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Discard Derby : Nonprofit Groups Get 45 Minutes to Snatch Up Donated Goods


Naora Ben-Dov remembers the time that someone almost walked away with the writing paper--a full truckload--before they could be informed that limited amounts were allowed to each "shopper."

She also recalls the many times she has had to stop excited visitors from spiriting away the office desk--the desk she works on at her job.

"Thirty to 40% of them come in and say, 'Oh my god, this is like Supermarket Sweepstakes,' " Ben-Dov says, laughing. "Sometimes we lose our own equipment."

Welcome to L.A. Shares. It is like a supermarket sweepstakes, complete with a 45-minute time limit to snatch up goodies and stash them in grocery carts.

Instead of steaks, lobsters and turkeys, "shoppers" at L.A. Shares' "store" get to choose from shelves and showrooms stocked full of everything from name-tag labels to unopened boxes of computer software; from used furniture to old fruit drink dispensing machines; from blank audiotapes to rock CDs; from telephones to thank you notes.

Then there are the lotteries for big ticket items such as giant screen TVs, paper shredders and industrial-sized ice makers. L.A. Shares' executive director, Bert Ball, still hasn't figured out how to give away the professional music mixing board donated by L.A. Shares "angel" Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass fame.

Shopping at L.A. Shares is limited to representatives of nonprofit groups and schools in Los Angeles County. The items are donated by companies and individuals who want to rid themselves of outdated equipment and furniture, overstocked merchandise, discontinued items and anything else that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

"A lot of what goes in the trash is not trash," Ball said. To date, Ball estimates, L.A. Shares has given away more than $10 million worth of goods to 2,500 organizations, which range from the Malibu Foundation for Environmental Studies and the Travelers Aid Society to Habitat for Humanity.

The agency grew out of Material for the Arts, a successful program run for two years by Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department. In that pilot project, which Ball also administered, items donated primarily by Hollywood studios and independent film production companies were passed on to nonprofit arts groups.

In 1993, with the blessings of Cultural Affairs Director Adolfo Nodal, L.A. Shares was born as an independent nonprofit agency so it could expand without governmental budget constraints.

The agency is housed in a city-donated, 6,000-square-foot former costume shop on Riverside Drive at Griffith Park that is furnished and decorated with donated, "throwaway" items, including the trees and bushes outside and the gravel in the driveway.

L.A. Shares also has a 14,000-square-foot warehouse in San Pedro, also donated by the city. Ball is a fervent proponent of the reuse of the reusable. "We know about recycling. We've known that for 20 years," said the transplanted New Yorker, a former art show curator who moved to Los Angeles 11 years ago. "But why take something apart and make it over again when you can take the original object and use it if it's reusable."

Moreover, he said, L.A. Shares saves donors the cost of disposing of unwanted items--many of which happen to be new and unused--and affords firms a tax write-off.

The only requirements for recipients besides calling in advance to make a shopping appointment is that they immediately send thank you letters to the donors of everything they haul away.

On a typical recent shopping day, the street outside L.A. Shares was lined with vans, pickups and other vehicles owned by nonprofit groups.

Inside, Ben-Dov helped Marcha Stevenson and Michael Edwards, both workers at Skid Row Housing Trust, with paperwork that included forms to list the items they were taking and the donors, whose names were taped on the items or listed on signs on the walls.

Stevenson and Edwards loaded their black pickup with two file cabinets, five wall partitions, an electric typewriter, two boxes of tape, two trash cans, a framed painting, three boxes of note cards, 12 loose-leaf binders, a bolt of fabric, five smocks in their original packaging, a box of badge holders and a ream of typing paper.

Most of it would be used, Stevenson said, to furnish the office of a new employee at her agency, which serves the homeless and low-wage workers.

How would she have furnished it had there been no L.A. Shares?

"We couldn't," she answered.


A similar response was given by Aleyne Larner, director of Food From the Hood, an entrepreneurial and scholarship program at Crenshaw High School, as she inspected adjustable office chairs.

"I'd wait until somebody donated them, or it would come out of funds meant for other stuff," Larner said, settling on two stools with tweed-covered seats and backs.

She later put in her bid for the Mitsubishi big screen TV that will be given away in November at one of L.A. Shares' lotteries, which Ball holds quarterly so all agencies have the same opportunity to take home the most coveted items.

L.A. Shares also holds quarterly giveaways of up to 40,000 books, most of them brand new and in multiple copies.

"Teachers almost burst out crying with tears of joy," Ball said.


The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on L.A. Shares, an organization that gives away goods ranging from furniture to name tag labels to nonprofit groups and schools across Los Angeles County. For more information on L.A. Shares, which is on Riverside Drive at Griffith Park, call (213) 485-1097.

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