Junk Bond

Books for a nickel. Microwave magnets for a buck. Uptown's most assiduous dumpster diver knows there's gold in the garbage.

From the street, the ramshackle two-story home looks a touch out of place, nestled amid the carefully tended properties that dominate a tony neighborhood just east of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. Vines crawl up the faded stucco exterior all the way to the attic windows, where big, haphazardly stacked cardboard boxes press against the panes. Branches from sprawling shrubs partially screen the front porch. They do not, however, conceal the evidence of the homeowner's passion. The porch is piled with bits of scrap metal, used lumber, tattered furniture, a well-worn wheelchair, a dead lawn mower--and, off to the side, three very rusty women's bicycles. If there were a breeze, a visitor might half expect the wind chimes to tinkle out the theme from Sanford and Son.

Inside, narrow sunbeams pierce the gaps between the window shades, dimly illuminating a bounty that dwarfs the piles on the porch--the product of more than four decades of relentless scavenging, salvaging, and hoarding. The loot, mostly culled from the alleys and dumpsters of south Minneapolis, spills from the foyer to the dining room to the living room. And into the den. And into the basement. And up the stairs--past a scowling plastic statue of the Incredible Hulk perched on the landing--into the bedrooms. Throughout the house, narrow passageways are carved out between precariously balanced stacks of books. It is mostly cheap, mass-market stuff--mysteries, science fiction, children's books, history, how-to guides, even some "spicy books" garnered from the ruins of the notorious Ferris Alexander porn empire. On this day, Norman--he didn't want his full name used here, for reasons having to do with the city inspections department--sits at his kitchen table, under a faded poster reading "We Take Care of Armadillos," and digs into his customary noontime breakfast: fried eggs, bacon, and toast. "You look in here, and what's the first word that comes to mind?" he asks. As is his habit, he answers his own question. "Shit," he says flatly. "I've got too much stuff, by any standard, reasonable or unreasonable." Over the years, Norman and Grace, his wife of 32 years, have had occasional discussions with city inspectors over the condition of the property. "The neighbors thought we had a garbage house," Grace notes with a hint of indignation. "It's not a garbage house. It's a clutter house." Still, she concedes, the place has gotten more crowded in the years since the couple's four children moved out (all their homes are spic-and-span, Grace says)--and, more recently, since Norman's mother went into a nursing home. She was, Norman says, a prolific collector. It took nine months to empty her place out, and lots of the flotsam--rocks, figurines, Native American artifacts--wound up here.

At 57, Norman has a thinning, tousled shock of gray hair, and an unkempt beard, which, he says, his mother once offered him $4,000 to shave. (He declined.) He wears thick, plastic-framed glasses, thrift-store slacks, loafers, and a plaid, short-sleeved polyester shirt. Grace says Norman never has cared much for appearances. Maybe, she theorizes, that's because his father, a north Minneapolis haberdasher, placed so much emphasis on looking "high-class."

Trash Cash: Norman is vague about his junking profits, saying only that he can earn "thousands"
Michael Dvorak
Trash Cash: Norman is vague about his junking profits, saying only that he can earn "thousands"

Norman puts it more simply. "I'm a slob," he says. For most of his working life, Norman was in the employ of the postal service, to which he now sharply refers as "The Buzzard." He also did stints as a technical writer, a television-repair shop proprietor on Lake Street, and, briefly, as a technician for IBM, whose buttoned-down corporate culture he found intolerable. But he has always been a scrounger. As a teenager, he used to earn pocket change by collecting and selling recyclable newsprint with his uncle, a former old-time "ragman." (Ragmen, or rag-and-bone men, or sheenies, were fixtures of the pre-WWII urban industrial landscape. Their trade consisted largely of salvaging rags for use in papermaking, and bones for the manufacture of candles. Back then junking was a full-time occupation, not the sideline it has become for even the most avid contemporary practitioners.)

Over the years, Norman branched out in his various enterprises. "There is no term for what I do, because I deal in so many things," he says as he sorts through the day's mail--mostly orders for the books he sells over the Internet, sometimes for as little as fifty cents apiece (plus, of course, shipping and handling, where he makes his profit). "I guess," he finally says, "I'm a merchandiser."

Norman's business model relies on two basic principles: volume and diversity of product. "You got to look for more than one thing, because you can only make money on a fraction of the stuff you pick up," he explains. His niche is low-end merchandise--especially when it comes to books: "A lot of dealers don't want to touch anything under ten dollars," he huffs. "They're arrogant, lazy bastards. I maintain you can make money on dollar, dollar-and-a-half books." Of course, you have to sell a lot of them to do that.

Norman applies a similar ethic to his other junking pursuits. He is quick to drag home just about anything he believes he might be able to pawn off at one of his periodic yard sales, or online, or at a scrap yard--especially items that at first blush appear to have no value. On the back stoop, he points out the stacks of broken and obsolete computers he has collected over the years. The old motherboards and carts can be sold to recyclers who salvage the tiny amounts of gold in them; two box loads weighing 66 pounds, delivered to a downtown firm called Midwest Electronic Recovery, will net $52. The fried monitors? The copper coil at the base of the picture tubes can be stripped and sold, he says.

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