"It was a feeding frenzy in there," Paul Gervais says to the camera. In his late 60s with short, gray hair, a black bomber jacket and the voice of a longtime smoker, Gervais is waxing philosophical on his favorite place to stock up on reusable items and home-brewing equipment.
Laid out in front of you, as far as the eye can see, are more than 100 giant blue bins, arranged in orderly rows and each packed with up to 250 pounds of tattered teddy bears, T-shirts with "I Love You This Much" stretched across their well-worn fronts and coffee makers missing their pots, and maybe their cords. Welcome to Southeast Portland's Goodwill Outlet, a.k.a. "The Bins." One of the region's most unusual shopping meccas, the Bins attracts a cast of international characters all here to dig through giant mountains of what some call treasures and others consider trash.
This "junk" dropped off to Goodwill and other charitable organizations is the basis for an upcoming video installation by local artists Rachel Hibbard, Sean Regan and Regan's wife, Cara Tomlinson. The arty project, which was shot over the past several months, zooms in on the second, third and even fourth lives of goods procured at the Bins. The film tries to document the Herculean, yet still somehow Sisyphean, ways people find purpose for things that seem to have outworn their original use.
Here's how your trash gets turned into Bins fodder: After a three- to five-week run in a local Goodwill store (there are 33 in the Pacific Northwest, which make up Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette), truckloads of saleable products are carted off to this aging, fluorescent-lit, 14,300-square-foot warehouse for their last "public showing." Employees process 80,000 pounds of stuff a day—it's the crappiest of crap catch-alls.
So, why shoot video about trash? "One of the most interesting things about [American] culture is how much of it we discard," Regan says. "It's been said a million times, but it's still shocking to see it for yourself. It's how people are reusing goods in a practical, ecological and resourceful way."
A found-object artist and the project's audio-video guy, Regan says he's seen people's entire lives just in the objects he finds at the Bins.
This past winter, the trio of artists videotaped around 40 Bins hunters on the prowl. In a town where it seems like every artist and fashion designer is reusing something, this trio has broken the Bins down to its core elements: people, things and how people affect the place they live.
Some of these shoppers spend a good chunk of their days here. "[We're] entrepreneurs. Every one single body that's in there is either trying to make money or save money," says Kenneth H. Body, a Portlander featured in the film who specializes in concert shirts, bags, purses, belts and shoes. He's been coming to the Bins for 11 years. "I quit my day job and do this...as long as I want to do it," he says.
"It's kinda hard to tell how long you've been in there," says Bins diver Jane Robins. "It's like being in a casino."
But the project isn't what initially attracted the artists to the Bins—they've been shopping there for years. Southwest Portlanders Regan and Tomlinson used to make the trek to the Bins at least four times a week.
"Prices are good and you never know what you'll find there. Curiosity keeps pulling us back," says Regan, who has resold or rehabbed many of the electronics he's found there. "Getting to know people, is [also] a huge aspect of the Bins...it's [one] reason we decided to do this project."
Beyond cheap prices (69 cents to $1.59 per pound is an average price for clothes at the Bins), Goodwill does a lot of good for our environment. According to Goodwill spokeswoman Dale Emanuel, last year 2 million residents of Oregon and Southwest Washington gave Goodwill 138 million pounds of donations. "It's a worldwide record," Emanuel says. That includes 14 million pounds of shoes and 60,000 pounds of vacuum cleaners. Which makes Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette the No. 1 retailer and recycler of used goods in the world. "We actually teach other Goodwills how to do this," Emanuel says.
Tomlinson and crew are planning an installation of their "findings" at the Portland Building at the end of July, full of Goodwill objects to re-create the Bins "experience." (Then again, a DIY trip could yield you a vintage Louis Vuitton bag or mint-condition Stars Wars figurine, pricey items that have both been found at the Bins.)
Tomlinson says there'll be drawings that map the "micro- and macro-systems" of the Bins, as well as audio and those videotaped interviews scattered throughout the space. Then again, the piece is still evolving and may change again before it makes it to its final destination. It just depends on what the trio finds on its next trip to the Bins.
will be showcased inside the Portland Building in late July. Visit the Goodwill Outlet, a.k.a. the Bins, at 1740 SE Ochoco St., Milwaukie, 230-2076. Open 8 am-8 pm Monday-Saturday, 9 am-7 pm Sunday.