AKRON, Pa. – What comes to mind when you see the words “thrift shop?”
Possibly: Good bargains. Hidden treasures. A place to take things I no longer need.
Other answers to try on for size: Going green. Positive community presence. Source of funding for doing good work locally and globally.
The world of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) thrift shops is made up of all of these benefits and more, according to thrift shop managers of U.S. stores who met for an April conference at MCC’s Welcoming Place in Akron. Thrift shops also become a place for volunteers to develop a sense of community with each other and with customers.
“In thrift shops, people can find affordable goods at a fraction of the cost of retail items,” said Diana Miller, U.S. thrift shop development coordinator for MCC. “Instead of taking quality used goods to a landfill, people can bring them to an MCC thrift shop, where they know what their end use will be.
“Thrift shops support a good cause – the work of MCC – and provide opportunities for people who are looking for a place to volunteer in a local setting,” said Miller.
From April 2009 through March 2010, about 50 MCC thrift shops in the U.S. contributed nearly $4.9 million to the relief, development and peace work of MCC. The amount for the 12 months prior was $4.5 million.
Those figures may seem astonishing, considering the “deals” found in thrift stores. Eric Raber, co-manager of Save & Serve Shop in Millersburg, Ohio, points out that the average price per item in his store is $1.
Volume of sales is a key factor in translating $1 items into thousands of dollars for MCC’s work. According to Miller, thrift shops typically contribute about half of their annual income to MCC.
Raber added, “Little is much when God is in it.”
Volunteers are vital to the profitability of thrift shops. “Not having volunteers would make a big dent in what we contribute to MCC,” said Connie Freyenberger, manager of Crowded Closet in Iowa City, Iowa.
Crowded Closet has two full-time and two part-time employees and 250 volunteers, said Freyenberger. Et Cetera Shop in Bluffton, Ohio, has one three-quarter-time employee and 150 volunteers, according to manager Chrissy Lugibihl. Such paid staff-to-volunteer ratios are common in the thrift shops, even as exact figures vary.
Volunteers help out in a variety of ways. They price clothing, stock racks or shelves, do some sorting of goods and serve as clerks. Some have volunteered for more than 30 years, according to Miller. In addition, she said, MCC conducts trainings for volunteers and managers. These trainings focus on shop operations, consumer safety, customer service and more.
While doing their significant work, volunteers often provide a form of community for each other and sometimes for customers as well. At the Et Cetera Shop, Lugibihl observes that a social void is filled for some of the volunteers.
At Crowded Closet, people – volunteers, customers, staff – leave requests in a prayer box that is always available. “It gets used a lot,” said Freyenberger. Staff and volunteers have a time of prayer each morning, mentioning the written requests – and each person who is in the circle.
Deb King, general manager of Gift & Thrift, Harrisonburg, Va., tells of one woman who dropped by whether or not she wanted to purchase something. “‘My husband was dying and I used to come in here once in awhile just so I could hear women laughing and know something is right in the world,’” King remembers her saying.
To learn more about thrift shops in the U.S. or Canada, including how to volunteer, donate goods or explore starting an MCC thrift shop in your community, log onto thrift.mcc.org/.
Ed Nyce is media and education coordinator for MCC.