Store helps something old become something new

To many people, a box of old springs or a piece of wood does not look like much, but to Gail Rost, these are pieces that can be the foundation of an idea.

Rost is the co-founder of The I.D.E.A. Store, located off of Springfield Avenue in Champaign. She started the store with the intent to end the cycle of throwing everything away by turning used items into something new.

“Our little unpublished slogan is ‘We’ll do your hoarding for you,’” she said.

As part of her store, Rost receives donations of spare household items that she resells for as little as 25 cents.

The I.D.E.A Store is an earned income enterprise, which means that profits benefit the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation. When the foundation was looking for ways to raise money for K-12 education, Rost, executive director of the foundation, proposed opening the store.

The board of directors decided to take a chance on Rost’s business plan. Now celebrating their one-year anniversary, The I.D.E.A Store has grown far past Rost’s initial expectations.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” she said. “I think this community was ready for something like this.”

The premise behind The I.D.E.A Store is to make creative reuse more accessible to people.

“We’ve tried to set up a reuse marketplace where people can come donate and come shop in a retail atmosphere,” said Rost. “By having a retail atmosphere, you kind of demystify the whole experience (and) people don’t feel like they have to go through a warehouse and dig through spider webs to find stuff, which is kind of what you think about when you think of a salvage or warehouse environment.”

The store is filled with everything from trophy heads and notebooks, to glass vials and big pieces of metal, to springs and cardboard.

“People tend to come for one thing and find out they actually need something else,” said Rost. “By the time they get down aisle one and come up aisle two they usually need a basket.”

Rost believes in the idea of getting the community involved in creative reuse.

“We have just people who are coming out to look for another way to put something together because something broke, and we call that creative reuse,” she sad. “We have a lot of artists too, but by no means is everybody a Picasso.”

Part of the fun with The I.D.E.A. Store is that there are no rules for what can be created.

“We are just looking for ways to reuse materials in a way they might not have been intended to be used,” Rost said.

This idea fuelled her to push for covering up the remains of the now burned-down Metropolitan Building with old billboard pieces. The Champaign landmark burned down in November 2008, causing devastation for residents and a bare spot at the corner of Church and Neil Streets.

“It was a beautiful turn of the century building that was being renovated at the time for loft apartments,” said Rost, long-time resident of Champaign. “It was going to be a magnificent cornerstone for our downtown.”

As months went by and no work was done to clean up this reminder, Rost knew she needed to do something about the fence that surrounded the now vacant lot. She decided that she would use part of The I.D.E.A. Store, which receives donations of recycled billboards, to create something new.

“We came up with the idea of starting a community chain, like the chain you make with gum wrappers,” she said.

She had a crew of five people put up 120,000 feet of billboard over the course of six weeks this past summer. The heat proved to be the most difficult part of assembling this project, as it was 90-100 degrees most days they worked. The crew got up at 5 a.m. and worked while the city of Champaign was still asleep. Each addition to the project became a surprise for the city each morning.

Ning Zulauf, University alumna in Business and an employee of The I.D.E.A. Store, was proud to be part of this community project.

“I enjoyed helping a city look much nicer,” she said. “The whole summer people were sitting in downtown Champaign looking at that.”

Rost and Zulauf have gotten many “thank-yous” from the Champaign community, and residents are noticing the colorful addition to the downtown area.

“It gives it kind of an artsy feel, and makes it a neat area to be around because it has that art flavor,” said Lora Carlson, resident of Champaign. “It covers up what is unattractive and puts something nice there.”

Zulauf started volunteering at The I.D.E.A. Store while attending the University, and took a full-time job there this past July after graduating. As an international student, the job gave Zulauf the opportunity to get to know the community better and gain an appreciation for what the store has to offer, from embellishing chain-link fences to sparking imagination amongst the community.

“I like to see how ideas flow from one to another,” she said. “We see a donation in a big box and it’s lots of random things, but after you organize them and put everything together, it becomes a project for someone.”