URBANA — You're a creative director on campus and you need props for a project, but your budget is essentially zilch.
What do you do? "Shop" at the University of Illinois property surplus warehouse, of course.
This metal shed just south of the UI's Horticulture Field Lab on South Orchard Street houses castoffs from offices across campus — everything from a spare fire escape ladder to vintage chairs to computers to an Art Deco painting.
It's a great place for UI employees to shop for free, said Doug Burgett, creative director for the Office of Communications for Enrollment Management, who recently snagged some retro chairs for a video shoot.
"I always tell people when they come in here, we've got the best prices in town," said warehouse clerk Cameron Fear.
Caveat No. 1: Employees aren't allowed to take anything for personal use.
Caveat No. 2: The general public isn't allowed to take/buy anything.
That's because everything bought by the university is technically state property and must be returned to the state if it isn't reused elsewhere on campus.
The UI doesn't have authority to give away or sell anything to the public or nonprofits, said Jeffrey Weaver, senior associate director in property accounting and reporting.
This past year, almost 20,000 pieces of furniture, accessories, electronics and other equipment passed through the warehouse, according to Weaver.
His staff tries to redistribute each piece internally, holding it for six months to a year before sending it on to the state. The Department of Central Management Services then reuses it in other state agencies or sells it on the state's "iBid" auction site.
Of the 19,961 pieces that made it to the warehouse last year, 4,289 were distributed to other UI offices, saving the university money, Weaver said.
When a department wants to get rid of something, it fills out a request, and Weaver's office takes it from there. It's either scrapped, sent to the warehouse or sent to other UI offices that might want it.
Anything over $500 is tagged with a property-control number and tracked until it leaves the university, he said. Signs at the warehouse remind shoppers that property is for university use only. Those who "buy" items are recorded and have to account for it later, and their departments are notified as well, Fear said.
Much of the inventory is standard office furniture — file cabinets, desks, bookcases, chairs and the like. But there are finds.
Burgett and a colleague once spotted a jukebox, though they didn't take it because they didn't have room in their office at the UI Admissions Building.
"We see kind of weird, quirky things at surplus every time we go there," he said. "Every couple of months we take a trip just to see what we could scrounge up to make our office environment a little more fun."
They go for vintage items — the chairs acquired for a video aimed at potential UI applicants, for example. Or a large wall clock that plugs into the wall, because they were sick of replacing batteries.
They have a lot of luck with lamps — industrial-strength, swing-arm, "lamps-aren't-made-like-this-anymore type of lamp," Burgett said. "They look like they could be on a set of a detective show from the 1950s."
Sometimes they take things without even knowing what they are, such as an old audio/video editing board with lots of buttons.
"It doesn't work, but we didn't care. We'll bring it to an occasional meeting and set it out and press buttons randomly throughout the meeting," Burgett said.
They've also acquired tables, office furniture and other serious pieces.
"We don't have the budget to go out and buy this stuff," Burgett said. "Campus surplus comes to the rescue."
Debra Levey Larson, communications specialist for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, furnished most of her office with surplus items.
"I basically grab anything made of wood," she said, including a bookcase and a "cool" lab cabinet with a sign taped on top reading, "Initial req's when drawing blood."
"Heaven only knows what transpired on that counter," she said.
Her husband, Tim Larson, works for the UI's Prairie Research Institute and recently remodeled his office via the warehouse.
"He snagged a terrific high wooden cabinet/desk with shallow drawers for maps to replace an oversized drafting table," she said. "He also got super-tall wooden bookcases with doors on the bottom and a wooden desk with a matching credenza."
Despite the UI's push to go "paperless," there are plenty of bookcases and file cabinets available, and people still snatch them up, Fear said. On a recent tour, even a small metal typewriter table was claimed.
"I think most people don't know these were used for typewriters," Fear said.
Other merchandise included a huge box of furniture casters, a 6-foot-tall map of Illinois, chalkboards, discarded holiday decorations, a microscope and a 5x5 Art Deco painting of a woman. A similar painting was sent directly to scrap, Weaver noted.
"It was just hideous," he said.
Last summer, a hog scale came through from a UI Extension office, and folks from the UI's South Farms grabbed it right away, he said.
"We get a little bit of everything," he said.
Probably half of the warehouse consists of electronics, from "the people who have been hoarding their Apple II for 20 years" to recent models, Weaver said. Most of the computers are past their prime and will become scrap electronics, Fear said.
Lab equipment poses a special challenge. The state generally doesn't want it, so it sometimes winds up as scrap, Weaver said. But he'll make a special plea for older but usable items, such as a group of 40 microscopes replaced by a UI lab last year.
And a large, expensive piece of equipment being replaced by the Institute for Genomic Biology — specifically, the "Bio-Rad VersArray Colony Picking and Arrayer System" — is heading straight to a bioengineering researcher at the UI's Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
Fear, who's worked at the warehouse for 11 years, has a good sense of what is scrap, what will "sell" and what should be shipped back to the state, Weaver said.
Fear's office is furnished with some of his favorite finds, including oak file cabinets and bookcases and an old wood-and-glass Howard Miller clock that displays various time zones — or did, when it worked. A world map is painted on the glass.
"It's broken, but I wasn't going to throw it away," he said, which is what the state would have done.