Used computer donations are finding new life at a neighborhood resale shop

Officials at Goodwill Industries in Dallas noticed something odd over the last year or so. Yes, people were donating old clothes, broken toasters, and all of the other odds and ends they find when they clean out their garages, but they were also donating old computers and computer parts and accessories.

“The computers kept coming in, and the way I understand it, we really didn’t have a centralized location for them,” Goodwill’s Gregory Handy says.

The result? Goodwill’s Computer Works store on Haskell near Lemmon, which opened earlier this year.

Yes, this may seem like an odd business for Goodwill to go into, but that doesn’t mean it’s not part of the organization’s mission: to provide “job training and employment to those with disabilities and disadvantaging conditions.” And you can do that with a computer just as efficiently as you can with a pair of old blue jeans.

And, actually, old computers may be just as common as old blue jeans. The world is full of old computers — maybe as many as 1 billion, according to some math I did, based on an estimate of the number of computers that have ever been produced and the number still in use. So why not take the ones that still work, wipe the hard drives, install a new operating system, and sell them at deep discounts?

Because that’s what Goodwill does at the Haskell store, and they’re quite competent, nice systems, and perfectly workable for the things that most of us do with our computers, for as little as $100.

“You can really find a good bargain,” says Handy, who is the store’s assistant manager.

Which is the other important thing about what Goodwill is doing with the computer store. Computers and internet access are becoming increasingly difficult for the working poor to afford — at the same time that they are becoming increasingly critical to getting an education or finding a job. It is difficult to apply for a job online if you don’t have a computer to go online with.

Complicating the matter is that we’ve gutted the library budgets in Dallas over the past four years, with spending down one-third from 2007-08 on the central and branch libraries. (Fortunately, the really important stuff, like the heliport and the Trinity River project, is still mostly funded.) I ran across a couple of interesting bits in researching this story — more than one in five adults in Dallas County are illiterate, according to the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy & Learning, and that Texas, writer Scott Turow says, is among the national leaders in eliminating library funding during the recession.

The point being, of course, is that people who don’t have a computer at home because they can’t afford it go to the library — unless the library budget has been gutted and the library is open fewer hours and there is less equipment for them to use.

Hence the need for what Goodwill is doing, and why it’s no surprise, Handy says, that most of the store’s customers are families. Goodwill’s technicians have checked the hard drives and mother boards, installed new operating systems (either a legitimate copy of Windows XP or Ubuntu, a very spiffy Linux system), and added basic software — a web browser, word processor and the like.

There are usually a couple of hundred boxes there at any one time, plus printers, monitors, a scanner or two, and even some floppy disk software. There were even a couple of laptops the last time I was in there, though I didn’t see too much Mac equipment. And yes, I bought something — an old Sony that works quite well. Consider it my bit for literacy.

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