New furniture, new life at ‘The Shabby Shack’ in Penn Valley
Special to The Union
When Robert Coleman quotes the proverb, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” it rings true.
“I find things on the side of the road, from scrap wood to broken furniture. I take things people don’t want and turn them into useful and beautiful things,” Coleman explained.
Since opening his “Shabby Shack” furniture and knick-knack store in the Penn Valley Shopping Center 18 months ago, Coleman has become so well-known for his work that everyone calls him “Shabby.” He doesn’t mind the nickname.
“I’m as sharp as a marble,” he joked, with his trademark self-deprecating humor. “I can build a house, but I can’t set the clock on a microwave.”
The Shabby Shack is a work in progress.
“At first I made everything out of old wooden pallets,” he explained. “Benches, tables, bars, shelves, wine racks. Then people started giving me old furniture they were going to throw away. I began going to yard sales from Nevada City down to Concord. Repairing and refinishing furniture became my passion.”
Fixing what’s been broken is a metaphor for his personal life.
Four years ago, Coleman broke his neck when he was knocked off a ladder while doing carpentry work in Los Angeles. The accident also crushed both ulnar nerves near his elbows.
During four surgeries, doctors inserted metal plates in both arms, plus an eight-inch flexible plate and four bolts in Coleman’s neck.
He was told he would never walk again.
Confined to a wheelchair, Coleman lost everything: his job, home and wife. He turned to alcohol and drugs for consolation, yet he was determined to someday walk again.
After six months in a wheelchair, he graduated to a walker.
It took more than a year for Coleman to relearn how to walk on his own, hold a pen or tie his own shoes.
He’d grown up in a series of foster homes, but now he was homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. He ran with street gangs and bikers.
“I was 375 pounds of pure hate and anger,” he remembered. “Then one day I walked into a church. I don’t know why I went in; I’d never been in a church before.”
With the help of that church and its 12-Step program, Coleman found his higher power, and quit drinking and taking drugs.
Two years ago, Coleman moved to Penn Valley to live near his sister, and he began tinkering with wood furniture projects.
“I charge half what others charge because this community has embraced me, shown me love and restored my faith in humanity,” Coleman said.
When he’s not working at the Shabby Shack, Coleman volunteers at his church, helps elderly friends with odd jobs, visits inmates at the county jail and speaks to patients at a local treatment facility.
“His heart is as big as the Mississippi River,” said Pinky Zalkin, a Nevada City resident who commissioned Coleman to restore two antiques. “He did an outstanding job and even delivered them. He only charged $100.”
Coleman once bought for $15 a 1918 armoire broken into 20 pieces that had gathered dust in a barn for 33 years. After working his magic for three weeks, he sold it for $450.
As Coleman showed off a broken chair he turned into a planter box, old fencing that’s now a bird house and window shutters now serving as bookshelves, he smiled,
“Each piece is a new experience.”
The Shabby Shack, 17418 Penn Valley Drive, Penn Valley, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Phone is 530-802-3660. You can find The Shabby Shack on Facebook.
Lorraine Jewett is a Nevada County freelance writer.
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