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Willowbrook 'junk' business celebrates 10-year anniversary

Published: Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 1:22 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:47 p.m. CDT
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(Erica Benson - ebenson@shawmedia.com)
Sam and Gail Schick, franchise owners of 1-800-Got-Junk? in Willowbrook, are celebrating 10 years in the junk removal business.

WILLOWBROOK – The last question Sam Schick asked to other franchise owners 10 years ago was if they had to do it all over again, would they.

Everyone said, “Absolutely.”

“I thought what a hair-brained idea, picking up peoples’ junk, but then I researched it a little further and it seemed to be kind of a service that was duck tailed into my customer service background,” said Schick, part owner of a 1-800-GOT-JUNK? franchise in Willowbrook. “I thought, this sounds unique.”

Schick and his wife, Gail, are celebrating their 10th anniversary as franchise owners in Willowbrook, where, among other things, they specialize in junk removal and have even appeared on the television series “Hoarders” seven times.

But it wasn’t always the glamorous world of junk for the Frankfort couple. Prior to owning the franchise, Sam and spent 26 years working in the eyeglass fashion business before looking to run his own business. He said the hardest part was convincing his wife to leave that lifestyle for “junk.”

“It’s like, yeah right, you have to be kidding me,” Gail said with a laugh.

What sold Gail, though, was a trip to the headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia where she got to see the operation firsthand and meet the CEO.

“We are a sales organization that just happens to pick up junk,” Gail said.

Handling business in the southwest Chicago area, the Schicks said they frequently participate in situational role play and sensitivity training. Because of the sentimental value people attach to their possessions, the owners don’t want to see their things crushed into the back of a truck or handled improperly.

“Even though it is considered junk, peoples’ burning question when we’re outside is, ‘What are you going to do with our stuff?’” Sam said. “The reality is if we can find somebody else who can use it, we’ll try and find them.”

After pickup, the trucks bring the items back to the warehouse in Willowbrook to be sorted. Over the last 10 years, the couple said thousands of items have been donated to nonprofits, and 75 percent of the items collected have gone on to be recycled or repurposed.

The couple have encountered incidents of hoarding, and even situations they’ve had to walk away from and call the health department, including one incident where a townhouse had 450 birds flying freely.

But it’s not all junk the company encounters.

A few years ago while cleaning out a garage in Hinsdale, Sam found nautical gear from 1924, which included a ship’s bell, two ship wheels and a gyroscope.

“I’m looking at this stuff and I’m thinking this has to have some historical value to someone,” Sam said.

And it turns out it did. Back in the early 1900s, ferries would carry railroad cars to Ludington, Mich. and back. After some research, Sam discovered a historical museum in Ludington that was putting together a maritime museum, and the volunteers were more than happy to have the donated artifacts.

Another find struck close to home for Sam.

During the World War lI attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam’s uncle, a medical officer, was shot and later died at a hospital. On the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the family went to Hawaii for a dedication ceremony as a clinic on Hickam Air Force base was named for Sam’s uncle, William Schick.

Then a few years ago, while looking through the back of the truck, Sam found a framed newspaper article dated Dec. 11, 1941, four days after the Pearl Harbor attack, identifying six Chicago men killed in Hawaii, including his uncle.

“And that’s when Sam looked at me and he said that it’s moments like that where we’re absolutely doing the right thing,” Gail said. “It’s those moments in life where you just feel like you’re in the right place at the right time.”

For more information about 1-800-GOT-JUNK, visit www.1800gotjunk.com.

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