COLUMBIA — A pile of bicycles, office chairs and oak cabinets sit next to a cluster of used refrigerators.
Signs reading "snack bar" and "restroom" hang from the ceiling, and wooden pallets stacked with computer modems line the aisles.
Nearby is a skeleton wearing a construction hat. An off-white Buick is parked outside.
Only a sign in front tells you what this is — a place where items, or at least their parts, come to find a second life.
In a storage building tucked away at a dead end on Rock Quarry Road is everything from decorative soaps and roller blades to Royal Doulton figurines from the Netherlands.
All the pieces are from one of MU's 280 departments. They're all university owned, and they're also all for sale.
University Surplus has been around for 25 years, holding one auction per month in its dual showroom/storehouse. It has held thousands of items at a time. Yet despite its size, the operation has largely remained under the radar.
For a while, it was a well-kept secret — intentional or not.
"Even I didn't know about it before I got here," said Bo Solomon, supervisor of University Surplus. "I didn't know it existed."
The warehouse is basically a home for used equipment from the Columbia campus. It is part of the MU Procurement Services Department, which is responsible for the disposal and redistribution of used equipment from campus buildings. Each monthly auction makes about $31,000, and 95 percent to 98 percent of the merchandise is sold, Solomon said.
The biggest selling point is the price. Since price is based on auction demand, items are sold for a fraction of their actual cost.
"We get in a $56,000 ventilator," says Solomon, "and it goes for $5,600."
Because University Surplus takes discarded merchandise and keeps 35 percent of the sales, it is able to stay open without general operating funds. In fact, business is booming.
University Surplus also benefits from eBay sales, and cross-marketing allows it to reach a broader audience.
MU departments also make a nice profit. "They generally get about $600,000 back per year from both auction and eBay," Solomon said.
He and just a few others are responsible for running the operation. They cover everything from checking e-mail and contacting university departments to picking up items, shipping them to buyers, setting up auctions and making sure everything's running smoothly.
Only university departments can buy items until the week of auction.
During auction week, many of the pieces, such as Dell modems and laptops, are sold to those planning to resell them. In fact, those who buy to resell make up about a quarter of the business.
Columbia resident Cheryl Dake, who buys items for resale, is a long-time customer.
"I've been going here for years and years," she said while loading a recent purchase into the back of her truck — four wooden chairs she bought on eBay.
"I'm going clean them up with some Orange Glo and take them down to the market place," Dake said. The auction is good for that. "You can find just about anything," she said.
Marty Walker, an administrator at MU's School of Engineering, attends many of the university auctions, where he says you have to be choosy.
"You can get carried away and buy all types of things," he said, chuckling. Recently, he picked up a plastic vessel for the concrete canoe team.
Walker said University Surplus not only offers an alternative to dumping old items but starts off a green cycle. "It's the first rung in the recycling chain," he said. "What the taxpayers purchased is now dispersed to the public."
Bob Heimann of Centralia uses University Surplus to get equipment for his job. He and his wife head Shiloh Labs, a research group that develops new processes to clean and restore surgical instruments.
He described himself as an "aisle engineer," one who walks up and down the rows and sees what might work.
"We pick up all sorts of live equipment," Heimann said. "We've bought water baths, ovens, office furniture and partitions."
It lets him test equipment before purchase.
"It's handy because it's only 20 minutes away," he said. "I'm not left buying a pig in a poke."
Heimann's company only uses food grade chemicals to clean the equipment, which ties in well with the University Surplus's green mentality. Not only does it fit in with the cycle of giving back and funneling items funded by taxpayers into the general community, but it is also directly linked to their interest in earth-friendly alternatives.
University Surplus, in fact, has a personal stake in Sustain Mizzou. One of the workers, Patrick Margherio, is president of the on-campus organization. The group has made it a mission to find a sustainable way of life for the university and the surrounding area.
Margherio has worked there for the last three months. There is no doubt that his job ties in with his passion.
"The place in general is green," says Margherio. "They're always reusing, keeping things out of landfills."
It's a marriage of student involvement, and reduce, reuse and recycle.
"It allows students the opportunity to develop a sense of responsibility to their community," says Marcia Reed, assistant director of the Columbia Career Center.
On auction days, students put price tags on items and work the concession stand and, more importantly, get the word out.
"Volunteering at the auctions provide a means for our students to give a little back to our partners in education" Reed said.