On Black Friday, retailers boast unbeatable deals. Anxious shoppers wait for stores to open. And when the doors are unlocked, there’s a mad rush.
Harvard University has their own version of Black Friday. The difference is that it’s on Thursday. Every Thursday. And the price is actually unbeatable: everything’s free.
If you leave Harvard’s bell towers behind and head across the Charles River to Allston, you’ll find a big warehouse just past the Business School. Inside the warehouse is Rob Gogan. Tall and slim, he’s a man brimming with ideas.
“You know if I had my druthers, there would be no such thing as trash,” Gogan says with genuine excitement. “You’d just have a gigantic conveyer belt."
He envisions it taking one person's unwanted items to another person who wants them. And if there is leftover trash, Gogan has another idea: Have delivery trucks pick up any trash. We’d have no need for trash trucks.
Back in the late 80s, when Gogan was a graduate student at Harvard, he made a stink about the school not having recycling bins. He went to talk to the man in charge of Harvard’s trash, and that man ended up offering Gogan a job.
Before he knew it, Gogan had stopped graduate school and started running Harvard's Recycling and Waste Services. He's been there ever since.
“My mother’s probably the first parent of a Harvard student who saw her son go on to become a garbage collector,” Gogan says without a hint of regret.
It wasn’t long after he started that another idea popped into Gogan’s head: What if, instead of paying people to take Harvard’s junk over to the dump, he could make it available to the public? Anyone who wants something Harvard is throwing away can take it and use it as they please.
“Pretty soon we were spending half our time out in the parking lot, meeting people who came to pick up our old desks and dorm furniture,” Gogan remembers.
So they decided to make it more official.
Gogan set a time: 11am. Every Thursday.
A place: First, a trailer. Now, this 10,000 square foot warehouse.
And a price: Free.
“There are truck loads. Hundreds of truckloads of obsolete computer equipment, furniture, old books, old clothes you name it.”
There are broken fans that can be used for scrap metal, brand new posters, and lightly used corner desks. And on Thursdays, there’s something else: scores of people.
“There’s always someone banging on the door or something,” says Marsha Hamilton, who is in charge of managing what they affectionately call the “hungry hordes.”
With everyone crowded into the lobby and pouring out onto the ramp, she screams out the ground rules: “If you find a million dollars in there, it belongs to me.”
Everyone is assigned one of four colors. Then, Hamilton picks which lucky color can enter first. Today, it’s green.
She makes the announcement, and people rush through the glass doors, diving into bins of clothing and running to put their name on bookshelves and mattresses.
Everything is first come, first served. Most aggressive, most successful.
In the stampede, there are two types of people.
First, there are the do-gooders. You might call them “Year-Round Santa Clauses.” Nancy Bjornson is among them. She's from Cambridge and comes to gather goodies for her relatives in Maine. They’re lobster fishermen and need warm clothes.
“A lot of times when I go to Maine they’re like: ‘Oh it’s Christmas. It’s Christmas!’ ” says Bjornson.
Rob Gogan says stuff doesn't just go to Maine. Indeed, a lot of it goes overseas. From chatting with the shoppers, he estimates that about half the people here are rummaging for things to send to family in their home country -- places like Haiti and Uganda.
The second category of people in this warehouse are entrepreneurs, but they’d prefer you call them something else.
"I’m Indiana Jones. I'm hunting. I’m looking for the Holy Grail.”
It took a lot to get Indiana Jones – also known as Wayne Garnett -- to talk.
“I don’t want to tell people about this place,” he protested initially. “I never find anything. Never have. Never will. This place is lousy,” he said sarcastically.
For over a decade, Wayne Garnett says he’s refused to tell his friends where he disappears to on Thursdays. He doesn't want it to become a competition.
For Garnett, this is his livelihood -- and the warehouse is his secret.
"It's like Colonel Sanders’ proprietary recipe. Coca-Cola's recipe. You're not getting that," says Garnett.
Carrying a plastic trash bin full of former trash, Garnett explains that he sells some of the stuff he finds on eBay and takes the rest to antique shows and flea markets. He stores it all in his own warehouse – in an undisclosed location in a North Shore city.
Some of the stuff is valuable. Once, he found an oriental rug. Lore has it, it came from the Business School. He tossed it in his van and took it to a rug dealer, who bought it for $1,500.
“People ask me if I’ll be here next week,” Garnett says. “And all I can say is: Well, if I live, I’ll be here. If I live, I’ll be here.”