SALISBURY — When Brian and Michelle Russell lost their jobs in December 2012, they decided to open a restaurant.
Brian had worked in the NASCAR industry for 25 years, including 18 years with Penske Racing. He was laid off, along with about 60 other employees, when the team switched manufacturers from Dodge to Ford.
Michelle had worked as a preschool teacher for eight years when she lost her job.
The Granite Quarry couple tried for months to open a Hwy 55 Burger Shakes and Fries franchise in Salisbury, but their business loans kept falling through.
“My severance was running out,” Brian said. “We had to do something soon.”
To make ends meet, they started attending storage unit auctions, where they bought the contents of lockers and then resold what they could by posting items on Facebook. The concept took off, and the Russells’ new business was quickly outgrowing their home.
They had a decision to make.
“After months of trying to open a restaurant, nothing seemed to be working out to the point we had to start considering something different,” Michelle said. “So we set down to talk and realized after praying about this, we felt it must not be meant to be to open this restaurant.”
The couple realized if they opened a store, they could make their own hours and close on Sundays so they could attend church.
They began looking for a building and came across the 5,100-square-foot former Glidden Paint store at 1935 S. Main St. in the South Main Business Center. They signed a lease, and Russell’s Unique Deals was born.
Brian attends auctions of all kinds, including storage unit, scratch and dent, freight loss, pallet and liquidation. At an auction last week in Salisbury, Brian spied a large box of swords in one locker.
He paid $80 for the entire contents of the unit and inspected the swords. He said they will more than cover his investment.
“It’s a gamble,” he said.
When buying lockers full of furniture, about three out of four are a bust, he said. They are either full of mildew or smell of cigarette smoke.
But the fourth locker typically makes up for the others, he said. He paid $1,000 for one unit — the most he’s ever paid for a locker — which turned out to be a treasure chest. One set of antique furniture alone covered his cost, and the unit contained several other gems.
Whatever items the Russells cannot resell, they give away and hope the recipients will become customers.
Brian has a knack for fixing just about anything and can take several of the same item — two basketball goals, for example — and use the parts to create one good, like-new version. The Russells mark most items and appliances at half off the retail price.
Michelle runs the front part of the store like a retail shop, with well-organized racks and shelves filled with clothes, toys, backpacks and more, including a grocery section with detergent and other household products.
The Russells’ children, Briana, 16 and Brandon, 21, work in the store when they are not in school.
While bidding at auctions can become quite competitive, Brian said sometimes, the bidders work together.
At a recent storage unit auction, Brian said the woman who owned the items inside one locker showed up at the auction and begged bidders not to bid, saying the unit contained family photos and Christmas gifts. Brian said the woman made the first bid of $10, all the money she had.
“And we just told her ‘Merry Christmas’ and all walked away,” he said. “I feel better about the lady getting her locker back than anything I got today.”
A year after losing their jobs, Brian and Michelle Russell have launched a unique business and hope their hard work and ingenuity will pay off.
“We donate items at times to help others in need and are hoping to make a go at what we love doing — selling discounted items for people to afford and making our customers happy,” Michelle said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
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