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Zeit Bites: The second life of stuff


Used laptops. Butt-grooved furniture. Uh, genetic analyzers? Yep, genetic analyzers (well, very occasionally). These are some of the many, many used items you can glom onto twice a month in a back-of-the-campus warehouse at UNLV.

Welcome to the purgatory of stuff: UNLV’s surplus-sale operation. This is where the decommissioned, the outdated and the recently replaced from around the campus come to await a possible second life, perhaps in the hands of a hobbyist or a collector, an ordinary citizen or a value-conscious professional. On the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, these sales routinely attract some 200 or so seekers of value, surprises or kitsch. (You can also access the auction online.)

Scientific equipment tends to fetch the highest prices, says Mike Lawrence, the school’s director of delivery and telecommunications; the genetic analyzers went to another college for around $16,000. Then there are the unusual transactions — unusual for a college surplus sale, anyway — such as selling slot machines once donated to the university’s gaming institute. “That was quite a slow process,” Lawrence says. “There were no peers’ benchmarks to go off of.” Much of it is more ordinary and less pricey but still in demand. “Computers, furniture, things like that don’t stick around.”

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A sampling of the “categories of interest,” as listed on the UNLV web page devoted to the auctions, assumes a kind of poetic materiality while seeming to inventory our modern techno-gestalt: agricultural machinery; automobiles; books; camper shell; cleaning equipment; clothing; communication equipment; engines, turbines, components; glassware, lab; live animal (!); lyophile apparatus (for freeze-drying stuff, apparently); medical, dental, veterinary equipment; musical instruments; pipe, tubing, hose, fittings; recreational equipment; valves. So much stuff — did we mention the books? the office supplies? the water-purification and sewage-treatment equipment? — all of it once apparently necessary but now headed for the vast second-tier market in cast-away gear. After all, UNLV is hardly alone in this. “Most governments have the same or similar operation," Lawrence says. Stuff, apparatus, paraphernalia, junk — like us, it's everywhere. For more information, see

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.