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Upcycling Furniture at Barge Canal Market


Published May 14, 2014 at 9:00 a.m.
Updated September 9, 2015 at 12:01 p.m.

Most days, Jeremy Smith and his wife, Adelle Lawrence, can't keep their newly made furniture on the showroom floor of their Burlington store, Barge Canal Market. That's not because they lack space in their 3,600-square-foot shop on Pine Street in Burlington's South End. It's because customers snap up their "upcycled" furniture pieces, which Smith and Lawrence build by hand from salvaged and reclaimed materials.

Indeed, on a reporter's recent visit to Barge Canal Market — the name appears in white block letters across the front of the green warehouse — the two had just four new pieces on hand amid the many antiques they sell. Three of them already bore "SOLD" tags.

"The industrial look is very popular right now, with the metal and nice reclaimed lumber," Smith says, running his hand across a long, polished wooden table. "This is really, really popular."

"Upcycled" furniture — the term refers to the conversion of waste material into new products of higher environmental or monetary value — is a growing trend, both in Vermont and nationally. In recent years, various home-improvement shows and DIY magazines have extolled the virtues of repurposing old commercial, industrial and agricultural objects into hip, stylish home furnishings. What's unique about the furniture of BCM Original Designs is that Smith and Lawrence's pieces won't break the bank for most consumers, even when they're custom-made.

For example, BCM's upcycled table was made from farm planks salvaged from a demolished barn in Enosburg. Smith and Lawrence planed the wood but left some of its weathered texture and coloring to retain its rural character. They then sanded it, laid down a coat of oil and all-natural finish, and mounted the tabletop on legs assembled from salvaged plumbing pipes. That piece sold for just $450. Seven other desks made from salvaged wood and old plumbing sold for $400 apiece.

"That's pretty reasonable, especially compared to the bigger stores," Smith says.

Smith and Lawrence bought Barge Canal Market in February 2012. What was then a thrift shop and secondhand bookstore has slowly morphed into a coffee bar and showroom for their one-of-a-kind furnishings. Though only a tenth of their current business comes from the upcycled furniture, Smith says, the couple expects the original pieces will eventually contribute half the store's revenue.

Not far from the barn table, Smith shows off a wooden bench he built from a Douglas fir beam salvaged in Stowe. The couple partially sanded the beam, but left some of the natural wood untouched. Then they mounted it on cast-iron legs repurposed from old schoolhouse desks.

Smith explains that school desks themselves aren't terribly popular antique items these days; typically, the desk surfaces are too angled to work well as, say, end tables. However, their ornate cast-iron legs are highly desirable as supports for other furniture.

Smith's laid-back and unhurried demeanor belies an industrious lifestyle. He and Lawrence work at their store seven days a week, then come home and build furniture in their garage on Shelburne Road at night.

Yet Smith sounds relaxed as he describes how he decides what to build.

"I don't know. I take a cool thing and make it an awesome thing," he says with a smile. His favorite project was a two-section bar custom-built for a home, made from old door panels mounted on casters. Customers often come into the store with a photo or just an idea for a piece and ask if he can build it, Smith says. Most of the time, he can.

Smith, 28, a Vermont native, graduated from Colchester High School, then studied architectural technology at the State University of New York at Delhi, just south of Oneonta, N.Y. He graduated from SUNY-Delhi in 2003 assuming he'd get a job in an architectural firm doing computer-assisted design. But he soon realized that "being a CAD jockey didn't suit me very well," he says.

Back in Vermont, Smith got a job working at the Burlington nonprofit ReSource, which, among other things, reclaims and repurposes waste construction materials. He eventually took over as woodshop supervisor in ReSource's "Waste-Not-Products" division, which transforms salvaged materials into consumer goods such as benches, tables, birdhouses, picture frames and cutting boards.

"I'd see all this stuff that would come through there and think of all these things I could do with them," Smith recalls. Five years ago, he began applying that eye for resource recovery to building furniture pieces of his own design. Today, he and Lawrence say they aim to keep their products within the financial reach of average Vermonters.

Assuming, of course, shoppers can find something at Barge Canal Market that hasn't already been sold. Currently, the store has a two- to three-week wait for new pieces. Trash to treasure, indeed.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Riding the Upcycle"