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Showcasing hidden gems on campus.

Going on a treasure hunt? UT Surplus marks the spot.

An old piece of testing equipment dubbed the "torsion cell" is an inventory outlier and a fun conversation starter. Photos by Kara Hawley

Barry Miller is first in line at the UT Surplus Store every Thursday. When the doors open at 3 p.m. sharp, he greets the employees as if they’re relatives at a family reunion, asking how their pets and children are. The store embraces the holiday spirit by playing Christmas tunes throughout December and setting up a Christmas tree at the front of the store. Miller, a retired librarian, scurries to the back of the store where his catch of the week awaits — a book. 

So far, he has bought and read 1,000 books from the UT Surplus Store, he says. “It’s just a joy to come here,” Miller says. “An unmitigated joy.”

UT Surplus Property has sold recycled items from the UT campus to the Austin public for 30 years. In 2019, the department started the UT Surplus REuse Store, open biweekly 3-7 p.m. every Thursday and from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday. The items sold include furniture, books, vinyl records and athletic memorabilia. The warehouse has an open floor plan and natural sunlight and it is organized by item type, creating an inviting shopping environment. Mark Engelman, the manager of Resource Recovery, oversees Surplus Property as well as the Zero Waste Program on campus — both sustainability efforts to conserve resources and protect the environment. The mission of UT Surplus is is to manage, repurpose, reuse and recycle all items university departments no longer need.

Coming out each week, you never know what you’re going to find or stumble across. It’s kind of Austin’s version of a treasure hunt.

Jeremy Wells

The UT Surplus staff collects items from all University of Texas at Austin departments — educational, athletic and research. The mission is to salvage campus furnishings and sell them back to the community. The store, located at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, is a part of UT Surplus’ warehouse facility, which houses multiple reuse programs run by various university initiatives. 

According to Engelman, there is also an online auction for repurposed items on Swico Auctions. UT Surplus items are disclosed, and the highest bidder receives the item after 10 days. The winner can pick it up from the warehouse where it’s located during specified times throughout the week. 

The auction sells larger pieces such as university vehicles, lab equipment, cabinetry and oversized furniture such as couches or drawers, while the store houses unique chairs, tables, books, athletic apparel, art and small electronics, Engelman says. 

Every Friday, UT Surplus gives faculty and staff first selection on items at no charge. School districts can also claim educational resources such as computers or lab equipment every Monday. After a month in inventory, items are transitioned to either the UT Surplus REuse Store or online auction because of limited space in the warehouse. 

Items for sale include books and chairs.

To meet the initial goal of repurposing materials, UT Surplus restores all minimally damaged items, such as a chair with a squeaky leg or a couch with stained fabric, before displaying them in the store. Items damaged beyond repair are sent to the recycler. 

“Sending items to the landfill costs the university money,” Engelman says. “Everybody benefits by departments reusing furniture, lab equipment and other items because (the university) doesn’t have to buy it, and all the funds from the store and the auction go back into the surplus mission to create an eco-friendly solution.” 

UT Surplus Property has achieved “Zero Waste” status over the past three years. The Zero Waste International Alliance defines Zero Waste as restoring 90% of materials for the consumer market. The surplus store has saved 1.4 metric tons of materials in December alone. Engelman says Surplus Property is here to serve both the UT and Austin communities by demonstrating environmental responsibility while also saving money. 

Jeremy Wells, an administrative manager at UT, has been coming to the store for the past 2 1/2 years. “Coming out each week, you never know what you’re going to find or stumble across,” he says. “It’s kind of Austin’s version of a treasure hunt.” 

In the past, Wells has purchased antique desks and furniture for his parents as well as file cabinets for his office. He feels the prices can’t be beat. He even did some Christmas shopping at REuse. He says pricing is based on demand and decreases by 25% each month that an item is in the store. 

An employee moves the UT Surplus marquee outside during open hours on Thursdays and Saturdays. 

Another regular shopper, Katie McClure, has been buying from UT Surplus Property for the past 10 years. A former teacher, she initially browsed for furniture and artwork for her classroom, but now she buys furniture to resell at her vintage furniture store. 

The UT alumna says that over the years, she has found items from well-known furniture makers such as Thonet and Knoll. She’s always on the hunt for quirky pieces to reupholster and resell at her business. But McClure’s favorite thing about the store is the people. 

“Everyone is so helpful. The staff helps you look for things, helps you load things, helps you find the best piece for your aesthetic. They provide a warm, friendly environment that makes you want to keep coming back,” McClure says. “The people here really make the experience.” 

Engelman says he wants to increase campus outreach to get more students involved in purchasing goods or interning. “Furniture is expensive, especially for those students who have to furnish their whole apartment,” he says. “We’re just a cheaper alternative that students should take advantage of.” 

Student interns work in the Zero Waste Program and at the store to help spread awareness of UT Surplus through nearly 900 followers on Instagram and close to 6,000 on Facebook.  

Engelman also plans on holding sales such as a bulk book sale for 50 cents per pound or having themed shopping days during events such as the Red River Showdown, when he would highlight all athletic wear. 

“Why this place isn’t a mob every week is beyond me,” Miller says. “I’m almost hesitant to do interviews like this because the word is going to get out to everybody. But it is an amazing resource, and anybody who’s interested in a variety of things should come here and look.”