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Columns Magazine
Eric Wahl
UW Surplus Store Marketer
Intrepid Rummager
Wily Wordsmith

We receive thousands of discarded, unwanted, and obsolete goods from every UW department from athletics to zoology. Our job is to sell the stuff. Part of my job is to write the descriptions for the items we sell on our online catalog.

After hearing our warehouse staff joke about some items that came in one day, I included what they said in my copy. From there, things grew into the silliness we see today in the item descriptions.

Eric Wahl
Ron Wurzer photo

Like the description of a 1960s-era kid’s doll I titled Rosemary’s Baby: “Her eyes follow you everywhere in the room. Unless she’s horizontal (her eyes close). And, just like my sister, there’s a round contraption in her back that makes a wheezecrying sound to ensure you’re fully creeped out. Mission accomplished!”

When I was a kid, my friends and I would dumpster-dive and sell our treasured finds at garage sales for candy- and ice cream-money. Little did I know how much that would dovetail into what I do now.

Office furniture, walkers, computers, Raggedy Ann dolls, free weights, lab equipment, old books, mysterious trophies, size 12 athletic shoes, vehicles, you name it, we receive it. We even have the original laptop, a Compaq 386 computer from the 1980s. We move more than 70,000 items every year.

In my copy, I like to weave in arcane references such as the modernist poetry of Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare plays, and my devotion to the Oxford comma, much to the delight of English teachers and librarians everywhere.

I’ve seen great humor creep into postings by the surplus guys at Oregon State, Indiana, Michigan State and others. I do what I do to help us keep things out of the landfill and promote the UW’s commitment to sustainability. If those guys want to rip that off, I say, be my guest.

I most enjoy the mystery pieces— archaic machinery, anything with funky upholstery, curiously designed lab items. Writing about these things invites interaction from the public.

Chairs aren’t like snowflakes. Receiving hundreds every week can present challenges for even the wittiest marketers among us. I’m drawn first to good design, which for me is highlighted by mid-century modern. I was sad to see “Mad Men” end because that show was some of the best advertising our chairs ever got.

Most of us try not to buy too much for ourselves for fear of becoming hoarders. But I did snag a sweet hydraulic office chair because retail on those things is insane. We have some WPA-era artwork here now that’s going to test my resolve, though.

Some of the best responses I get are from alums or retired UW staff who remember an old item I’ve posted, a favorite professor’s use of a thing, or the provenance of a special item like a grand piano or bit of architectural salvage. Those reactions gladden my heart and remind me that we are also stewards of memories of people’s college years. I take that more seriously than folks might imagine.

Most unexpectedly, for me, have been the positive responses I’ve received from professional advertising copywriters. I came to this profession sideways; I’m humbled by their encouragement.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve got a bus right now, if you know somebody.