Q&A: Jessica Davis of Rebuilders Xchange, a hub for salvaged building materials

Being in the salvage business for a while, Jessica Davis has learned first-hand that “there are people who understand that there are materials that have a higher purpose.”

 


Jessica Davis of Rebuilders Xchange. Photo by Judith Vegh.

 

If Circular Cleveland — Cleveland’s new circular economy initiative aimed at keeping items out of the landfill by reusing them — had a place to call home, it would probably start in an area of town between Midtown and St. Clair-Superior where Rebuilders Xchange (RBX) and plenty of other small recycling and reuse enterprises call home. 

Housed in an old factory on Hamilton Avenue, RBX is the brainchild of Jessica Davis, who learned about the economies of salvage and reuse while working at Habitat for Humanity, perhaps the largest building reuse nonprofit organization out there. 

RBX is a well-curated space featuring the trappings of Cleveland’s wealthy industrialists from a bygone era— stacks of thick wooden doors, Victorian wall sconces, an ornately carved bar originally from Ireland, slabs of marble ready to be cut, and pink toilets with matching sinks, to name a few items. 

Davis, who speaks with a twinkle in her eye about the goods she sells — on consignment with a corps of pickers and salvagers, mainly from Cleveland — dreams of one day combining forces to formalize Cleveland’s reuse district. She sees that as a path to growth for the Cleveland’s salvage community, many of whom operate in a cash economy.

The Land recently caught up with Davis and got a tour of her eclectic space.

 

 

Wow! How big is this place?

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it could be the president or it could be the dump truck driver, but there are people who understand that there are materials that have a higher purpose.
— Jessica Davis

It’s 50,000 square feet. Everything that sells, we split it 50/50 with the person who brought it in. We’ve been open for four-and-a-half years and we have over 500 vendors. That’s kind of insane, right? But we’re trying to create an economy here.

There are a million nonprofits for reused building materials. But if you think about scrap metal, we understand you can take cans somewhere and get money for it, or you can take siding off a house, and take it somewhere and get money for it. You don’t need to feel good about it to do it, it’s an actual exchange of money.

So that’s why Rebuilders Xchange is different from Habitat ReStore, for example. There’s more value for doors, windows, bathtubs, etc. if there’s a place you can go and get money for it versus just feel good about it. That was really the idea — to take something and make it capitalistic so that it grows beyond feeling good, and I saw that opportunity.

The ecosystem you’ve created (within the building community) seems like your secret sauce. How do you build that?


Rebuilders Xchange unloading a truck.

Our goal is to franchise and have multiple places. If we were to do what we’re doing now, and we could have multiples, we could build wealth for everybody. The quality of what we have is so awesome and diverse. Our customers, having access to it, they don’t have to meet somebody in a parking lot. It’s predictable and consistent. Our team are people who are creative and know how to make things happen.

We’ve been working with the circular economy group (organized by Sustainable Cleveland and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress). One of the goals we’re really advocating for is to have it be sales tax exempt. If you want to continue to build an economy around reuse, it’s already been sold and collected sales tax once. That way, we could have an eight percent advantage for our customers.

We also have this idea of creating a special use district in St. Clair Superior for circular economy businesses.

There are other like-minded companies and organizations in this building — Ingenuity, Soulcraft woodworking, Skidmark garage. How did you find this place?

This is the old Osborne manufacturing facility. The landlords created a way for all of us to work together. We all have our independent leases. They took a risk.

I bought some palette racking and a tow motor at a Kmart that was going out of business. My buddy delivered it and I’d never actually driven a tow motor but I didn’t tell him. I was like, ‘OK, can you unload that? Can you move that over there?’ (laughing)

I have a picture of us the day we signed the lease – this place was empty. We’ve never advertised once for people to bring stuff in. We knew that people who were working on projects had stuff stored in their garages.

I think that’s what’s interesting – it could be the president or it could be the dump truck driver, but there are people who understand that there are materials that have a higher purpose. And anywhere along there, Rebuilders Xchange can fit in as a resource.


You just worked on the old Margaret Ireland school (at E. 63rd and Chester), helping to deconstruct it for MAGNET’s new headquarters.

That was a really great opportunity. We pried up the gym floor, and there were beautiful 2×6 pine sleepers underneath them. We went around and took out all the cove bays, then we kind of liberated the floor, because it joins in the middle and works its way out. I thought we’d be able to de-nail it on site, but the schedule changed, so we put it in gaylords and brought it back here.

I had to load every one in my truck. It’s funny when you take the thing that could have been in the dumpster, and you put it in a place where it has a stage in a sense, and you start to see its value.

Who sees the value in old structural wood?

A lot of people. We had people drive up from Warren just to buy it. They were like, ‘Oh, great!’ The price on this was great as a building material. The rates when we priced them were at the tail end of the pandemic pricing, so we were lower than retail.

What are some of your most popular items?


People love toilets. I won’t drop the name, but somebody bought a toilet from us, and this person was from out of state. I had to deliver it to her, so I found this dude to take her the toilet. And I was like, “Send me a picture when you deliver the toilet to this person’s house.” So, he sends me a picture, and I asked if she was happy with it. He said, “I didn’t see her. I delivered it to the people working there.” I said, “But were they happy?” He said, “They said it was dirty. And I just told them, ‘It was a real vintage shit.’”

You also have a Fab Lab here. What’s that all about?

Well, for example, we have an old bar that they’re working on right now. Someone is like, ‘We want it in our basement.’ So, the Fab Lab is going to repair it for them and build it to spec for them. We have a full fabrication lab here — we weld, we do woodwork, we have a whole team.

It’s great. I think sometimes, as you can imagine, people say, ‘Oh, this isn’t revolutionary.’ But if you think about it, we’re creating an economy that’s actually scalable. It’s not Intel. It’s been created by the people, by a campaign of thousands of customers and 500 plus vendors. It’s been created by the masses – that’s the proof of concept.

 

 

This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University, La Mega Media, and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO).

Marc Lefkowitz is a writer and sustainability expert in Cleveland Heights.

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