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Maras turns passion for junk to business (with video)

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Maras shows off her antique cash register she uses for her business, Junk by Jenny. It is a huge talking point for customers, Maras says. (Brooke Kern / Morris Sun Tribune)3 / 6
Old soda bottles in mass quantities are popular items in the junking business. (Brooke Kern / Morris Sun Tribune)4 / 6
Maras gets her entire family involved in her junking business. Her oldest Ethan chimes in about the fun of "junking with mom" in the garage while youngest Claire and husband Jon, also known as "junk hunk," look on. (Brooke Kern / Morris Sun Tribune)5 / 6
Maras shows off an old metal medicine cabinet she recently found during one of her many junking adventures. (Brooke Kern / Morris Sun Tribune)6 / 6

When Jenny Maras is on the hunt, there is no grove of trees, no rodent infested barn or dust covered vacant building that is too much of a challenge for her.

"I've gone Army crawling through (junk) to save old windows that someone thought was trash," Maras said. "I've Army crawled to pick things from the woods."

"I will do just about anything," Maras said.

She's a junker. Maras will pick through discarded items to find the pieces she can sell for new life in someone's home, office, or cabin. It's not a hobby.

"I am a business teacher by day," Maras said. She teaches at Morris Area High School. "I'm a junker by night," she said with a laugh.

About two years ago, Maras decided she "needed to practice what I preach." She started Junk by Jenny as a business and applies the business rules and practices that she teaches to her high school students.

She has a webpage, participates in the annual Junk Bonanza in the Twin Cities and has an annual sale on her yard.

She hasn't always been a junker. Once, "I thought I was an antiquer."

But several years ago, she realized, the antique pieces weren't attracting her attention. "They were not my style," Maras said.

She'd rather buy the rusty piece of equipment that a farmer used than a pristine antique in a shop. Maras is not alone in her taste. Junk items are popular in decorating. Buyers will turn a metal basket into a kitchen decoration. Or convert an old chair and combine it with others for a table set.

Maras has found "two types of customers."

"One group comes with a Suburban or a trailer, ready to buy," Maras said. "But my favorites may be those who buy on a whim. Those who end up strapping stuff to the car."

Maras has a mix of junk items to attract both types of buyers.

During one recent afternoon her two-stall garage was filled with junk items. The floor was nearly covered with items ready for the Junk Bonanza in the Twin Cities. "It's like the Disneyland for junkers," Maras said.

Junk Bonanza has two shows at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, a show in Portland, Oregon and a show in San Diego, California.

Maras is a premier vendor at the Minnesota event, something she didn't think would happen.

"There are a lot of big names there," she said. Big names that viewers may hear on various home improvement TV shows.

As Maras steps over several items to reach a particular piece, it's clear she has the dexterity and skill to crawl and step and climb to find the junk.

Sometimes what she steps in or touches isn't always pleasant. "My tetanus shot is up to date," Maras said.

"I always tell her to be careful," Maras' husband Jon said.

One of the creepiest places she found junk was in an old funeral home, her son Ethan said.

"Where the caskets were carried in," Ethan said of a place where his mom found junk. "There was an elevator where the caskets went. It was daytime but it was still dark."

Creepy but, "she found some cool stuff," Ethan said.

Cool stuff that included 50 chairs.

Finds like the 50 chairs in an old funeral home are important. Maras said she doesn't travel for one or two items these days. She's interested in finding multiple items in one trip.

On one trip, she retrieved many items from a farm barn owned by an elderly woman. "This little old lady just sat there and cried. I could tell she was saying goodbye to an era."

Maras was buying items the woman had collected over the years including 15 desks from a township school. Maras's children were at the farm. They heard the woman tell the story of how she used those things when she was a child.

"They won't forget that day," Maras said. Such moments are one of the reasons Maras likes junking. She likes taking items and giving them new life.

Sometimes, she shares the stories with a junk buyer.

Junking has allowed her to build connections with sellers and buyers and carved a connection into her family. Her two children Ethan and Claire will use sidewalk chalk and ride bikes in the alley while Maras works in the garage to prepare junk items. They go on junk excursions. On a recent hunting trip Jon saw an abandoned farm and instantly thought how much Jenny would enjoy exploring the farm for junk.

She's grateful for the family support including the time Jon spends helping to set up her display at the upcoming Junk Bonanza. And for her parents who allow her to store items in a former dairy barn.

"It's good to see that she is passionate about (it)," Jon said. "It's a stress reliever for her."

Maras said she and her husband are both hunters, "We (just) hunt differently."