Interview with R.R. Anderson, Founder & Creative Reuse Specialist @ Tacoma’s Tinkertopia

From the South Sound Talk…

When your average mother opens the junk drawer, the havoc of safety pins, odd buttons and nearly-spent spools of string look like something on the spring cleaning to-do list: “clean out odds-and-ends” or “take scrap stash to Goodwill.” When Darcy and Richard Ryan Anderson spy such a hodge podge, however, they see infinite opportunities for creativity.

The couple’s downtown shop, Tinkertopia, has been sourcing upcycled materials into Captain Planet-approved arts and crafts since July 17, 2013. The storefront is one of many in a four-block spread of shops that flank Pacific Avenue. Located just outside of the Tacoma campus of the University of Washington, the venture has become a refuge for the forgotten font of miscellany that would otherwise have gone to the city’s landfills.

R.R.’s interview may not have fit cleanly into a business profile, but his answers were so thoughtful and fun that I could not, in good conscience, deprive the world of the sweet things he had to say about his wife, the passion he feels for his city and the inspirational ownership he and his family have taken towards our community’s stewardship.

And so, without further ado…

Okay, so first off, who are you and what is your role at Tinkertopia? (For the record, as it were.)

Greetings! I am RR Anderson, Chief of PSYOPS and undersecretary of the Tinker Patrol here at Tinkertopia, the Tinkers Utopia, Creative Reuse Center and Alternative (Alt.) Art Supply. I’m in charge of donations/sorting/pickup interfacing with the great material continuum.

I understand that Tinkertopia is a joint venture that you operate side-by-side with your wife. How is it that you two landed on the notion of a shop like this?

Ms. Darcy, president/CEO of Tinkertopia and I were both looking for the next adventure. She a Montessori trained preschool teacher looking for new challenges and I a freshly laid-off graphic designer of a recent shipwrecked design firm saw a light in the darkness in the form of a call-to-artists appeal for applications to the Spaceworks Tacoma creative enterprise program.  We thought we could start up something similar to the Creation Station in Lynwood WAsh whose owners were retiring.  We knew a store like that would blow the minds of people in South Puget Sound if we made it more experienced-based, like  curiosity shop meets boeing surplus store meets archie mcphees but with hand crafted cartoon themes.  Our application was accepted and we moved forward with fire in our eyes, tornadoes in our bellies.

Can you characterize yourself for me? I know you from that iconic cap, your illustrations and your involvement with a community of like-minded small business owners and CLAW. Can you tell me anything that I maybe don’t know? Fans of a local artist or band, love to garden, are you an acrobat, do you fight crime?

I began my career in Tacoma as a freelance private investigator specializing in cases involving time travel or spatial anomalies but was soon disillusioned with constant requests to expose cheating spouses and the PNW climate is rough on fedoras so I began looking for other careers with cool hats.  Fast-forward to today, a fez representing a secret society of cartoonists, a submarine captain’s cap representing the old-timey, local TeeVee cartoon show-host look I’m going for to represent alternative art store employment…I love to grow+harvest+sell “Father Bix Anti-Nuke” brand sunflower seeds. I’m fan of a local band Death By Stars but did they break up recently?  My favorite cheeseburger is the Engine House No. 9 burger. My favorite ice cream shop is Ice Cream Social. I draw underground political cartoons every Tuesday night “Tacomic Tuesday.” I fight crime with a network of Little Free Libraries as all criminal activity is a result of ignorance and thus a lack of reading and or access to books.

I know that your wife Darcy has a background in Montessori education and an art education, that she hails from Alaska and is exceptionally resourceful with her art installations. What can you tell me about Darcy?

Ms. Darcy is mostly human, but I’m sure somewhere in her lineage in a union between mortal and goddess. Maybe thats how she tolerates the mischief of her cartoonist husband. Anyway she has all kinds of wizzarding secrets and someday I will figure them out… and the secrets of the cosmos will be revealed to me!  Even so, whenever the sewing machine can’t handle her project she’ll roll up her sleeves and hand-sew whatever needs to get done.  She is the hardest working person I know. Great arctic oceans of integrity. Accounting wiz. A true diplomat. A talented performer and puppeteer.

How did it initially come to pass that you started accumulating the wide array of supplies that you have on hand?

All accumulations are a result of recognizing the infinite opportunities of the Great Material Continuum aka our consumer culture waste stream that saturates the globe.  We are helped by a network of Tinker Patrol Deputies who travel the continuum diverting interesting materials our direction.

>Have you learned anything about this business since you started this venture that you didn’t know before? It can be funny, inspiring, disheartening, reasonably gross—what’s something that this business has shown you that has touched you and your family in some way?

Learning about humanity mostly. All objects tell a story, if the Tinker Patrol Deputy is experienced, we get the story in addition to the object, which is just as important to pass along as the object itself. Unknown objects orphaned from their histories are assigned stories carefully engineered to spark wonder.  People can never get enough corks & bottle caps.  Having a physical location downtown, you see that homelessness, addiction and mental illness is an enormous problem that our way of life creates and the resources we squander on war and killing in far away places is insane.

To switch gears, how do you describe Tinkertopia to others? Is the business just as you imagined it when you set out, or has it outgrown your initial hopes? Is there something that the two of you would like to see expanded upon as you move into your third year?

Tinkertopia is a creative reuse center or alternative art supply store. We are a thrift shop, but instead of musty clothes and sticky kitchen wares we sell things that are too strange for second-hand stores. Parts. Scraps. Obsolete curiosities. Nostalgia. We are always growing our selection of handmade art and kits.  Things are taking shape just as envisioned, but someday we would like to acquire an elongated penny-rolling machine.

How do you come up with most of your finds–are they pick-ups or drop-offs? I know you take personal donations, but do you have any corporate resources that donate materials in bulk? You still do pick-ups, correct?

We do pickup runs with a vehicle best described as the Tinkermobile. She may not look like much, but I’ve made a lot of special modifications.  Majority of our drop-offs are personal art studio cast-offs and we are always in search of business waste materials.  For example, used tennis balls & empty tennis ball tubes are an amazing resource. Empty industrial thread spool cones are insanely popular as well.  We’ve built an empire on top of these things.

Are there any materials that you’re in need of? Is there anything that you can’t accept?

Always seeking new sources of corks/bottle caps.  Love old keys. We have a full list of suggested materials on our website tinkertopia.com.   We can’t take food containers (just recycle those), things with an ick-factor we also avoid (underwear, toilet paper scraps on the roll, paper stuff from garage your dog peed on, yarn with moth eggs, fabric with cat hair)

What do you do with any material that you can’t use?

  1. 1 Reject
  2. 2 Reduce
  3. 3 Reuse
  4. 4 Recycle
  5. 5 Rot

This question is perhaps gauche, but I’m curious as to whether or not you’re able to turn a profit with a venture like this.

Ms. Darcy and I have invented two full time, self-sustaining, living-wage jobs for ourselves thanks to SpaceWorks Tacoma. It’s hard work, but honest work. Our culture generates SO MUCH waste that any city or town could easily support a handful of similar type shops, and even then there would still be so many cool things being wasted, burned and buried for no other reason than nobody can think of anything better to do with it.  Hate your job? Looking for something fun to do? You too could make your own Tinkertopia, given the right opportunities.

What, of all of your donations, has been your favorite? The most impressively large? The most valuable?

I like old typewriters. Old film cameras. The collection of Soviet military medals were great.  Old Boeing company aerospace souvenirs are wonderful. Largest single thing might have been the civil defense emergency bomb shelter drinking water drum.  We are gathering a nice collection of gold pocket watches that I’m guessing are pretty valuable and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with them.  Mannequins are also large but less difficult to find homes for.  Most large items just become part of our shop… the extremely rare library card catalog is an example.  But sometimes the large items that become part of our shop are also purchased and we’re sad to see them go–the funhouse mirror is an example.

I have the same question about your art installations: favorite, largest, most valuable?

My personal favorite was the bull heads I welded together from handlebars and bicycle seats all floating with fishing line in the window for year of the bull. Ms. Darcy also once made a stationary float in the window for the Daffodil Parade which had an interactive element. We’re currently displaying our line of Civil Defense SIDEWALK COMMANDER chalking kits for the 2015 chalk season which in terms of earthquake preparedness could serve unlimited value in time of crisis.

> Tell me about the creative force behind your shop. Your site, your signage and your marketing have all been consistently branded thanks to your artwork and web design skills, and I think that really speaks highly of Spaceworks and of the Tacoma cultural scene. (I’m just saying that; there’s no follow-up question. I really like your website.) 🙂

We wanted to create a place people would remember and talk about. Place Tacoma people would bring out of town guests to see. I wanted to plaster my rough pencil sketch political cartoon style all over because I was tired of the slick realistic 3d gamer style we were always trying to copy in my last day job. We had a vision for crazy pee-wee’s play house meets an educational/nostalgic veneer of reading rainbow… we painted our walls sky blue and hung up puffy idea cartoon thought clouds. I was always obsessed with the magic shop in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the Costume/Disguise Shop in the Pink Panther movies. If MacGyver owned a spy shop what would it look like? It would be full of everyday junk but labeled “bicycle flame thrower” or “parachute for golf cart”  I wanted to try out all the creative ideas & social marketing that always got shot down in design meetings at my last commercial art job.

What is a typical day consist of for you? Do you dedicate a certain space of time for pick-ups, do you wake up and start creating, are you able to work from home to balance your web design work and your business?

When we have an event in the Tinkerspace, Ms. Darcy is back with the Tinker Cadets and I have the helm (checkout + computer). Donations are coming in at all hours. I’m trying to cut down on pickups because we have plenty coming in through front door these days and our storage unit is at 98% capacity. Will make special pickup runs if folks need help cleaning out grandpa/grandma’s home tinker shop.

On slow days we have fun making art. Ms. Darcy is turning the front of the shop’s bottom windows into a miniature ‘mouse mansion’ world. We’re always thinking of new kits to make. Did you know tennis ball tubes are the perfect kit container? We keep a list of updates to make to the website when time permits. When there are no events, we can work swing shifts: one of us is at the shop while the other is in the home studio doing fun things or chores.

Tell me some about your involvement with Spaceworks. [Tinkertopia, along with dozens of other Tacoma shops, was made possible in part by the Andeson’s involvement in the Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise Program, which provides training, support and, in some cases, space to systematically grow Tacoma’s creative class and generate destination quality activity designed to engage and transform the community.]

SpaceWorks program helps you test out an idea, points out areas of your plan that need more thought and provides a space to experiment before things get too serious and stressful with a long term lease and fat rent check hanging over your head.  You can play with your business model for 6 months and if it doesn’t work you’re not on the hook for anything.  You have access to marketing workshops, business advice and network of other artsy entrepreneur types.  Anytime another spaceworks project launches you get a mention in the local paper which always is a good thing, why pay for advertisements when people talk about you for free? Any downtown with lots of empty storefronts should consider launching a spaceworks style program.  Talk to your local arts commissioner, chamber of commerce or city council person about it right now!   Looking at you Bremerton, Olympia, Port Townsend, Shelton… etc.

Do you have plans to expand? Have you received any interest from other groups, organizations, etc. about starting a similar sort of networking group?

We play with the idea of a franchise… There is a not-for-profit chain store version of the Creative Reuse Center called Scrap USA, and you’re lucky if you have one nearby. Folks can always start their own Scrap store, but we couldn’t handle the red tape and bureaucracy of nonprofits.  We pay our taxes happily and proudly!

As a geocacher, I’m curious as to whether or not you’ve had any cachers come in in search of unique supplies for with which to camouflage containers. 🙂 If you haven’t yet, I think that sounds like a fun workshop and I would love to plant a geocache at your site!

All the time! Green army ammo boxes work great for that. I operate a little free library in the alley behind my house called the Central Tacoma Free Radial Media Exchange.

Why is Tacoma the perfect spot for a space like yours?

We are a port city. We have things coming and going built in. Tacoma is the City of Destiny. We are pioneers in creative reuse—our wastewater treatment plant facility makes its own DIY soils and fertilizer product from biosolids (poopie) called TAGRO, and it is the best.  People who are giving Tacoma a bad rap…don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

Tacoma is filled with empty, historic buildings, and is a prime location for any climate change refugees looking to rebuild their shattered lives. We like Tacoma because you can appear and assume the role of something and there is nobody to push out of the way because there is so much emptiness. Its like the Twilight Zone episodes where everyone is gone, and it’s just one person wandering around an empty city trying to solve the mystery of what happened to all the people. Obviously, in this case what happened to downtown Tacoma was the creation of the Tacoma Mall, but I try not to think about that unholy place.

What are some of your favorite Tacoma businesses? If someone swings by Tinkertopia, what is there to do around your shop?

Tinkertopia is open 7 days a week, so we get many tourists asking us what to do next while our neighbors are off enjoying a hard-earned day off.  Savor next door has the best crepes. I could eat one everyday if it was up to me. If you’re seeking more vintage wonders, I recommend Earthwise Architectural Salvage further down Pacific Ave. Habitat for Humanity has a nice Hardware store, too. For used bicycle goodies check out 2nd Cycle over on MLK JR. Way. To see a high-tech maker-space, go up the grand staircase to FabLab, and stop for coffee along the way up the stairs at Metro Coffee.  For vintage electronics, check out Electronic Dimensions over by the Tacoma Dome.  Tacoma Book Center is over that direction too.  Wright Park Area? Check out Kings Books and Destiny City Comics, which is in a tiny shop inside Kings Books. Lots of waterfront to explore. Friday Noon Frost Park Chalk Challenge at 9th and Pacific is worth a visit. Looking for used vintage clothes? check out Urban Exchange,  Tacoma’s most famous clothing store.  If you like old buildings, check out the old post office and old city hall.

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