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North Van's Urban Repurpose finds new life for local history

From high school gym floors to 18th century art supplies, this North Vancouver non-profit is keeping tons of material out of the landfill. ♻️
Urban Repurpose PM 1 web
Tom Riessner, executive director the North Vancouver non-profit Urban Repurpose, admires a 1920s art deco vase, one of thousands of items the social enterprise is working to keep out of the landfill.

If there’s one thing Tom Riessner abhors, it’s a waste.

Like a lot of folks whose parents came of age during the Second World War, Riessner learned that scarcity makes things precious.

“I've got a lot of years in retail and seeing the vast volume of material we would throw away every year, just because it wasn't selling – like 40-yard bins of it,” he said. “We seem to have moved even more to a disposable society.”

Countering that trend is the entire philosophy behind Urban Repurpose, the non-profit social enterprise Riessner founded. They're the only group out there that does waste diversion simply for the sake of waste diversion, said Riessner. The store on Brooksbank Avenue is rammed with furniture, construction supplies, housewares, books, music, art and other items that, at one point, may have been destined for an eternity in the landfill.

“That's a waste,” he said. “And I hate waste.”

Although they’ll try to find a home for just about everything, Riessner keeps the place well curated. There’s a room just for musical instruments and records, and another for vintage collector items. They have volunteers who can tinker with clocks and solder circuits. When it comes to antiques, Riessner does his homework. He recently identified and sold a water colour painter’s kit from Europe dating back to about 1780.

More than simply finding a new home for a classy lamp or retro beer glass, Riessner is passionate about helping people find creative ways to reuse their finds. Even reclaimed wood and demolition castoffs can go on to a new life imbued with historical significance and nostalgia. Urban Repurpose has on its shelves pieces of the old Delbrook High School’s dance studio, stage, and gym floors, some of which has already been claimed for a kitchen island in the home of a pair of Delbrook High sweethearts. And Riessner salvaged some 150-year-old lumber from the Fish House Restaurant in Stanley Park. He describes the store as “a sorting machine for the history of the city.”

“For me, this is the best part of this job – being able to save bits of the history that seem to get mowed down every month,” he said. “Knowing where it came from and then seeing what happens to it, where it goes, and how it continues its life.”

Most of the goods and materials in the shop come from within the community, often when people are downsizing or when someone is trying to clear out a relative’s estate. It’s a popular place for young folks furnishing their first apartments, but it also draws creative types and treasure hunters with discerning tastes. Genuine mid-century modern furniture gets snapped up almost immediately.

“We don't do a lot of really modern furniture just because it's crap,” he said.

When they find themselves overstocked with certain supplies, or when some items sit on the shelf a little too long, Riessner puts them out for free on Saturdays. They never last, Riessner said.

“Somebody else, I guarantee, can think of something to do with the stuff that you don't want anymore,” he said.

On Monday (June 27), City of North Vancouver council bestowed Riessner with a Living City Award, which is handed out to residents, businesses or non-profits that have done exemplary work in environmental sustainability.

Mayor Linda Buchanan praised Riessner for not only diverting volumes of material from the landfill, but for challenging people to change the way they think about what is waste.

“I do come in fairly frequently just to see what's new and I do like the free days. I just can't get there fast enough,” she said with a laugh.

Later this summer, Riessner will be taking the show on the road, in a matter of speaking. He’s received approval from Metro Vancouver to send a staffer down to the North Shore Transfer Station to help intercept valuable goods and resources before it’s too late.

“The goal for us will be to fill the truck every day it is there with a variety of materials,” he said.