Rule of thumb: If you can't find it in 15 minutes, it's junk.

I was traveling with Steve, a plumbing distributor rep. As we pulled into the yard of Aesop's Plumbing and Heating, there was an all-too-common view - junk everywhere.

Most visible were the old vehicles. There was a 1972 Dodge Tradesman van with an oddly shaped customized window in the side door, license plates 1984. All visible tires were flat. There was a 1980 Volkswagon Rabbit, with the label “diesel” hanging crookedly under the hatchback window. And there was a 1984 Toyota Camry, 1989 plates, front-end smashed, hood jutting into the air.

Anybody's yard might have old cars and trucks. But a plumbing yard has more interesting items: a vintage Maytag washer; an ancient boiler, rusting pipe attached; an aqua blue toilet and matching sink, 1950s vintage, I'd guess; any number of water heaters, rusting; a large bird cage, the door hanging open, no bird.

“Why do they do this?” I sighed to Steve.

“Do what?” he asked.

“Leave junk everywhere. It makes the whole industry look bad.”

“That's not junk, Carol,” he said. “That's spare parts.”

Ah, yes. I knew that. One person's junk is another's spare parts.

We all have it. Whether you call it spare parts or junk, I bet there's some - maybe a lot - around your place, too.

The problem with junk when you're in business (you are in the plumbing and heating business, aren't you?) is that it costs you. It might be costing you money, but there's also the cost of the space to store your junk. Even if it's your side yard, you could be using that for something else. There's intangible costs of moving around it, or moving it to get to something else.

At the very least, it costs you in image, and image is an important part of being in business, right? Even if it's inside where the public doesn't see, the junk is still there for you and your employees to deal with.

But I'm pretty sure that yours, like mine, isn't junk, but rather “spare parts.” It's going to come in handy some day. If we get rid of it today, tomorrow we'll be sorry. But really, what is the difference between spare parts and junk?

Junk Collector

My father was a collector of spare parts. He worked for the electric utility. During the 1960s, the company was shutting down a number of small local power plants, including those along the Scioto and Olentangy rivers. After the shutdown, employees could take home whatever was left. To Dad, every nut and bolt had a potential use. But most items were bigger than that. The back yard filled up. The basement filled up.

For a long time there was a heated debate at home about what these things were. Mom insisted, “This bringing home junk and more junk has got to stop.” Dad maintained that it was all parts he had a use for. They compromised. If it was labeled and neatly stored on a shelf, either in the shed or in the basement, it was parts. Otherwise it was junk and had to go. Dad lovingly labeled it all, including paint cans with the letters “MT”-empty. And I agree. There are times when an empty paint can is just what you need, provided you can find it.

But I think Mom was on to something. Perhaps it's the labeling and organized storage that makes the difference between junk and spare parts. Or at least it's the knowing where the items are. If you can put your hands on what you're looking for in 15 minutes or less, it's parts. Much more rummaging that that, it's junk.

Not long ago. I was hanging around the A&A Trading Post, one of the best hardware stores ever. It's one of those places with the sloping and creaking wooden floors that make you expect an old geezer in overalls to come shuffling out from some corner and ask, “Whatcha lookin' for?” The A&A has everything, and it has a crew of old geezers that knows exactly where to find that odd part you need for any job, carpentry, plumbing or electrical. There are a lot of old-guy customers, too.

Here's what I overheard.

Old-guy customer: “Why that's highway robbery! You want $1.19 for that fastener? Why, I got four just like it at home that didn't cost me near that.”

Old-guy employee: “I got no doubt you do. But you don't know where yours are, do you?”

Old-guy customer, taking the fastener: “All right, ya got me there. Gimme that darn thing. I'll pay your thieving price.”

Comes In Handy

Here's another way to look at this. This past summer I stopped at the settlement of Wiseman, Alaska (pop. 30), on my way to the Arctic Ocean. Resident Jack Murphy gave us a guided tour. He's lived there since he was 5 years old. There are only a handful of year-round residents, including Jack's mother who lives in her own cabin and chops her own wood for heat. Jack's two grown children moved to the big city - Fairbanks (pop. 30,000) - which is good, Jack said humorously, because his one-room cabin wasn't big enough for all of them.

Jack doesn't mind giving walking tours of the settlement. Even though there are streets, they're more like one-way trails, mostly gravel with potholes. The houses are small, and feel as if they're all sharing one huge meadow for a yard. The summer grass and small vegetable gardens go on and on without the division of any fences.

Jack was proud of the fact that he's one of the few year-round residents, and said that about half the houses - all small log cabins, some ancient and sagging, a few obviously bolt upright and brand new - were owned by summer people. Who would have thought, summer places above the Arctic Circle!

Now here's the important part. Jack said with a chuckle that the way you could tell a year-round home from a summer place is the junk around the house. What do you think? Which place has the junk?

The year-round residences are all surrounded by what looks like junk, but is really spare parts.

In the summer, you can take the gravel Dalton Highway 275 miles to the nearest major city of Fairbanks. The rest of the year, there's no way in or out of Wiseman except by snowmobile, dog sled or show shoes. So self-sufficiency is essential. And that means spare parts, even if they look like a yard full of junk.

Here's another interesting Alaskan take on spare parts. In the three years it took to build the Alaska pipeline, they had more than $175 million in spare parts, enough to strain the supply capabilities of companies like Caterpillar. You probably don't have that much tied up, but you might want to take inventory of your spare parts. And if you can't find that part within 15 minutes or so, you might want to inventory your “junk.”