By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Two guys you might never expect to find in the same place at the same time -- a skinny, balding white fellow in preppy shorts and sandals and a heavyset black man in grease-stained blue work pants and a grimy T-shirt stretched taut over his considerable girth A are staring quizzically at a peculiar machine resting atop a table in one of the cluttered aisles of the Dade County Store. The object of their attention looks like something from Dr. Frankenstein's lab: a compact blue electric motor about the size of a loaf of bread, which might or might not be a pump of some sort, haphazardly connected by two clear plastic hoses to a large glass bottle on a low pedestal. The bottle is calibrated in milliliters. The men are inspecting the contraption closely not because either is particularly interested in buying it, but because they cannot figure out what exactly it is.
"Something medical," the black guy guesses. He lifts his tattered baseball hat and uses it to scratch his head. "What d'you think?"
The white guy shrugs. "Damned if I know. It's like these things here," he says, gesticulating toward a box of chrome gauges.
"Regulators," explains the black guy. "Like for oxygen tanks."
"Oh, yeah," says the white guy with a nod. "You buy a lot of stuff here?"
"Whenever I find something I can use. Why d'you ask?"
"I'm writing an article about the store, and--"
"What the hell you doin' that for?" the black guy snaps, tugging his cap back on and backing away. "Then everybody'll know where it is."
"We're in the junk business for the county," explains Clinie Ford, manager of the County Store and, according to the plaque near the entrance, the Dade County General Services Administration's Outstanding Employee of the Fourth Quarter of 1989. Located at 980 W. 84th Street in Hialeah, the combination thrift shop/warehouse where the county unloads its surplus and "found" property is open to the walk-in public five days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
"Don't say 'stolen,'" Ford admonishes. "It might have been stolen property, but it also might have been personal property that went unclaimed in the property room for a period of time, or it could have been confiscated from prisoners or come from the jail. A lot of jewelry comes in like that. It's found property. Not necessarily stolen." As she emphasizes this distinction, her left hand rests upon a display case containing roughly two dozen "found" car stereos.
According to Ford, the County Store's first priority is to try to distribute the property it receives to departments that need it. By her estimate, 25 percent of the warehouse's inventory eventually finds a new home with the Dade County bureaucracy. "But as much as I try to reallocate whatever comes in for county use, there's times when you just can't," she says. "A typewriter or a fax machine or a desk is one thing, but you can't allocate something like perfume. No one better come in here and say, 'I want some perfume for county use.' Most of them know me. They wouldn't dare try that."
The caseful of car stereos isn't a likely candidate for reallocation; they're priced for outright sale. And whoever buys them might as well be stealing them. The County Store is willing to sacrifice an $800 Nakamichi deck for $121, a couple of Blaupunkts for less than $100 apiece, and a Kenwood for $69. If that's still too pricey, there's a Sanyo for two dollars. (It was originally marked at six bucks, but the County Store adheres to an infallible pricing structure: if an item has languished on the shelf for more than ten days, Ford takes ten percent off, and continues to do so until the item sells.)
At Ford's discretion, high-ticket items -- camcorders, diamond rings, antique pocket watches, video security systems, et cetera -- are often sold through an informal bidding system rather than via direct pricing. Bids are collected over the course of about three weeks and then the merchandise is sold to the biggest spender.
Surplus items such as desks, chairs, file cabinets, office telephones, word processors, copiers, shelves, and credenzas occupy the bulk of the store's space. Perfume, jewelry, radios, and watches fill the glass display cases near the warehouse's front door. While Ford and her co-workers know where nearly everything is, there is no real order to the place. But the absence of any discernible floor plan is part of the County Store's considerable charm.
"Most of our business is repeat customers. They come here once and they're hooked," Ford laughs. "It's addictive, like the flea market. In fact, lots of the people who peddle things at the flea market shop here. We have daily customers, they get up every morning and this is their first stop. Then I have my couple-times-a-week regulars, my weekly customers, and some who come in a lot but not on a regular basis. It's all kinds."
Metal racks sagging under the weight of surplus books from the county library system dominate the store's northwest corner. Where else can you buy an entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (albeit a decade or more out of date and missing a few volumes) for a dollar a volume? From popular novels like Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough and Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle to page-turners like Marketing Opportunities in Japan and Ventilators and Inhalation Therapy, there's bound to be something to fit everyone's reading list here. And the prices are unbelievable: ten fiction books for a dollar; nonfiction four for a dollar. (Ford's justification of the higher price for nonfiction: "It's reality. It costs a little more.")