resembling work boots.
"You see it, I'll sell it," says Murphy. "I'll take 30 dollars on these track lights. Who's got, OK, 35, 35 dollars, who can give me 40, 40 dollars on the lights. I got 40 dollars, 40 dollars, 40 dollars once, twice, 42 dollars. That's all right, thank you, 42 dollars. Who's got 50?"
Track lights not being what we're after, we wander into the pantry, where a young man in a ski vest saws furiously at a wall of hanging cabinets. A young woman clings to his shoulder urging him to saw straighter. "Honey, like this," she says, chopping her hand through the air. "Up and down. You're going on an angle." Two older women wearing head scarves attack the hinges of the back door with an electric screwdriver. "Is it screwing in or screwing out?" asks the one running the screwdriver. The other watches for a minute. "It's...it's...Oh stop, stop--it's screwing in."
Out back, we find the spirit of buying and selling catching on. One man offers, half seriously, to buy another man's dog. A little girl brings around a box of stuffed animals and tries to sell us one. And a gray-haired woman announces she'll pay $20 to anyone who'll rip out some hallway carpeting and carry it to her car. A man with a camcorder films the removal of some fieldstones from a pathway beside the house.
We head back inside and find more of the same upstairs--people sharing tools and kibitzing. People making off with toilets, floorboards, sinks. It's becoming harder and harder to see an empty room as an empty room. If it's got windows it's not empty. There's a door that might go $40 complete. But then there's the knob, the hinges, and the lock to consider.
Jody, the other Murphy, says "We started Murco three years ago, and now whenever we walk into a room, we don't just see room, we see tongue-in-groove ceiling, miniblinds, three-quarter-inch pine-strip molding, track lights, Berber carpeting, and brass locks on the windows..."
The Murphys, who moved here from Texas, got into this business when a friend asked them to sell some recyclables. "We just saw all this demolition stuff going to the landfills, and we just knew people could use it. People recycle their bottles and cans, they should do their doors, too."
With a minimal investment the Murphys set up shop in their house in La Grange Park. For a $100 fee a bird-dog--i.e., a builder, an architect, a real estate agent--will inform Murco about an upcoming Chicago-area demolition. Murco then contacts the home's owner and offers to publicize and facilitate a predemolition auction for a percentage of the take, typically a few thousand dollars. Any piece of the house is fair game. You buy it, you hack it out and haul it away.
The genius of the concept is its simplicity--linking people who want stuff with the stuff that they want. They've built up a computerized mailing list--644 names at last count--that hooks up members with materials they seek. Now they hold more than 30 demolition sales a year.
Patrick Murphy traces a loop in the air with his hand. "Supply and demand," he says. "I mean, with Murco, you can get a three-year-old H.B. Smith Company 368,000 BTU boiler system for 500 bucks. That's like a $3,000 to $4,000 system. The main thing, though, is that around here, there's no open space for people to build on. So what can they do? Wealthy people want dream homes and they don't want to have to move out to some cornfield to build them."
Murphy hints that Murco could easily expand into other markets with high property values and scarce real estate--Beverly Hills, even--but he wonders if Murco's style might be particularly suited to the midwest.
"People on the coasts are more jaded. Hell, we write on the walls. It's cheesy, but it works. You walk into LA and try that and they'd think you're weird. In New York they'd think, 'What's he trying to pull, what's the catch?' Maybe they'd think we'd just fallen off the onion truck....People wouldn't know what to expect of us."
We mention that we'd expected a blender.
Murphy shrugs. "Sorry to disappoint. We're a little lower on the food chain."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.