In the first of a series of features about scrapstores in London, LCRN comes knocking on Work and Play Scrapstore’s doors. As this Wandsworth-based non-for-profit approaches its 30th anniversary, we learn of the challenges and the joys that come with saving quality materials from going to landfill and, instead, turning them into the very substance for ordinary people to do extraordinary things with.
A few minutes into the tour I am being given around Work and Play Scrapstore’s headquarters, Freyja Lee stops in her tracks and eyes critically her surroundings. “Oh, I’m impressed myself. This looks so tidy today!”, she remarks, and she sounds impressed indeed. On the shelves all around her, neatly piled into stacks, lies a remarkable assortment of materials: brightly coloured rolls of cotton, wool and silk, wooden planks, metal paper, plasticware, paint containers, heaps of cardboard, Wellington boots, leather, canvas, foil, tiles, felt, glitter… An unlikely family that has become this project’s inseparable companion since it saw the light back in 1987 with a clear purpose: to rescue what others cast away so carelessly and place it on the hands of those who wish to create beautiful things.
“It’s just a huge range of everything, really”, Lee continues as she leads me briskly towards a storage room at the back. All around us, the scrapstore is gradually awakening to life as members of the staff greet each other on arrival and hurry to add the last finishing touches; everything must be ready for the customers soon to enter the door. “It took me months to learn how to organise it all. We have these huge bags coming in and it takes an incredible time to process everything and present it so that our members will take it”, she explains.
Snugly tucked between a couple of anonymous building blocks a few minutes away from Tooting Broadway tube station, the Work and Play Scrapstore is a veteran in the Wandsworth re-use scene. For almost thirty years, it has taken in materials donated by companies and made them available free-of-charge to schools, community groups and individuals such as students in this South-west London borough. The only prerequisite is to become a member and contribute with an annual fee that is scaled according to the applicant’s status. In return, they get to visit the scrapstore as often as they like and collect the materials they need with few restrictions. “Our membership is open to those who support our ethos and agree to abide by our terms, for the benefit of the community. Our purpose is for our materials to be used for creative activities”, indicates Sascha Taylor, General Management at Work and Play.
“Once people learn the basics of crafting and creating, they are amazed at how easy it actually is”
Having members find creative uses for the goods they are awarded has never been an issue; original, inspiring ideas are the norm among those who visit Work and Play, and the store supplies them accordingly. “There is a lot of psychology involved in this job. You have to know what people want, and that takes some experience”, confides Freyja Lee. In order to continue appealing those in the borough, the staff need to keep an eye on the calendar and learn to anticipate what materials will be all the rage in the coming weeks. “There is definitely a cycle. We hold onto things in the back rooms that we think are going to be popular”, says apron-clad Catherine May, receptionist at the Scrapstore.
When asked about specific examples, she doesn’t hesitate. “Easter is coming up so people will be asking for yellows, pinks, light pastel shades, or feathers to make chicks. There is also Valentine’s Day to think of. People will probably be looking for red velvet and red felt”. Beyond the seasonal fancies, some things are always in demand, such as re-used biscuit boxes, carpet squares for schools to scatter across the floor during children’s story time, golden and silver paper, bottle caps… Every single material, even the most improbable and bizarre, has a use when a bright mind is at work. “We run demos here where I show people the basics of crafting things. Once they have seen it done, they are amazed at how easy it actually is”, smiles Freyja Lee.
One of these bright minds has chosen today to visit the Work and Play Scrapstore. Standing between a couple of rows of re-used wares, 19-year-old Hilary is on the lookout for materials for a university assignment. “I’m doing a live event for TV and our task is to make a model from a play. I want to go for a Little Shop of Horrors model, with all kinds of plants taking all over the shop”, she describes. Constrained by the demands of a student budget, re-used materials don’t only accommodate to her environmental ideals; they are also an option both easier on her pocket and as pleasing to the eye as brand new, overpriced materials. “For a student, everything is so expensive to buy so coming here is convenient. But I also think that waste materials lead to a handmade look that is sometimes better than the finished look you get with new ones”, she points out. Here is proof that those who say ‘re-use is not only beneficial – it is also beautiful’ have been right all along.
“Reuse and recycling need a bigger voice. Every borough should have a scrapstore”
Unsurprisingly, the daily running of this haven for the creative of mind involves a few challenges. There is no shortage of work to be done by an overexerted staff and as is the case with so many other charities across the city, volunteers play a critical role in keeping the Work and Play Scrapstore alive and kicking. “We have about 25 regular volunteers who contribute at least one morning a week, and we need every single one of them”, admits Sascha Taylor. That is the case of Laura, rubbing her hands from the cold outside as she steps into the store in her first day as a volunteer. Within minutes of her arrival, she is already deep into work side by side with Hansa, the fabric manager, and her enthusiasm is palpable.
Chris Bielby, the Office Manager for the project, can relate to the feeling. “One of the things that really attracted me about this place was the community, the people, the creativity. Always bringing out new ideas, always exciting things to come”. Expanding the volunteering base is fundamental; it will demand increasing the Work and Play Scrapstore’s visibility. “That’s part of our ambition and our strategies”, explains Sascha Taylor. “We’re quite known across Wandsworth but beyond that not so well”. In that regard, she mentions a series of events the scrapstore has lined up for the upcoming months so that other boroughs in the city will get to hear about its experience and perhaps be inspired enough to replicate it.
The local councils would do well to keep their ears open to initiatives like this, according to Susan Poston and Teresa Reeve. Clad in bright red anoraks, the two of them are just in from picking up some donated materials, unloading them off the van and onto the scrapstore; a walk in the park for these seasoned veterans of the re-use sector, who have a thing or two to say about the interaction between the project and the authorities. “What we found is that if we make personal contact with certain members of the council, if we get them to see what we’re doing, they are impressed”, Reeve says. “But we have to prove ourselves all the time while having not so many resources to do so. Every move has been a struggle”.
Indeed, the Work and Play Scrapstore has seen three moves in its almost thirty years of itinerary existence and Susan Poston has witnessed every single one of them as one of the founders of the scrapstore and then trustee and committed volunteer from the following year and onwards. “Back in 1987, I read about Hackney Children’s Scrapstore and I thought it was a brilliant idea. When two youth workers in Wandsworth released an ad for a similar project in the borough I contacted them immediately”, she remembers today. A key step of the process, she adds, was getting together a group of like-minded people with complementary skills to join the steering committee, including local teacher Elizabeth Bull. During the second move in 1992 and as the Chair of the committee, Bull managed to get the member schools on board as they wrote to the Council and defended the good value of every penny invested in setting up a scrapstore. Thus the project took on a clear focus on the educational potential of reused materials, a circumstance that has remained unchanged until today, when the charity welcomes its members at its current site on Blackshaw Road in Tooting.
“We mostly work with members who are already halfway there, who know of the possibilities that lie in every material for their educational and creative projects. What we need to do is to sell this to people who have absolutely no idea about what we do”, Poston concludes. Sitting next to her, Reeve nods and completes the reasoning with her very own thoughts. “This needs a bigger voice, a political voice. The government sees recycling and re-use as a domestic thing, they don’t understand the big picture. Every borough should have a scrapstore”.
With Teresa’s words – a dream that we at LCRN would be delighted to see come true – this feature story comes to its end. Thanks for the read and stay tuned for more stories!