A Look Inside Spare Parts - CO LAB Magazine

From picking up painting to making music from home, this year many of us have found the time to reinvest in our creative side. New pursuits can be rabbit holes, however, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself missing tools, bits, and bobbles you didn’t even know you needed. By happy coincidence, there’s a new place in town where you can find not only the missing pieces to your crafting cabinet, but inspiration too: Spare Parts.

This new store at Downtown Wetmore on Wetmore Road is the brick-and-mortar realization of founder and executive director Mary Elizabeth Cantú’s years of activism for material upcycling.

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“It’s a great time to be creative,” she says, “and it’s great that San Antonio is a place where you can really pursue a creative project and find support along the way.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Behind it is a unique approach: rather than just another supply boutique, Spare Parts styles itself a “creative reuse center,” collecting loose, unused, or otherwise perfectly good art supplies destined for the dumpster and giving them a second chance at life.

This opening weekend was also unique, as visits were limited to private, 30-minute shopping appointments for the sake of safety amid this latest pandemic surge. Despite the entire weekend’s availability filling days before, we were lucky enough to get a peek inside.

The view inside Spare Parts Creative Reuse Center.
The view inside. Photo by Robbie Rodgers.

Last Saturday afternoon, I met up with friend and creative colleague Amanda Yanez of Sup SA to tour and observe one of these appointments, who graciously let us document the experience. Other than that, however, we didn’t know quite what to expect. Inside, we were greeted not with a surplus storehouse, but a room of treasures.

There’s no barcodes, no branding, no boxes. Just the parts, naked and mingling with their peers in the open, and each of them looks like it has a story to tell.

Take a tour with us through the store in this slider.

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“I love touching these things because you can feel that history,” Amanda observed while getting lost in curiosity. “It’s like, ‘you have passed on this to me.’ It’s an incredible feeling.”

What’s more, the items are insanely priced. It makes sense when you take into account that they’re sold not for profit, but for principle.

That’s because there’s more to this place than the odds and ends.

“We are thrilled to offer such a resource to the San Antonio community that sustains creativity while reducing landfill tonnage. The Center will be a dynamic space for finding materials at an affordable price and taking art classes,” said Mary in announcing the opening.

Spare Parts is the palpable culmination of 10 years of her work, starting first as a grassroots answer to funding and resource shortages for local art teachers, then widening in scope from the original problem to a solution that could solve many more.

Founder and director of Spare Parts, Mary Elizabeth Cantú.
Founder and director of Spare Parts, Mary Elizabeth Cantú. Photo by Amanda Yanez.

This makes Spare Parts more a base of operations than a store. The organization puts together several programs that apply its mission to the community’s benefit. One is a lesson plan that teachers can plug right into their curriculum; another develops singular activities for use at events. A third, is aimed at seeding community-led art projects. All three rely on the same core methodology: teaching the importance of sustainability and reuse practices, showing their creative possibilities, and then nurturing real habits through hands-on experience.

And the store itself, of course, is the crown jewel of their programs. Absolutely everything in the store is donated, the message spread through word of mouth, email, or media, resulting in over 4 tons of raw material diverted from landfills since their programs started. They received over 1000 pounds last month alone.

What you see in the store is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s still plenty to take in.

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Linens, yarns, loose knitting needles and crochet hooks, and a vibrant bouquet of assorted threads sit beside an archive of clothing patterns with which to use them. Brushes of every tip and paints of every medium overlook a row of forgotten canvases that still bear traces of lines waiting to be finished.

It doesn’t stop there. There’s even the thoughtful inclusion of materials to present them too. Nearly a whole aisle is dedicated to bottles, boxes, packaging, and gift bags eager to receive purpose again.

Then I got to something that really stumped me. A field of large, flat refrigerator magnets covering a table, thousands of them, stacked neatly, each advertising local public radio. They were priced to move at ten for a dollar. How were they going to sell all of these? Sure, everyone needs a magnet now and then for grocery lists and passive-aggressive reminders, but… this was serious freight.

Local teachers shopping at Spare Parts.
Local educators look for ideas in Spare Parts. Photo by Robbie Rodgers.

As I became further embroiled in a mental wrestling match with a problem that wasn’t mine to solve, yet too tempting a challenge to ignore, a meek but curious voice greeted the table in an entirely different regard than mine.

“These are perfect!”

The voice belonged to a local teacher who had been here shopping for classroom materials. She explained her plan to repurpose them by painting over a blank white coat, creating little magnetic canvases for her students.

“It’s like how graffiti always gets washed off of walls,” she elaborated. “But with these, kids can express themselves beforehand and then slap them on any metal surface. And no one gets mad, because it peels right off.”

Frankly, I don’t think my imagination has recovered quite yet from that humbling.

The more you spend time here, the more you’re led to a particular conclusion: Spare Parts isn’t just a place where you come to buy things; it’s a marketplace for inspiration and new ideas.

Spare Parts is full of idea generators.
Spare Parts is full of idea generators. Prepare to be surprised by what you might discover. Photo by Robbie Rodgers.
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Nearly everywhere you look, you’ll find something that creatively complements its categorical neighbors, if not outright instructively so. There are even patterns, entire kits they put together weekly, and a whole wall of books to help you on your imagination’s journey.

Mary hopes to open the store fully for business by the end of January next year. Until then, follow their pages on Facebook and Instagram to get alerts for possible future weekend appointments like this one.

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