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Bargain hunters gather at 'Henrietta Mall' for hidden treasures

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Park Rapids, 56470

Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

The "Henrietta Mall" is a thriving center of commerce. And like most malls, it's also the social hub of Hubbard County.

That's the euphemism solid waste attendants have attached to that particular section of the county landfill, located just off Henrietta Avenue in Park Rapids.

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Scavengers, scroungers, entrepreneurs, bargain hunters and dumpster divers all converge looking for that rare antiquity or valuable piece of something they're missing. Or that would bring them money.

It's a treasure trove of junk du jour.

But it's also, in a tough economy, becoming a lifeline for people down on their luck.

"I've been here eight years and it's always been called the Henrietta Mall," said certified solid waste attendant Janelle Pedersen. "I'm not sure where the name came from."

Pedersen said waste attendants promote recycling, and even take orders for "customers."

"Here this lady needed 45 shingles," Pedersen said, pointing to a note tacked to the bulletin board. "A contractor came to dump some extra ones and we called her to pick them up."

When Wal-Mart recently disposed of some display shelving, attendants quarantined the items and parceled them out to customers who needed shelves. Workers often segregate the "good stuff" - items that will quickly be recycled for new use, piling it up by the solid waste office door instead of relegating it to a pile on the landfill grounds.

When a man stopped by the office a few years ago to ask if anyone could use a stove, Janelle happened to be in need. The donor relinquished a fairly new Magic Chef model stove that she's used in her home since.

The donor explained that his wife didn't like the smooth cooking surface.

Like most malls, the inventory changes daily.

"Here look at this," said a regular customer who declined to give his name. "It's almost brand new," he said, holding up a gas can.

The man stopped at the office on his way out to pick up an old organ. Attendants helped him load it into the back of his pickup.

"I'm hoping my kids will play it," he said. He said the solid waste unit is the best type of recycling because people who can't use an item can dispose of it while picking up something they can use.

"People go out there and get reusable stuff," said Vern Massie, Hubbard County's Solid Waste Management administrator. "It's not just scrap metal... lumber, pieces of plywood... we set furniture aside that people have gotten.

"Everything that we either don't have to ship or bury, we're saving money," Massie said. "So it effectually got called Henrietta Mall and the one up north is called the Kabekona K-mart."

The mall's customer base, long-timers, is suspicious of media coverage and generally hostile to anyone inquiring into their "shopping habits." Many didn't want their names used; most didn't want to be photographed.

"I've been around here most of my life and have known them that long," Massie said. He agreed that many of the customers may appear wary about outsiders who invade their turf. "They've been doing this for years," he said of the scrap metal recyclers. "Some probably shouldn't be here for one reason or another -- they're supplementing a disability check" or may have an outstanding warrant.

There's money in those piles of trash because, as the saying goes, one man's trash is another's treasure.

For the first time, the landfill will make money out of its scrap metal pile. Since 1987, Massie said the department has had to pay recyclers to haul away its old appliances and junk piles. This year it's different.

The scrap metal business has become somewhat lucrative, but like the stock market, is volatile, especially for low quality metal. When Hubbard County solicited bids, Crow Wing recycling out of Brainerd got the bid last year.

"He pays us based on a $100/ton value," Massie said. "Anything over $100 we get paid for. This is the first year in 27 years we've gotten paid for it, maybe longer than that.

"For the spring cleanup, our check for lead acid batteries, propane tanks, all the scrap metal was $21,000 but that was when scrap metal was almost $400 per ton. It's back down to $100 to $150 (per ton) so this check may be $5,000 to $6,000," Massie said of the fall reconnaissance.

Potential profits have invited some competition and envy. But it still allows individuals like Dave Moore to scrounge. This week Moore was looking for a bicycle wheel for his grandchild's mini-bike.

"We pretty much take everything except human bodies," Janelle said, directing a garbage truck into the dumpsite. "You have to have good PR skills to work here."

Topside, in the "balcony level" of the mall, Janelle assists a couple in a pickup dumping their garbage, the woman asks, "How's your son?"

"Great! How's yours?" Janelle replies. The women discuss kids while Janelle heaves heavy bags of garbage into a pit and sorts through paint cans, blankets and other items in the couple's pickup bed.

Janelle figures she knows everyone in the county. Her job is never the same from one day to the next, she said.

She enjoys filling a need for people who place custom orders and notes that needs are up in a sour economy. She tries to help everyone she can.

But Janelle draws the line at her flowers. "Don't take them," she said, pointing to a barrel outside the office door. She used to put smaller flowerpots there, but because they were intermingled with the "good stuff" attendants routinely hold as custom orders, someone mistakenly carted them off along with the merchandise one day.

When the lines of traffic pile up during the busy summer months, Janelle visits with each short-tempered customer to ease the wait. She inspects their loads and directs them to the spot on the "mall grounds" where the merchandise is to be deposited, sorting through it in case someone has placed a custom order.

"If we get a working appliance, we'll write on it that it works so someone can take it if they want," Janell said.

Down below the office, on the mall grounds, customers check in with office staff before proceeding into the dump piles. Those looking for a bargain need to sign a waiver of liability and agree not to climb on the piles of rubbish.

Massie recently told county board members the major problem he's had at the dumpsite involves the occasional coffee klatch. Customers share coffee in pickups facing each other, talking trash and impeding access to the piles.

Life at the landfill couldn't be better for Janelle. She loves her work and her customers. "Thanks dear!" she says to a customer dropping off an item.

"I hope to stay here until I retire," she said with a grin. "It's the best job I've ever had."

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