Marji Medina grew up helping her father collect scrap metal from the local dump — gathering up aluminum cans, which she recycled for extra cash, and G.I. Joes and other toys, which she brought home for herself, in the process.
Nowadays, Medina makes a living in a strikingly similar fashion: She finds discarded building materials and abandoned furniture in alleys and dumpsters, then either uses their parts to create something new or revamps them so they can better withstand the sands of time. It’s become a big business for her, which she’s suitably named It’s Not Trash. “I’ve always seen things as they can be,” Medina says, reminiscing about days spent rummaging through trash (or in her eyes, treasure) with her father.
I recently talked to Medina about how she merges her capitalistic and artistic sensibilities, her one-woman campaign to prevent the spread of bed bugs and her strategy on how to score a Restoration Hardware couch at far less than sticker price.
Why did you first start flipping discarded furniture?
Well, I had real jobs: I was a vice president of sales for digital marketing at several hospitals — things like that. In my free time, I’d go down alleys, find a piece of furniture that could be fixed, look up how much it was being sold for on Craigslist and sell it for $10 cheaper than everyone else. I wasn’t trying to make money, per se — I was just making, doing and fixing. If I could describe myself in one word, I’d say “fixer.”
It worked out and provided some petty cash for my wife and me. We now had an extra $200 to $500 a month of fun money.
Then, after being married or together for seven years, we finally wanted to have a wedding. My wife had one of those degrees from a private art college, where they fuck you over — you end up in $100,000 of debt, the school goes under and your credits no longer transfer. So she was back in school to get a second degree, one that was useful, in accounting instead of photography, and it came to us in this moment — if we waited until we could afford to have the wedding we wanted, we weren’t going to have that wedding. Nobody was going to want to go; everyone was already starting to get older and we wanted to have a rave-like wedding, where everyone camped out in costumes.
I said to her, “You graduate in two years. It’s going to take a year to put together the wedding. So let’s take this fun money… If I keep $500 a month, that’s $6,000 in a year. That way, we only have to put maybe another $6,000 on a credit card, which we can pay off when you get a job. Let’s not wait to have this wedding; let’s just do it.”
I also said to her, “I’m going to make some of my own designs so maybe I can bump up the $500 cost to $1,000. That way, while we’re paying for your second degree, and your first $100,000 of moron loans, we can pay for this wedding without having debt.”
I posted a couple headboards for queen beds from images I found online — I could make that — and within four months, the business was making over $4,000. It just exploded.
Why do you think you were so successful?
Since my background was as a VP for sales consultants, my job was to basically help businesses create new vertices and increase profitability within the vertices they have. So unlike most artists who are just creative and have no fucking clue about business, money, marketing and client acquisition, I was really good at all that.
Have you made any changes to the business since it blew up?
Five years later, it’s not possible for me to drive around, dumpster dive and find the inventory to do this much business every year. So I’ve contracted with a demolition company. Instead of throwing away the materials from their demos, they clean the wood and sell it to me.
I still throw items that I find on the side of the road in my car all day long. But there’s more than just dumpster diving involved given the size of my company now.
Besides those early dump trips, did you have any woodworking experience?
My grandfather is a world-famous sculptor named Cliff Short. He worked on the Statue of Liberty in the original Planet of the Apes; he made all the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; he made the hand in Land of the Giants.
When I was in high school, from 1993 to 1997, I was making $12 an hour working for him, which was a lot of money back then. My dad also did tree work. I come from a very uneducated family of labor-type people. My uncle, for example, is well-known in the Bay Area for doing metal work and spiral staircases.
Do you ever run into anything unpleasant while dumpster diving?
There are bed bugs everywhere, pal. Those creepy little fucks. There’s also human feces, since you’re looking in alleys and homeless people live there. That’s the short list.
For the bed bugs, I keep a larger Sharpie on me. I understand that if you have bed bugs, you don’t want anyone to know you have bed bugs, but you also should mark your furniture if you’re going to throw it in the street so no one picks it up and brings the bed bugs into their home. I mark everything with bed bugs in English and in Spanish.
I can’t help but ask: What do you think about Ikea?
About 85 percent of household incomes are below $125,000 a year. When Ikea, Living Spaces and Walmart release a new bed model, for example, it always falls between $299 and $799. They know that’s what somebody who’s 25 to 45 is going to spend on a bed, and they know based on their income.
When something breaks on you, it’s not an accident, and you didn’t get a little money saved right at the point when something breaks — that wasn’t just a coincidence. But when people are constantly in that stressed mode, they’re like cattle being herded by a sheepdog, and that’s horrible. It’s also ruining our planet, because this stuff is being manufactured like there are endless resources.
So I thought, what if I created a product out of people’s trash, sold it back to them for the same price they paid for that trash, but in a form that will never break? Everyone, including the planet, deserves sustainable items.
I also wanted to be a conscientious capitalist. I don’t think capitalism’s evil. I don’t subscribe to that hippy extreme, and I don’t subscribe to that Ikea extreme of catering to the shareholder’s lust for hoarding money. I subscribe to that middle road where everyone wins.
Finally, do you have any advice for someone who’s hoping to buy more sustainable furniture?
Buy used. My couch is Restoration Hardware. With taxes and delivery, it costs $5,000. We bought it from someone’s second living room. They never sat on it, and I paid $1,500 for this beautiful leather couch that was built structurally for wealthy people who can use their dollars to force companies to build structurally sound furniture.