The Swap Shed: “toy store, compulsion, book store or bone of contention.”

by Karina Coombs

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Richard Ketchen’s 18th century find. (Photo by Karina Coombs)
Hewlett-Packard test equipment repaired by Shannon Hill. (Photo by Karina Coombs)

Almost immediately upon moving to Carlisle, as any new resident can attest, the topic of the Transfer Station comes up and more specifically the Swap Shed located within. For a new Carlislean, it would appear that a visit to the dump is as integral a part of the town’s rural charm and identity as a summer trip to Kimball Farm ice cream stand.

“My husband loved the Swap Shed,” says long-time resident Wendy Davis of her late husband, Jim. “It is a true Carlisle institution. He would come back from the dump with more than he left with,” Davis fondly recalls, pointing to a lamp she still uses that was acquired on one of his trips. Former Carlisle resident Lois d’Annunzio finds that she continues to miss the Swap Shed on a weekly basis. “Either I have something ‘interesting’ that I would like to drop off or some little widget that I know is lying about in the shed,” says d’Annunzio.

The Swap Shed is many things to many people: a treasure hunt, a toy store, a weekly compulsion, a bookstore, a bone of contention, a depository of useful (and not so useful) things and a tinkerer’s delight, among others. But at its core, as longtime resident Tim Gordon explains, it is also the important first step in recycling. “[A] lot of us remember that ‘reuse’ comes before ‘recycle,’ and we’re hoping the things we leave there might find another more efficient ‘second life’ before they head into the more energy-intensive process of full recycling,” says Gordon.

Philip Gladstone proudly admits to coming from a frugal family and being one in a long line of family tinkerers who do not like to see things cast off that can still be repaired and used. Gladstone also admits that he “acquires more than [he] makes work.” To date he has found and repaired his “workhorse” laser printer and a pair of speakers, the latter with the help of a kit he found and purchased on eBay. A 1920s typewriter still awaits some repair as does a taxidermied Great Blue Heron “which was a bit battered, and now looks very sorry for itself after the dog chewed off its legs,” says Gladstone.

A mountain bike repaired and reused by Shannon Hill.
(Photo by Karina Coombs)

Shannon Hill is a fellow tinkerer who seems to have no limit to the number of items he can successfully repair. Gladstone refers to Hill as “the king of fixing things from the Swap Shed.” In keeping with his title, Hill has an impressive collection of items that he has been able to repair and reuse, ranging from mosquito magnets to a high-end mountain bike and everything in between. Hill notes that his current laptop was a Swap Shed find that simply needed a new power supply. A number of large Hewlett Packard laser printers have been fixed and given a new life in Hill’s home and as donations to others. Hill repairs Hewlett Packard test equipment, sewing machines and various components used in video games. “I’m a fix-it kind of person,” Hill admits. “[I] just hate to see this stuff go into a landfill.” Hill also acknowledges that finding new homes for some of his repairs presents a challenge of a different sort. “I think of them as jigsaw puzzles. The fun is putting it together; once it’s together, what do you do with a jigsaw puzzle?” Hill asks.

The Ketchen family has made a number of useful finds at the Swap Shed, bringing home books, wine glasses, loose-leaf notebooks, cross-country skis, a lawn mower and silver candelabras. Their current stove was also a Swap Shed find and was given to them by a friend after having made a minor repair to it. But it was a discovery made about ten years ago that commands a tour to a ticking workshop. “When I saw it I walked over, touched it and said, ‘mine,’” recounts Richard, a local clockmaker, describing the moment he found a late 18th century English grandfather clock (or long-case clock) at the Swap Shed. While the clock was in pretty bad condition, needing both significant movement and case repairs, it was restorable. Ketchen knew he could not leave it behind and as he was trying to figure out how to get it in his car, was fortunate enough to spot an acquaintance with a pickup truck who offered to help transport it. While Ketchen does not have the time to take on the costly restoration project, he also is in no hurry to pass it on. “It’s what I do,” he says, gesturing to the surrounding clocks. “[And] it’s too good of a story to sell.”

Local blogger and decorator Jennifer Bridgman has also had a number of Swap Shed finds that she has successfully restored and refinished, creating beautiful furniture pieces that look nothing like the original ( A particular favorite is a cane chair that she spent a week working on to strip, sand, paint and reupholster after discovering it at the Swap Shed, a scrap of velour covering a torn and tattered silk cover and decaying padding. “The cane chair was so special because the caning was in near perfect condition. I’m not sure I could have put it in my car faster than I did! And it was pretty sad looking when I saw it.”

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Jennifer Bridgman’s find. (Courtesy Photo)
The chair transformed. (Courtesy Photo)

When looking for pieces that she can restore, Bridgman explains that rather than looking at a piece in its current state, she looks for “interesting lines to pieces, structural soundness, potential for upgrades like new fabric and hardware.” With regard to the cane chair Bridgman explains, “It looks like it was pretty gorgeous originally, so I kind of like to think I brought it back to something of its former loveliness.”

Sometimes the repair of a Swap Shed item takes on a decidedly more personal and sentimental focus, particularly when the recipient is a preschooler. “About a year and a half ago, we found a wooden folding castle in the shed. It had been seriously marked up with pens and paint and a multitude of gooey, foam stickers had been applied. A dog had chewed on a corner and one side was warped. [After much repair] the result has been a toy that my son has enjoyed nearly daily and we will be proud to pass along at some point,” says Kathleen Hauser.

Eric and Abby Zimmerman have also found many toys to pass along to their children, with larger pieces ranging from a hobby horse to a train table. Abby also spent a summer restoring a large cedar trunk which now sits proudly in the entryway of their home. But their most unusual find? Zimmerman says it was a modern metal nude sculpture. “We couldn’t leave her [and] kept moving her around to spots in our yard. She now lives in the woods [but] we may move her again so she’s visible from the trail by our house just for fun.”

Still other Swap Shed items find a more immediate use when their condition falls into the “gently used” category. Gordon, who seems to have a uniquely beneficial relationship with the Swap Shed writes, “My rice cooker wore out several years ago, and just as I was starting to shop around for a new one, someone left a brand new [one] in the shed. I’ve only just worn it out and am once again looking for another. Can you hear me, Swap Shed? I [also] had a box fan burn out last fall, and a few weeks after recycling it, there was a nice clean one waiting for me in the shed, which just needed a drop of oil on the bearings to run like new again. Thanks, somebody!”

Martha Supnik, who has found a number of items at the Swap Shed that she has reused and repaired, also encourages Carlisle residents to consider bringing gently used household goods found at either the Swap Shed or from their own homes to a local charity for reuse. Supnik recommends Household Goods Recycling of Massachusetts (HGRM) located in Acton, an organization that delivers new and gently used household goods to families in need free of charge. HGRM Executive Director Sharon Martens explains that she is trying to increase awareness of the organization within Carlisle. Martens notes that in 2012 the organization received 250 Carlisle donated goods and received help from approximately 50 Carlisle volunteers. “In 2012 HGRM provided over 47,000 pieces of gently used furniture and household goods to more than 4,000 adults and 3,700 children from 162 towns,” reports Martens. More information for the organization including a history of the group, hours of operation, goods needed, and items that cannot be accepted may be found at:

Because the items given to HGRM go directly to people in need, the organization cannot accept anything broken, ripped, stained, torn, or unusable however. They are also unable to accept a number of large appliances and a variety of electronics. Given the broad category of items that cannot be donated and would otherwise linger in the Swap Shed, the tinkerers and fixers of Carlisle are left with an endless supply of materials to work with and ultimately reuse. Says Gordon, “I wouldn’t trade the Swap Shed for curbside trash pick-up, even at the same price! [The Swap Shed] is part of what makes Carlisle, “Carlisle” to me, a Yankee thriftiness that appeals to my townie heart.” ∆