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The Junk Yenta

Gary Zuckerman finds new owners for old stuff.



Ray Mroczenski had some stuff to get rid of.

Mroczenski is the maintenance director at the North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka. The private academy was remodeling Willoughby G. Walling Hall, which houses its lower school, so Mroczenski had to unload roomfuls of out-of-style desks, chairs, and filing cabinets.

He tried selling the stuff. No one would buy it. Ever since the busted dot-coms sold off their old office furniture the market has been saturated. He called scrap guys, but they wanted hundreds of dollars to haul it away.

Then, while shopping at a plumbing-supply store in Chicago, Mroczenski spotted a help wanted sign from a company called Recycle Plus.

"They were looking for people 'thinking globally,'" he says. "I thought, 'Wow, they're a recycling company. Let's see what they think.'"

The sign had been posted by Gary Zuckerman, owner of Recycle Plus, a business that consists of two panel trucks, a storage shed, and a crew of six assistants. Zuckerman was very interested in the school's furniture. He's interested in everybody's old stuff.

Zuckerman is a matchmaker, finding new homes for dressers, beds, shelves, and other odd lots of furniture he picks up on his recycling runs.

"Sometimes we get stuck with stuff on our truck and take it from customer to customer," says Zuckerman. "Once we hauled 50 desks out of a paper company office and stored them in our shed. A couple years down the line, they said, 'Do you have any desks?' We brought them back some of their old desks."

He's still looking for someone who can use the neon compressor he found ten years ago, or the giant lab table he rescued from the Symrise fruit-filling factory.

Zuckerman is 48. When he was 19 he spent seven months on a kibbutz in Israel, where the settlers reused cardboard and rinsed bottles for another filling. Impressed, Zuckerman thought he might be able to make a living recycling glass and paper. After returning to Illinois he earned an accounting degree and went to work for the state. But Zuckerman pestered his bosses to start a recycling program, and told them at his first-year review that he didn't plan to spend his life as a government accountant. When he was let go, he rented a friend's van and drove around the city, looking for stuff to recycle.

"I was working on my own, making five bucks a day," he says. "One day, I was looking for metal drums and a customer asked if I wanted cardboard too. I took it to a paper mill, got paid, and I was in business."

After Mroczenski called, Zuckerman sent his ace handyman, Lee Reeder, out to Winnetka to case the Country Day School. Reeder said the furniture was quality, so Zuckerman started making phone calls, assembling a list of schools a little bit further down the status scale. One of his recycling customers, the principal of a Jewish Sunday school, "talked to a bunch of Jewish day schools, and they needed stuff."

Not long after, Zuckerman backed his truck--the one with the Ocean Conservancy sticker on the cab door--up to the steps of Walling Hall. A team of Mexican laborers hauled out the desks and chairs while Zuckerman supervised. He was dressed in his usual work outfit: a blue boilersuit, a weight-lifting belt, and a vintage Pittsburgh Pirates cap.

"We've gotten big loads before, but this is a first," Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman needed both trucks to haul all the stuff away, and then he had to rent another storage locker to hold it all. The Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Skokie got 70 desks. The Miriam Apartments, in Uptown, got a computer table. Saint Helen's School in Ukrainian Village got chairs. And a few Fridays ago, the administrator of Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov, a girls' high school in West Rogers Park, got her own private viewing of the Country Day School's hand-me-downs.

"I've known Gary for many years," said Hanna Belsky, as Zuckerman struggled with a combination lock on the storage unit's door. "He used to recycle our cans. He cleaned out our boiler room and took some stuff."

"This lock is a little farmisht," Zuckerman apologized as he spun the dial fruitlessly.

"We're adding a resource room to the school, so we need some desks for that," Belsky went on. "And a tutoring room for special-needs students. Tables, desks, bookcases, shelving. We'll take whatever's good."

The lock finally sprang, and Belsky stepped into the dark chamber with a flashlight.

"Ohhh, look at this," she exclaimed, swinging the beam onto a bookcase. "Bookcases, cubbyholes for our teacher's lounge, so they can each have their own slot. These cubby things, for sure, for sure I want them."

Zuckerman makes money on his swaps by charging the donor for the hauling, then collecting from the beneficiary as well.

"We're gonna be nice to him," Belsky said. "All the schools are broke. If it hadn't been for this we would have gone out and bought it, or asked parents and salvaged around."

Belsky gave Zuckerman a list of the stuff she wanted: a conference table, shelves, tables, chairs, and of course the cubbyholes.

"Have a nice shabbas," he called after her as she walked to her car. "If you think of other things that you need, if you know of any other people who need stuff, give me a call."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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