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Escalon couple reclaims old suitcases for new soundz

Grandma's long-forgotten suitcase and Uncle Harry's beat-up toolbox may be enjoying a resurgence thanks to the creativity of an Escalon couple.

James and Zabrina Roque operate Reclaim, an enterprise that breathes new life into vintage Samsonite suitcases, makeup cases or Craftsman toolboxes. For more than a year they have been turning these antiquities into state-of-the-art musical speakers and display pieces while often keeping them looking like 1930s museum pieces.

"A lot of people like the torn, rusty and crusty look," Roque said. "It produces lots of smiles and comments. I hear all the time 'I used to have one of these.' The older and rustier the better."

Roque, his wife and three of their sons sell their rejuvenated wares at vintage and antique open air markets, mostly confined to the 209 area code. They also sell yard decor, galvanized buckets and shabby chic furniture items. He especially like to build speaker cases from sentimental items people have inherited from their deceased relatives.

Roque's suitcases receive modern electronics, including Blue Tooth, battery-powered, USB-charging capability and stand-alone amplifier systems. He said he and his wife love music and putting that together with a desire to reclaim unwanted things was a natural combination.

"Reclaim stands for taking something that is used and reclaiming it as yours," Roque said. "This is upcycling, reusing, repurposing and reclaiming. We have gotten so much positive reaction from it." 

Roque's repurposed items range from 1920s tweed suitcases to "hard" cases from Samsonite dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. The items are resurrected from attics, barns, estate sales, thrift stores and flea markets. 

"This is a project we do as a family," Zabrina Roque said. "They (sons) get a percentage of the sales and it teaches them communication skills and negotiating with people."

Many of the suitcase-speakers have modern-newer technology with new amps and wiring. Or they can utilize vintage systems like Pioneer or Sansui, Roque said. They try to keep the cases looking as original as possible, even though they may incorporate a plug-in port where the original lock was located. 

Roque said they have sold 15 cases in two hours' time at the outdoor markets. He said his stock turns over very quickly. Prices per item range from $140 to $300 each.

"It's a hobby that we love," Roque said. "It makes us a small income. To produce something that wasn't there before is a big accomplishment for me."

Roque is a professional salesman for Clark Pest Control and grew up in the Turlock area.

Ozzie Castro of Waterford has a 1941 Chevrolet four-door sedan he displays at old car shows. In about four days' time Roque supplied Castro with a matched set of era-correct luggage, which not surprisingly plays era-correct music at these car shows.

"I wanted something vintage with modern capability," Castro said. "It turned out great. I saw his suitcases and was enthralled. His workmanship is excellent; I met him at an antique fair and was instantly sold. I have a couple more projects to take to him soon."

Castro also has a guitar case turned into a speaker which he uses quite a bit in his "man cave."

Zabrina Roque said she helps clean the suitcases. She sets up and designs their booth spaces at the outdoor markets. Her husband jokes she is his quality assurance specialist who puts the new creations to the test.
"I think it's amazing he can do this. I like how they are all different," Zabrina Roque said.

It takes between 10 and 20 hours to finish each project.
Roque also has reconditioned old tartan-colored Coleman picnic coolers and Thermos chests. He also has reworked old table top radios from Zenith, Magnavox and RCA, along with repurposing old radio shells with modern speakers. Some of these get painted with sports or social media themes.

This pursuit started from his love of making things work. He used to watch his grandfather repair gas lawn mowers and grew up with his uncles in construction.

Roque's family sells at the Vintage at the Yard open air market at the Fruit Yard near Modesto, and the Mod Shop in downtown Modesto the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Roque said he doesn't have much competition for what he does. He knows of a couple people in Chicago, one in San Francisco and another in the United Kingdom who repurpose vintage luggage. Roque has a presence on Instagram and Facebook. His e-mail address is

"A lot of people have never seen this done before," Roque said. "They make great conversation pieces."

— Doane Yawger of Merced is a retired newspaper reporter and editor.