by Grant Moser
Mt. Airy resident Christopher Stock, 43, often finds himself entering buildings that are falling down. He is used to wearing a hard hat with a miner’s light, boots and gloves while crawling through basements full of water. One time he was in a block-long building on American Street when he felt a rumble. As he ran out, the back wall collapsed onto nearby houses and cars. That was just another day for the owner of Philadelphia Salvage Company on Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy.
“It’s scary and kind of fun,” he explained. “I get to walk on top of buildings. I get to see what no one else gets to see. All those buildings you drive by that you wonder what was in there a long time ago? I get to see them every day. It’s amazing.”
Philadelphia Salvage retrieves lumber, tile, glass and a myriad of other materials from buildings and businesses that are closing or slated for demolition to sell or re-purpose. Established in 2011, the 5,000-square foot store holds an assortment of architectural salvage, industrial design, home fixtures, sinks, tubs, lighting, doors, windows, knickknacks and anything else that Stock might discover on his daily adventures.
The company also repairs and installs any of the items they sell for customers, performs zero-waste deconstruction and demolition services, and designs and builds items to order. The Mt. Airy store had a 1,000-square foot workshop in the back, but the company has quickly outgrown that.
“Our custom tables and shelves and cutting boards and iPad holders and the rest that we’re making is just blowing up,” Stock said. “We can’t keep up with demand. We’re booked out like 10 weeks now.”
That’s why this year he is moving his shop to the former Bureau Brothers bronze foundry in North Philadelphia, between Laurel Hill Cemetery and Temple University. The 25,000-square foot space will house the company’s workshop, make use of the kilns that are still there and establish a reclaimed wood lumber yard. When houses and buildings are taken down, Stock plans to categorize, label and number the wood. The number will correspond to a file of the history of the building, complete with pictures and story.
The wood in some of these old buildings hasn’t been seen for a long time. “A demo contractor took down a church in South Philly, and it turned out it was a super rare wood that no one has seen for the last 150 years; Atlantic White Cedar. It took an arborist friend of mine three days to identify it because she had never seen it before,” he said.
For Stock, the most interesting part of his job is the story behind the items he finds. While his team is dismantling fixtures and pulling wood from the walls, he’ll find himself sifting through desks looking for old notepads and logos, treasuring the fonts used in the past, trying to piece together the story of the building, who worked there and what they made. Professional photographers are hired to shoot the insides, so that a customer can see the story behind the item they’re purchasing.
The story behind Philadelphia Salvage is one of gradual growth. Stock was working for a golf company in Baltimore that went out of business after 9/11. He moved to Philadelphia since his family was originally from the city and with some saved money bought his first home in Fishtown. He started fixing it up and decided to try that for a living. He began with standard remodeling of bathrooms and kitchens until one day he read in The Economist that 50% of all the waste in the U.S. was construction-related. That’s when he began to look at things differently.
In 2002, he was remodeling an older bathroom and taking the plaster off the walls. The studs behind the plaster weren’t straight, and instead of just throwing them out, he cut off the tops and bottoms, ran them through a planer and put the smooth, straight boards right back in the wall.
“I didn’t have to drive to the store and buy new lumber, so it saved me time and money. The materials were already at the work site. The side benefit was that I didn’t have to throw anything into a landfill, and that was good for the environment,” he explained. “That opened my mind to the amount of material that was out there, and the company took off from there.”
The company grew slowly: one person was added here, one person there, year by year. He got busy enough that he could tell someone that called asking him to install vinyl siding that he wouldn’t do that. At the same time, the general public’s interest in the environment was growing. It was perfect timing for his company.
The “find” that really kickstarted the retail store happened right after he opened it in 2011. He went to an old moving company that was closing and spotted some barrels he wanted. They were $10 -$15 each. They were packed with old denim that had been used for moving pianos. He began emptying the barrels when the seller said, ‘You bought the barrels; you take everything that’s in them.’ Little did Stock know that he had stumbled upon 1950s’ salvaged American denim, a fabric in high demand in the fashion industry.
Word spread that he had all this denim, and suddenly he found himself in an all-night phone and text bidding war between clothing buyers from New York, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. The winner came up on a train from D.C. to meet Stock at 1 a.m. to make the deal. He — and Philadelphia Salvage — made a lot of money that night.
A similar situation happened when he went to scrounge through an old pharmacy that was closing. He ended up taking hundreds of turn-of-the-century apothecary bottles for free because the owner just wanted to get rid of them. Stock figured he’d sell them for $8 apiece until a friend told him they were worth a lot more than that. He put them online, whereupon a movie set designer bought half of them, and an artist bought the other half, all in one day. Another windfall for Philadelphia Salvage.
Since he opened his retail store, Stock’s business is “coming on like gangbusters.” He now has 10 full-time employees. “People from all over are calling us that shouldn’t be calling us. Ralph Lauren called us to outfit their newest flagship store in China. They want all-American industrial reclaims.”
Even Stock himself falls in love with some of the items he salvages. He has a vintage Weber drafting table and a great Toledo stool that he won’t part with. He also has a thing for pencil sharpeners, which are found scattered through the shop and factory. He uses a Corona 3 typewriter to send thank you notes because Hemingway used the same model.
Right around 9/11, Stock found himself in the hospital with spinal meningitis. He had never been sick in his life. Then the golf company he worked for went out of business. It was then that he had an epiphany. “I was going to do what I wanted to do and make it work. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
For more information, visit philadelphiasalvage.com.