For sale, cheap: Colleges' furniture, cars, pizza ovens

Temple University students Maric Kusinitz, right, and Chelsea Williams, left, log and photograph chairs at a Temple University warehouse. The university would throw out old furniture and equipment but now sells it.

If you act quickly, Drexel University has a three-foot disco ball it’s selling for $77.

There are other deals out there, too, courtesy of your local college or university. You really can buy anything on the internet.

You could outfit your man cave, as some buyers did when Pennsylvania State University sold its old wooden lockers a few years ago during renovations. (Some went to nostalgic former players.) If you need bar stools, Temple University has a set of 15 for $150. It’s selling a dozen weight-lifting platforms, too, for $500 each.

Drexel University once sold a section of basketball court, complete with dragon logo. Penn State has sold two pipe organs — one to a church in Philly. The school sells a decent amount of farm equipment, too, to local operations.

And somewhere out there is a Mongolian yurt that the Academy of Natural Sciences didn’t need anymore.

Wherever these goods end up, the buyers get a good deal, the schools make back a few bucks, and the items get reused instead of tossed.

With an eye toward sustainability, colleges and universities are selling or donating a lot of property — office and dorm furniture, old but usable vehicles, art that decorated library walls. Some schools are even making a nice chunk of change.

“Our main goal is to keep it out of the landfill and put it back into the hands of those who need equipment,”  said Glenn Feagley, manager of Penn State’s Lion Surplus program and the president of the University Surplus Property Association.

Used items from Temple University sit in a warehouse. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Penn State’s program had been around for years when Feagley took it over in 1991. Rutgers’ program is also well-established. Their peers are joining them: University of Pennsylvania started Ben’s Attic in 2010, Drexel launched its program in December 2014, and Temple University has just gone live with its program, which it’s been testing this year.

Feagley attributes the rise in interest to a growing awareness of environmental issues and to the economic effects of the Great Recession.

The programs usually begin in schools’ sustainability offices, but the other kind of green plays a part, too. The schools can make a pretty penny off what otherwise would be recycled: Temple needs just $100,000 in annual revenue to be self-sustaining, and it already made $50,000 during this school year’s soft launch.

Drexel currently makes about $150,000 in sales and cost savings, such as reduced moving costs. Bo Solomon, Drexel’s director of disbursement and surplus services, said he’d like to kick that up to $500,000 a year — “but that depends on finding good items to sell.”

Penn State, which has a massive operation with thousands of items for sale at any given time, a full-time staff of 11 workers, and five to seven part-time student workers, makes an eye-popping $3 million a year.

“It’s impressive to see what those universities do in revenue. I’m excited to see what we can do,” said Kathleen Grady, Temple’s director of sustainability, who created the school’s new surplus-property program.

Kathleen Grady, director of sustainability for Temple University, and Eric Grzybowski, surplus property coordinator for Temple University, at the Temple University warehouse where surplus property is stored. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

People had been talking about starting a program for a while, Grady said, but it was difficult to conceptualize until Temple hosted the University Surplus Property Association’s annual conference two years ago, and administrators heard how well the programs were working for others.

The program’s sustainability element was clear, Grady said, and there’s a community piece when you put stuff up for sale to anyone, at low prices. And then there’s the revenue.

“There’s a key focus on making sure that Temple remains affordable,” she said. Students can buy cheap furniture and equipment for dorms or apartments; academic departments have another revenue source. “We had this added focus on sustainability, added focus on affordability — it just made sense, and everybody was open because the message was tailored to those two things.”

Getting rid of old stuff was a bit of a messy process before the surplus-property program. You’re not supposed to just throw out or give away university property. Instead, departments had to pay — yes, pay — to have a Temple moving crew come cart things away.

No surprise, then, that furniture sometimes mysteriously disappeared into dumpsters. Old equipment vanished, Narnia-like, into whatever dusty office corner could be found.

Today, everything gets hauled away for free to a warehouse a short trek north of campus, at Broad and Lehigh. Student workers label, measure, and photograph everything. Another student lists items in a database for sale online.

Temple University students Maric Kusinitz (left) and Chelsea Williams log and photograph chairs at the warehouse. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Temple employees get first dibs, with a two-week internal period where other departments can claim items for free. Then items get posted for public auction. If something isn’t purchased in three months, it shifts to a nonprofit tier where charities can get items free. After that, it’s off to recycling.

“Not only is maximizing the dollar value important, but it’s also important to continually move this product, because otherwise it’s going to end up in a landfill,” said Eric Grzybowski, who joined Temple in January to run the program.

At first the warehouse was selling a decade’s worth of buildup, but now stuff is being sold faster than it’s coming in. Grzybowski said around 70 percent of what he’s brought in since January has sold.

Temple’s warehouse at Broad and Lehigh. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Drexel sells more than 90 percent of its list. At Penn State, what doesn’t sell online or in the warehouse is carted off during twice-yearly auctions.

Grady would love to open a physical store or hold auctions. First she has to get Temple’s program established.

“Temple is like a little city, so it’s kind of a mix of everything,” Grady said. “We buy so much stuff that you’re always surprised when you come in.”