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Making secondhand the first choice

Just minutes from downtown Cleveland is a crafter’s paradise at Upcycle Parts Shop. Tucked between a Slovenian museum and what appears to be an empty storefront, a bounty of jewelry, buttons, pinecones, stickers, beads and fabric await the creatively curious at every turn.

Co-founder Nicole McGee (MA ’10) talks of magic when she speaks of her shop. As in, the confluence of the neighbors, workers and mission creates an undeniable energy – a spark – that draws in visitors and newbies, compelling them to stick around for a while.

“I don’t think I understand how it happens and I don’t question it,” McGee says.

“I just feel really grateful for it.”

The shop is a non-profit, selling low-cost secondhand creative supplies and was a central component of a larger initiative to revitalize the Superior-St.Clair neighborhood in Cleveland.

“To provoke creativity and promote community through reuse, resourcefulness and relationships.” That’s the mission, McGee says.

Beyond just offering a space where crafters and artists can find affordable supplies, she wants the shop to connect people to each other and to the surrounding neighborhood.

McGee sits on the community development board, partners with nearby high schools, hosts workshops for the locals, employs longtime neighbors and remains committed to being a mainstay of the neighborhood. 

“We’re working on…connecting people through a creative invitation, so we’re building some social fabric that way,” she says.

McGee was a reuse artist and secondhand evangelist well before she helped launch Upcycle. Years ago, Aladdin’s Eatery commissioned her to create flowers from vinyl flooring for the restaurants. Once the manufacturer of that flooring got wind of her creations, company officials asked her for more promotional pieces. And as a sociology graduate student at CSU, her focus of study was on the nature of secondhand consumption.

It wasn’t until she attended a national creative reuse conference in North Carolina and saw what was possible that her path shifted to focus on creating a place where people could fashion new life from used objects.

“My knees almost buckled when I walked in [the conference],” she says.

“[It was like] my art studio times 100.”

Since then, Upcycle has exceeded McGee’s expectations.

“We have many volunteers, and it’s bigger than I imagined it could be,” she says.

While she’s had offers to launch new locations, McGee says she’s more focused on strengthening the shop’s stake in the neighborhood and its financial footing to ensure a long-lasting future. Eventually, she’ll hand it off. 

But for now, she’s not going anywhere. 

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