IT'S 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning. While many people are just deciding whether to get out of bed or not, a group of students scrunch together around a table. They're bright eyed and eager for their class to begin. These aren't regular students. They're homeowners hoping to make the floors and walls of their bathroom or kitchen into smooth, tiled surfaces.
As members of the Boston Building Materials Co-op, they have the opportunity to take courses on electricity, window fitting, insulation - and practically every other aspect of do-it-yourself home repair.
Today's class is on tiling.
``Doesn't that look yummy?'' says Jane Gronholm, a local carpenter and the tiling instructor, as she shows the class how to mix the grout to go between the tiles. ``It has the consistency of butter frosting on a cake. The problem is that you are usually mixing it at the end of the day when you are hungry.
``But you really have to watch that you don't let it set for longer than 10 minutes,'' Ms. Gronholm adds, noting that she used to grout with a good friend who was a storyteller. By the end of the story, the grout had dried, so they had to toss the whole batch out.
As Gronholm picks up a five-gallon bucket of tiling adhesive, someone asks her, ``What does that cost?''
``Around 20 bucks,'' she replies as people chime in, `It's cheaper at the co-op.''
Indeed, things are quite a bit cheaper at the co-op. Its nonprofit status enables it to keep markups to a minimum, well below 50 percent of the 100 percent slapped on by commercial hardware stores and lumberyards.
``When I moved into my house, my windows were terrible,'' says Steve Gladstone, a biomedical researcher at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. ``Buying them here and installing them myself, I saved thousands of dollars.''
``The energy efficiency was my primary concern,'' Mr. Gladstone continues, quoting prices between $7,500 and $16,000 from local contractors to replace the 29 windows in his house. Doing it himself, the whole job cost less than $4,000.
He not only saved money - he learned a craft.
The co-op's union-trained carpenter and its two licensed builders, one of whom is an architect, patiently guided Gladstone through the entire project. Having this wealth of experience so readily on tap enables members to gather advice on any construction problem without the worry that someone is taking advantage of them.
``In regular building trades,'' says another member, Susan Brace, ``you wouldn't normally run into people who would have the patience, good teaching ability, and get the price you want.''
Ms. Brace, director of the Boston Fuel Consortium, looked for advice not long ago. She and a friend had just purchased an old Victorian home in the Jamaica Plain section of the city and weren't quite sure what to do.
``Everything was wrong with it,'' she says. ``Linda [Lesyna, a licensed builder on the staff] came over, and once we came up with the design, we hired a contractor to do the job. Since we bought the materials, like the windows, through the co-op, the contractor only had to charge us for rough materials and installation.''
The cost of advice from the builders in the co-op depends on the salary of the person needing it. If you're in the low-income brackets, they'll only charge you $5 an hour. If if you make over $40,000, however, the hourly fee jumps to $40.
Brace also took advantage of the co-op's insulation program. Through bulk buying the co-op can provide cellulose cheaply. For a small fee you can rent a blower to pump insulation into the wall.
In exchange for all these savings, a co-op member donates one hour for every $200 he spends, with a 10-hour limit a year.
The members pick up deliveries, stock shelves, assemble window units - even write and produce the co-op's newsletter, The Three Houses.
Run by a member-elected board of directors, the co-op holds potluck suppers and other social events that draw everybody together.
A visitor gets the feeling that it's more of a community club than a place to buy lumber. ``It's a nice place to meet and talk with people,'' says Gronholm.
``It's a way to save money,'' Brace adds, ``but also another way to `feel' community.''