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Cindy Kuhn drives into the parking lot of a Davenport flooring store, then sits in her car for a moment, working up the courage to get out and walk into the store to make her pitch.

She has a bold idea, and she hopes the empty warehouse at the back of the store will be the place to carry it out.

The idea: to open a nonprofit resale shop selling new or gently used building materials that have been donated, thereby diverting useful items from landfills, and giving the profits to Habitat for Humanity Quad-Cities to help build decent, affordable housing for families.

Driven by a desire to do good and help the environment by recycling and reusing, Kuhn walks into the store.

Today, 19 years later, that one-time flooring business and its dark, cavernous warehouse are known to thousands of Quad-Citians as Habitat ReStore-Quad-Cities, a place where one can buy building materials such as lumber, hardware, kitchen cabinets and lighting fixtures.

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Also: tools, hardware, appliances (added in 2007), furniture (added in 2010), stereo equipment (added as a partnership with the Waste Commission of Scott County in 2020) and architectural salvage such as glass doorknobs.

The store’s former showroom houses a one-of-a-kind division of ReStore called Health & Home that opened in 2012, selling wheelchairs, toilet risers, walkers and other medical-related items, also raising money for Habitat.

When ReStore co-founder Cindy Kuhn retires at the end of this year, turning the reins over to R. Joe Ryan, the store’s warehouse manager with a military background in logistics management, she will have accomplished her goals.

In just under 20 years, ReStore has donated more than $3.3 million in cash to Habitat, paying for more than 16 homes. This year, it is accounting for 17.6% of Habitat’s revenue, Kristi Crafton, executive director for Habitat, said. ReStore also has donated material goods such as doors, paint brushes, shingles and siding.

It has diverted more than 15 million pounds of material in sold items from landfills, harvested a million pounds of metal it has sold as scrap, and recycled tons of cardboard, plastics and glass.

Building the business as it is today from scratch may seem like a heavy lift, but Kuhn, of Bettendorf, and co-founder Nancy Foster, of Davenport, did it incrementally, a little bit at a time, as their budget allowed.

“It probably was a heavier lift than we knew going into it,” Kuhn said one recent day, sitting at a donated dining table in ReStore’s still-cavernous — and often cold — warehouse space. “But it started out much less daunting than it looks today.”

Having just turned 65, Kuhn has several retirement projects in mind, including providing child care for one of her and husband Duane’s four grown children — a police officer — who has a new baby boy and works odd hours.

She also looks forward to making jewelry, a hobby that snagged her interest when one of ReStore’s creative employees began making earrings out of pieces of hardware. Kuhn has taken the idea to another level and now sells items such as upcycled, hammered copper teardrop earrings on the Etsy website ReClassified Treasure. Another hobby she looks forward to pursuing: spinning and knitting yarn that she harvests from her five alpacas, domesticated animals from Peru known for their fine wool.

The secret to success

A mechanical engineer by training — a job at Alcoa, now Arconic, is what brought Kuhn to the Quad-Cities — neither she nor Foster had backgrounds in retail.

But that doesn’t matter when you have the passion Kuhn has, Habitat’s Crafton said an email.

“She cares deeply about our environment, recycling and reuse. (She has) determination, tenacity and problem-solving abilities. She is bright and smart and has always been willing to learn anything she needs to. Retail experience isn’t necessary when you have the passion and commitment she does.”

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Barbara Haas, of Davenport, and president of the Habitat board at the time Kuhn and Foster pitched their idea, said Kuhn, “just always amazed me.”

“She puts her heart and love into everything she does. And she is a perfectionist. She wants things done right.”

The back story

The ReStore idea had its genesis in a trip Kuhn took with her church to Guatemala for a building project.

The people there have virtually nothing, Kuhn said, and, coming back to the United States, she was struck by the disturbing disparity between their culture and that of Americans, choking on material goods and throwing things away.

She began doing research for a church project on consumerism and ran across, on the Internet, numerous businesses that reuse and recycle building materials. That concept appealed to her because she is “one of those people who can’t stand to throw things away.”

She mentioned her idea to Foster, a long-time friend and fellow environmentalist, and together they began contacting second-hand stores throughout the Midwest, finally hitting upon Habitat ReStore, which seemed to be the model that best fit what they wanted to do.

But for the Habitat board to endorse the idea — to let the women put Habitat’s name on a business many of them had never heard of — was a “big leap of faith,” Kuhn explained. At that time the Quad-City Habitat affiliate was small and almost entirely volunteers.

Because Habitat has a positive worldwide reputation that it wants to maintain, “to have done it (the resale business) and to have done it poorly” would have been a big black mark, a liability, Kuhn said.

Former board president Haas recalls that, “Yes, we did have concerns because all we owned at the time was our building on State Street (the original office in Bettendorf) and our mortgages (on Habitat homes) and we could not endanger our mortgages. It was a leap for our board. It was a bigger thing than anything we ever considered.”

With the board’s OK, the two women got to work, figuring they needed to raise $125,000 to start the business.

They also had to secure a location, get a truck, move items they had already collected, find and organize volunteers and spread the word so people would come to shop.

Those who helped

Kuhn and Foster received a lot of guidance from the staffs of ReStore businesses they visited in Madison, Wisc. and Kansas City, Mo. “Because we were not competitors, they gave us so much information (on) budgeting and organizing volunteers,” Kuhn said.

And Kathy Morris, director of the Waste Commission of Scott County, proved to be a “guardian angel,” Kuhn said. Morris told them about grants that might be available, specifically from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that was funding programs aimed at reducing landfill waste. ReStore ultimately received two, for a total of $110,000, although that money was not awarded until ReStore had raised significant “match” amounts and until the tonnage of material diverted from the landfill was documented.

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Morris also told them about shelving available for “pennies on the dollar” from a Walmart that was closing.

At the time, ReStore’s inventory was simply plopped on the warehouse floor; the shelves they got through Morris are still in use today.

The owner of the flooring store also donated several months of free rent, and he helped with a new coat of paint for the inside walls.

Expansion, innovation

Since then, ReStore has never stood still.

After building materials, the store added appliances and furniture. Volunteer Belinda Holbrook, Davenport, dreamed up creative reuses for various materials, and taught classes in faux stained glass, mosaic stepping stones, jewelry and glass etching, bringing more people into the store.

Today the business flows over 27,000 square feet.

“It wasn’t always the same old ReStore,” Kuhn said. Each addition brought new enthusiasm and energy and “made it more fun and interesting for us.”

Still, “it’s not an easy business,” she said.

“When somebody backs up (to the warehouse) with the contents of grandma’s garage that’s been sitting for how many years,” you never know what you’re going to get, she said.

Some items that can’t be sold can be disassembled and valuable pieces — such as metal — can be sold to a metal recycler.

Other items that don’t look very promising prove to be useful in repurposed ways. Former board president Haas laughs about the IV stands ReStore got from Genesis Health System that have been used for years as poles to “fence off” certain areas of the store.

And Kuhn said she “learned a long time ago not to say, ‘This is the ugliest light fixture I’ve ever seen – who would want to buy this?’” Because as soon as she does, someone will say, “ ‘Can you get that down for me?’ I never cease to be amazed at the things that come in here.”

ReStore staff and volunteers also got involved in “harvesting” useful items from homes and other buildings that were going to be torn down.

Among their harvests: chalkboards from the former Audubon Elementary School in Rock Island, cypress wood planks from a dairy barn on Davenport’s West Kimberly Road, cabinets and toilets from government housing on Arsenal Island and — most recently — a colonnade and leaded glass windows from a farmhouse on Davenport’s East 53rd Street that is being taken down for a residential-commercial development.

The most spectacular location ReStore “harvested,” though, was Lewis Hall, part of the storied Villa de Chantal, a former private school in Rock Island that was being renovated into senior apartments when it caught fire and burned.

“The Villa was “the biggest ‘wow,’” she Kuhn. “It was like going to Rome and seeing the ruins.”

Donations come to ReStore from all over. In addition to stores weeding out inventory, individual people donate when they’re downsizing or changing the look of their homes. Businesses do this, too, donating office furniture and other items when they remodel. Cobham Mission Systems, Davenport, now part of Eaton Corp., has a “green team” that bundles up all the bubble wrap it receives in shipping and gives it to ReStore to resell. It’s a hot item at Christmas when people are sending holiday gifts, Kuhn said.

In spring, ReStore accepts and sells garden tools as well as pots and donations of live plants.

Although staff gives everything as much of a chance as they can, some things do have to be landfilled. In the very early days, staff disposed of these items by taking them home and putting them in their household garbage. “We took turns,” Kuhn said.

Health & Home

The hardest “sell” Kuhn ever made to her staff was to begin the acceptance and sale of new or used medical-home health equipment. A portion of the former flooring store had a valuable showroom area that Kuhn wanted to put to better use than storage. Staff discussed ideas such as a re-maker’s market with booths or a resale shop for bicycles, but Kuhn thought medical supplies had great potential, both in revenue and in help to people.

“There’s way too much stuff that’s perfectly good that’s thrown away” because a person dies and the family has no more use for it, she said. This could include everything from a hospital bed to unopened packages of adult diapers. Or a person who got a knee or hip replacement no longer needs the walker, crutches and toilet seat riser they purchased.

And — at the same time — there are people desperate to get these items. Maybe their insurance doesn’t cover what they need, or is maxed out, or they don’t even have insurance.

The immediate reaction from staff, though, was negative.

“They pretty much shut me down,” Kuhn said. Much of it was the “ick” factor involved in reusing something that was used by someone who was sick. Kuhn countered that “in a hospital when someone is sick and they leave, (the hospital) doesn’t just throw the things they used away. There are ways to clean it.”

She did more research, including visiting a Goodwill in Delaware that specializes in medical equipment, and let the idea incubate with her staff.

They finally came around, and so did the board, which took out a special insurance policy for liability, should someone get an infection, or be injured because equipment broke. And, working under the premise that it is easier to seek forgiveness than permission, Kuhn didn’t immediately announce her new venture to higher-ups in the national Habitat organization. As far as she knows, the Davenport Health & Home is the first and still only such business in the country.

But even she underestimated the store’s impact.

“I really had no idea how much of a difference the Home Health store would make,” she said. “The stories people told, like a woman whose 21-year-old son was paralyzed and needed a bed. It just broke your heart to hear some of the stories.

“The service we provide there has been a real blessing to people.”

Running on volunteers

While she achieved her goals of diverting material from the landfill and making money to support Habitat, there’s a third achievement she did not anticipate: the development of a volunteer corps second to none.

ReStore has 16 employees, but relies on volunteers to do the work they can’t. Pre-pandemic, the store was averaging about 13,500 volunteer hours per year, the equivalent of 6.5 full-time employees each week, doing everything from sorting donations and stocking shelves to running the cash register.

“The volunteer corps that we have developed here, the work environment, it’s just wonderful,” Kuhn said. “The work is hard and dirty but satisfying. It’s fun to be here. It doesn’t get much better than that. We take care of each other. I didn’t see that coming.”

Volunteer Holbrook credits that to staff that is appreciative of volunteers’ help.

“They go out of their way to send letters of thank you. They don’t take us for granted. They made us feel like an important part of the organization.”

Photos: Habitat ReStore


What: Habitat ReStore, 3625 Mississippi Ave., Davenport, off East Kimberly Road, east of Dahl Ford

When: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

For more information: Call 563-391-4949 or go to habitatqc.org/restore


ReStore co-founder Nancy Foster has an accounting background and for many years did accounting for both the ReStore and Habitat for Humanity, later becoming full-time at Habitat. She still serves on Habitat's finance committee.

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