Early on a chilly recent morning, more than 60 people lined up outside an unmarked brown and beige Los Feliz warehouse. They were schoolteachers, soup kitchen administrators and nonprofit office managers and they had come to shop.
Armed with oversize plastic bags and cardboard boxes, they spent the next two hours selecting office supplies, software, paper goods, personal electronics and toiletries.
Then they left -- without paying. Nobody had spent a dime.
All had been guests of L.A. Shares, one of the city's busiest nonprofit donation centers.
"Everything we gave away today was headed for the landfill," said executive director Bert Ball, who describes the process as win-win-win. Public schools and other nonprofits get essential supplies they otherwise can't afford. Corporations get tax breaks for donations of items they'd otherwise throw out. The Bureau of Sanitation is spared the expense of hauling what would have been solid waste.
Among those benefiting on this morning were administrators from outreach organizations such as Covenant House, Project Angel Food and Bienestar, and teachers from schools including Vine Street Elementary in Hollywood. Nancy Gneier, executive director of the Travel Town Museum, had come for office supplies. So had Staci Armao, executive director of the Hollywood Police Activities League.
"We have a slim budget," said Armao. "We've really benefited from this program. I've never even bought pens."
On this invitation-only day, teachers and administrators could choose from more than 4,000 square feet of inventory. In one room, shelves were stacked with reams of printer paper and boxes of printer cartridges, pens, pencils, markers, paper clips and rubber bands. In another were mailing envelopes and labels, poster-size fine art prints and paper. Down one aisle were calculators, staples, wall clocks and bulletin boards; down another, shampoos, soaps, pedicure kits and tanning mousse. One room featured stacks of paperback classics -- Dickens, Conrad, Melville -- along with DVDs, CDs and educational software.
Many of the books and movies came from Walt Disney Co. The mailing supplies were from Avery. Names of donors -- including Paramount, Lakeshore Entertainment, the Getty Museum -- were prominently displayed above their offerings.
Ball, 57, began the program that became L.A. Shares in 1991, as his UCLA film school master's thesis. On a visit to the vast indoor movie sets for Steven Spielberg's "Hook," he had asked studio head Peter Guber what would happen to the acres of plywood and lumber used to build it. When Guber told him, "Trash," Ball arranged to salvage tons of the wood for Christmas in April, a national nonprofit that builds low-cost housing for the underprivileged.
In the years since, Ball and L.A. Shares have recycled an estimated $180 million in goods. The larger items are often used. Everything else is new but destined for the trash -- promotional items, packages with outdated logos, remaindered stock, excess office supplies from divisions that have been shut down.
The problem with standard recycling programs is they're all "end-of-life based," Ball said. "If you've got an empty bottle or a can, or a dead battery, we can help you dispose of it. But what about a full bottle, or a good battery? Our whole effort is to interrupt the waste stream further upstream."
For its largest items, L.A. Shares hosts what amounts to online lotteries. Nonprofits register with L.A. Shares and list the materials they most need. When matching items come in, they are invited to "bid" on them -- promising that if they are chosen, they will pick up the goods directly from the donor.
Ball said L.A. Shares gave away more than 500 items from a single donor this way in December and January alone. Office chairs, desks, filing cabinets and other furniture went directly from donor to nonprofit, at zero cost to L.A. Shares. On an average day, Ball said, L.A. Shares finds new homes for about 185 items.
On this shopping day, more than 30 of the 1,142 nonprofits registered with L.A. Shares bid on a nearly new Dell computer system. Ball's staff would decide later which organization would get it, based on need as well as how recently each of the groups had received other L.A. Shares items.
Staci Armao of the police activities league said she once bid on and won furniture from the talent agency CAA, which was redecorating. Armao was invited to CAA to pick out the desks and chairs she liked best.
By noon the shopping was over. Ball cruised the parking lot, helping people load their cars and urging them to spread the word. "Tell the other schools about us!" he said.
When the lot was empty, he and his staff of two immediately began restocking the shelves from inventory in storage containers and from their 14,000-square-foot warehouse in Wilmington.