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THE CUTTING EDGE

(Re)Generating Goodwill

Secondhand Computers Have Become a Booming New Business for Foundation

June 23, 1997

Best known for musty furniture, secondhand clothes and helping the disabled, Goodwill Industries International is now carving out a place for itself in the world of high tech.

Just around the corner from two other Goodwill stores--one sells repaired goods, and the other sells used merchandise "as is"--the 3-month-old Goodwill Computer Works in Santa Ana sells refurbished computers and peripherals and even offers a little tech support on the side. It's only the second Goodwill store devoted entirely to computer gear--Pittsburgh had the first--and business has been booming.

The store, popular with low-income consumers, hobbyists and tinkerers, is selling just about everything it produces and evolving into something of a model of how to market used computers. Goodwill, a nonprofit foundation, pours the proceeds back into its programs, which provide the disabled with jobs.

Many people wander in just to inquire if old computers are worth fixing up or to look for cheap parts.

"A lot of people go to the 'as is' and buy [an old computer], then come here for something else to upgrade it and piece together their own Frankenstein," said Ralph Figueroa, assistant store manager.

William Graham, a retired special-education teacher from Santa Ana, came in to buy a mouse for an old Apple 512 a friend had given him. After a little digging, he found one, a little grimy but still serviceable, for $4. Graham also grabbed a couple of $1.50 power cords for his free machine, which he plans to use just for games.

"I paid $12 for two of those at Micro Center in Tustin," he said. "I'm going to take them back."

Another target is "people who like their computers the way they are but maybe something has gone wrong, or they want to just upgrade it a bit," said Walter Schorsack, an Apple- and Hewlett-Packard-certified computer technician who started up the operation. "You go into a regular computer store and they want to sell you a 150- or 200-MHz Pentium with all the bells and whistles," Schorsack said.

Don't look for a Pentium here. The specialty is personal computers based on the Pentium's predecessors--the 286, 386 and 486 chips--as well as Apple IIs, Mac Pluses, Mac SEs, Mac Classics and plenty of used peripherals.

Apple cultists raid the store for deals like the $100 "Woz limited edition" Apple II GS that was on display recently. Macintosh SE systems move quickly at $175. One man eagerly shelled out $75 for an ancient Apple he planned to use for decoration.

A more typical customer, Schorsack says, would be a Spanish-speaking immigrant mother whose daughter needs a word-processing computer in junior high. The daughter translates, and they wind up with a simple IBM clone at $150, tested by Schorsack or a technician in the back shop.

"Later on, when the kids get a little better at using it, you upgrade as a reward to a machine that runs faster and plays games," Schorsack said.

"I mean, $150 to some of these folks is probably a week's wages. I don't know how they afford that in the first place."

Schorsack is a former Northrop Corp. technician, engineer and audiovisual expert whose first computer was a Heath Co. build-it-yourself model from the early 1970s.

He was hired by Goodwill Industries of Orange County in February 1996 to try to bring some order to sales of old computers. With technology evolving rapidly, businesses and individuals were flooding Goodwill with old equipment. But the managers of Goodwill stores stuck the gear on "as is" racks and typically couldn't answer even simple questions.

Last year, Schorsack fixed up old machines for sale at stores in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Huntington Beach. Repairing computers faster than the stores could sell them, he wound up with $90,000 in unsold inventory. Much of his time was spent at the stores re-repairing computers damaged by vandals.

"They would jam things in the drives, erase files, put viruses in. Unfortunately, there are some very warped people out there," Schorsack said.

So Goodwill decided to add a new, central location where those with real interest in computers could get service and advice along with bargains.

The result is a store with angled display racks, recessed lights and deep purple paint that tries to throw off a modern, high-tech gloss. But look closely at the shelves and bins, and what you see is a cornucopia of old computers and parts.

The price is $149.99 for a 286-based system, including monitor, keyboard, mouse and floppy disk drive. A 386 system goes for $319.95, a 486 for $399.95. Depending on a given system's bells and whistles, there's room for dickering on prices, Figueroa said.

There's a lot more than just the systems, though.

Over here are 13 keyboards, some looking brand new, some ancient and yellow. Your pick at $15 each. Dot matrix printers sell for $50 (or $30 with purchase of a computer). Laser printers (when available) are $175, and five-inch disk drives are $15.

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