From abandoned blades to old airplanes, Vermont Surplus Property has bargains galore

Where can you buy a cheap hardware desk, find an antique embalming machine and pick up the pocket knife that you had to give up to security officials when you flew from the Burlington International Airport?

Turns out, it’s all in one place: the State of Vermont Surplus Property Warehouse in Waterbury.

Set back from U.S. Route 2 west of downtown, the low-profile state-run warehouse store collects surplus state office equipment and supplies, groundskeeping tools, items relinquished to the federal Transportation Security Administration at the airport and more.

Operated by the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services in Waterbury since 2009, the unique second-hand store has collected items that otherwise might end up in a trash heap to sell to savvy treasure-seekers. Items come from across state agencies for a chance to find a second life. When a state office moves, closes or just gets new chairs, the old furniture needs to go somewhere. Surplus employees review the old items and select what is desirable and what needs to be thrown out. The hand-picked inventory then fills the showroom.

Vermont Surplus2
Photo by Gordon Miller/Waterbury Roundabout.
The nondescript storefront belies the secondhand treasures inside.
Photos by Gordon Miller/Waterbury Roundabout
The nondescript storefront belies the secondhand treasures inside.

The warehouse receives new surplus items every two to three weeks. On a recent visit, offerings included an array of office supplies and gardening tools. All office supplies are priced between $1 and $10. And the selection isn’t limited to pens and shovels. Shoppers will find an old Sony Betamax video cassette player from the Department of Fish and Wildlife for $100 — a score for those who desire that dated technology for its sound quality.

“We base our prices on market value,” said Joshua Cooper, one of two surplus property programs staffers at the warehouse.  

About that antique embalming machine: It has resided at Vermont Surplus Property longer than Cooper or any other current employees have worked there. “We only recently put a price on it,” Cooper said. “We put a high price on it because it’s more of a museum piece. But that’s one of the odd ones.”

Any item collected by TSA at the Burlington airport probably will end up at Vermont Surplus Property. The TSA gives air travelers who try to carry on prohibited items the choice of voluntarily relinquishing those items to security agents or skipping their flight.  Most items taken, including hundreds of abandoned knives, lie across multiple tables in the warehouse. From Leatherman tools to fishing knives, 1-inch to 6-inch blades, Vermont Surplus Property has a remarkable selection of cutting instruments for $15 or less.

Vermont Surplus Photo by Gordon Miller/Waterbury Roundabout. A section of the store is devoted to collecting electronics for recycling.
A section of the store is devoted to collecting electronics for recycling.

Beyond knives, the surplus store collects other items deemed unsafe for an airplane, including electronics with large lithium-ion batteries. According to Cooper, the weirdest item that TSA has sent to the warehouse was an electric scooter. It was handed over by its owner because of its large battery, he said.

Someone who finds themselves about to lose an important pocketknife or corkscrew as they head to board their flight can email the warehouse. Staff will be on the lookout for the piece, set the item aside when it arrives and send a notification for the owner to visit the store to pick it up after paying a nominal fee.

Kate Eberle is communications director for the state Buildings and General Services Department. She said the surplus warehouse store plays an important role in state government, and it was created by statute.

“Having an opportunity for agencies and departments to purchase necessary supplies at a reduced rate and recoup costs when divesting of property saves the taxpayers money and is generally recognized as best practice,” she said.

Annual sales at the store are about $2 million, Eberle said, with about $1.7 million going back to the agencies and departments.

Office furniture is popular, especially desk chairs, Eberle said. “But the airport sharps draw the biggest crowd. People are always looking for pocket knives, hand tools and corkscrews.”

Vermont Surplus Property also sells old government vehicles. Any small business owner or a “public entity” can participate in the surplus property program to buy vehicles for a significantly reduced fee. Buyers need to apply through the surplus program and maintain the vehicle for a specified period. Recently, the surplus program offered an airplane from the Vermont Flight Academy.

Participants in the program pay a minimal fee, Cooper said. “It could be $500, as long as they can prove that it’s been in use or ready to be used as part of their business.”

It saves buyers the cost of paying full price or even a market-based price for a used vehicle. “It’s donated to them, really,” Cooper continued. “They have to just follow the rules 18 months. And after that, it’s theirs.”

Vermont Surplus3 Photo by Gordon Miller/Waterbury Roundabout. An antique embalming machine is among the items for sale.
An antique embalming machine is among the items for sale.

Vermont Surplus Property also offers electronic recycling for old electronics such as computers, monitors, printers, televisions and the associated cords and peripheral accessories. The state’s electronics recycling program has a list of items accepted free of charge. Items not on the list cost 50 cents per pound to recycle.

And while visiting in person and strolling through the showroom is part of the treasure-hunt experience, the state in 2021 created an online store for surplus shoppers to peruse available items in case they can’t easily make the trip to Waterbury, or if they just want to know if the trip would be worthwhile.

Cooper says the website store is “essentially a live portal to what we have here” in the showroom. The website does not have an online purchase option, although Cooper said a customer could call to pay over the phone for an item they see and want to buy. The store does not ship, so still have to visit to pick up their items. Still, the website is fairly up to date within a few hours of items being added and removed, so the public has a handy way to see what’s available.

“Anything you see (online) is in the warehouse,” Cooper said.

(Via Community News Service, a University of Vermont journalism internship, on assignment for the Waterbury Roundabout.)