Stevie Baka Encourages Detroit Community to Reimagine ‘Arts & Scraps’

East Side non-profit repurposes unusual trash-bound materials

Jason A. Michael

Some jobs are just jobs, but for Stevie Baka, their daily commute brings them to a job that feels more like a personal mission. Baka serves as community store manager at Arts & Scraps, a 35-year-old educational non-profit housed in a nondescript warehouse on Detroit’s East Side. There, Baka helps customers take resources out of the waste stream and transform them into art or projects that give trash-bound items new life. 

“It's so great to be a part of this,” Baka said, a Detroit native who lived for a time in both Seattle and Chicago before returning to Michigan seven years ago. “I honestly had no idea what a creative reuse was when I moved back. I didn't even know that it existed.”

Nevertheless, Baka applied for a job as an instructor and then, “my whole world opened up,” they said. Baka, speaking in between taking care of customers, is pricing a vintage E.T. child’s suitcase as they start talking about their love for their work. Instantly, Baka’s face lights up.

“Creative reuse,” Baka explains, “is about using recycled industrial scraps to help people of all ages and abilities think and learn.” 

People can donate virtually anything and then the items are transformed by customers and students who reimagine these unconventional materials. Imperfect socks are turned into hand puppets. Foam sticky pads used to line the inside of a radio panel on cars are affixed with paper and ribbon to become a mosaic. The only limit is one’s imagination.  

“It’s really giving one last life to these objects before they are cast off,” said Baka. “People doing creative jobs, entrepreneurs, they come here and make stuff for their own businesses. It is such a community hub here in Detroit, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

Personally, Baka said, they love seeing young minds opened when student groups come in.

“We challenge people to change the way they view education,” they said. “We teach STEM education, but we do it in a way where we encourage kids to just create and make mistakes to learn to push through that space of actually letting their brains figure things out.”

Arts & Scraps gets scrap wood donated from Point Hardware. A local woman donates tiny “sock loops” used in knitting that Arts & Scraps uses for finger weaving. The store also gets a lot of “weird packing materials,” said Baka. “We have these black gears, and they’re just circles with little edges on the outside. They were used to hold an item on a conveyor belt .. and then thrown away.”

But at Arts & Scraps they get a second life. 

“They’re wheels,” Baka said. “They're goggles, they're ribbon dancers, they're all this stuff and you just get to see how they're reused again and again. Honestly, the coolest thing is the way we take all this stuff that was destined to end up in a landfill. … We’re just the last stop before it goes into the waste stream.”

Baka said that there’s something for virtually everyone in the store. Fabric is popular. So are greeting cards and various ephemera. Paper plates, Styrofoam cups and things like basic party supplies,. “I encourage people,” they said. “You might buy organic, recyclable tableware for your party. But it’s also great to come here and buy something that was going to go straight to a landfill. You might be uncomfortable using Styrofoam cups, they are new in the package and they’re going to be wasted.”

Old magazines are stocked for scrapbooking and collage, something that was not done before Baka came on board. “They weren’t saved,” they said. “They were just tossed out. Now we have these different estate sale groups that will donate to us.”

If the list of materials found in the store is endless, the price of it all is flexible. “You’re actually resourcing people with fun, creative stuff that they want,” said Baka. “And you can lower the price based on where people’s income bracket is. I love that.” 

On the flip side, sometimes items can prove to be quite valuable. Baka recalled when Judith, a store regular who usually buys buttons, found a tiny copper tea set pounded out of pennies. It was in the middle of the beads section.

“I looked it up and they're like hundreds of dollars, and she just like found it in the buttons, over there randomly,” said Baka. “I'm like, ‘good for you. I love you getting it.’” In the end, said Baka, “It’s a constant treasure hunt of seeing what you can find. It’s awesome.”

Baka’s joy about their job seems to generate the same response from their customers.

“Arts & Scraps is one of my all-time favorite spaces in the city, and I find myself raving about it to anyone who might benefit from the people and materials inside,” said Rachel Lott, a teacher from Detroit who has visited the store often since 2020. Lott discovered the store while trying to source sustainable and affordable resources for her jewelry business. “I immediately fell in love with the store upon walking in. It's an organized paradise of historic art materials and crafting gems."

It’s more than just the materials that make Arts & Scraps so charming, according to Lott — it’s also Baka. Lott mentioned the store manager’s warmth and the way they care about customer accessibility. “[Stevie] is attentive and patient and appears to be endlessly knowledgeable about a wide range of art supplies and materials,” she said.

Arts & Scraps is located at 16135 Harper Avenue in Detroit. The store is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, as well as 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information email [email protected].