The virtue of Thrift in Aspen
October 16, 2009
ASPEN – As I engaged recently in my new favorite pastime – wandering around the new, $2 million-plus Thrift Shop of Aspen – I approached a wall of the good stuff: a rack of women’s coats, some leather, some with the labels of designers that even I, a devout non-shopper, recognized. As I marveled at a long black Andrew Marc coat and checked the $250 price tag, one of those local urban myths floated through my brain: Aspenites often donate or consign clothing without bothering to check the pockets for valuables. I reached in and, sure enough, came out with a fistful of dollar bills. Instantly, I felt super-self-conscious: What was I going to do with the loot? Why the hell was I poking around in pockets that didn’t belong to me? And was I going to continue my snooping?
Last and easiest question first: Of course I wasn’t going to stop after finding money in the very first pocket I checked. But this had been a case of beginner’s luck. After searching a few more coats (and a purse and a Kate Spade backpack, but not the crevasses of a $600 leather couch that was in full view of a crowded store), my subsequent finds were limited to a mostly consumed pack of Skittles.
As for what I would do with the money, I figured I had some claim to it. (My grasp of the laws regarding treasure trove are foggy at best.) But the Thrift Shop probably had better legal ownership, and absolutely had better moral title. The store is not only a nonprofit organization, but a model of charity: Through its 60-year history, no salary has ever been paid to a Thrift Shop member, making it possible for 92 percent of all revenues to go to local causes. So I struck a compromise with myself, vowing to spend all the found dollars at the Thrift Shop.
I selected A.J. Jacobs’ “The Year of Living Biblically” from the attractive and well-organized book shelves. (The shelves were donated from Basalt’s defunct Town Center Booksellers. Fonda Paterson, a 10-year volunteer, leads the effort to keep the department looking like a regular book store.) Downstairs, which is largely devoted to guy stuff (men’s clothes, sporting equipment, electronics) and housewares, I picked out a pair of Diesel jeans. The woman at the register charged me $6 for the jeans, despite the lower price quote I had been given from another volunteer. Capricious pricing is a hallmark of the place, but haggling isn’t.
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The Thrift Shop of Aspen confirms some of the myths, truths and perceptions about Aspen – including the one that there are people here willing to donate, rather than consign, a pricey leather coat along with whatever the pockets might contain. Spend enough time there and you will come face-to-face with the town’s affluence, its generosity, its air of exclusivity, and the way it embraces its history and traditions.
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At the same time, the store debunks Aspen legends: that it is populated only by the wealthy, that it gave up its sense of community for the tourist trade, that we abhor all change.
Last month, after spending a year and a half in rented space on Hyman Avenue, the Thrift Shop moved back to the Hopkins Avenue location it had occupied since 1981. During the hiatus, a full-scale, $2.3 million rebuilding project added a third floor, an additional 1,000 square feet of retail space, and a conference/break room so that volunteers no longer have to eat lunch in a bathroom. Apart from enhancing the comfort for the 90 or so volunteer-members – all female, or as they call themselves, ladies – the new building has brought the Thrift Shop to a new level as a shopping experience. Upon entering the bright, airy space, surrounded by coffee-table art books and motorcycle sculptures priced at $500 (they were donated by Chepita, a gift shop that closed this year), you need to remind yourself that you’re in a place that also deals in second-hand underwear. “I call this the Nordstrom of Aspen,” said three-year volunteer Marie Kelly.
Aided by the crummy economy, which has been a boon for thrift stores generally, Aspen’s shop is thriving. Lines form at the register throughout the hours of operation (10 a.m. to 3 p.m. most days, a throwback to when the store was staffed with mothers who adapted their schedules to their school-age children). The daily take at the register is hitting three times the usual tally. In an offseason where retail shops are virtually empty, the Thrift Shop hums like never before.
“It’s the hub. It’s what’s going on,” said Christina Patterson, a volunteer of eight years who becomes the Thrift Shop president next month. “It’s people; it’s life.”
Those people tend to dispel the image of Aspen as a place solely for the privileged and lily-white. The bulk of the shoppers one recent morning, and easily the most rabid consumers, were Latino men. In a few weeks, they will be joined by the seasonal ski workers, stocking rented apartments with cheap linens and dishes.
“That’s who we cater to,” Patterson said, “the working people.”
The Thrift Shop does, however, cultivate a certain exclusivity. It is a ladies-only club. Men, especially husbands of volunteers, are allowed to lend a hand when muscle is needed. One gentleman shows up frequently to advise the shop about ski gear – how items should be priced, what is outdated. But the Thrift Shop members are all women. And even for volunteers with the proper chromosomal makeup, the organization is picky. New members must survive a probationary period to see if they are a good fit, personality-wise. Some don’t make the cut, although it is a rare few.
“Because it’s a special thing to be a Thrift Shop lady,” said Nancy Gensch, who served as the chairwoman of the building committee.
“We protect our fun by having the probationary period,” added current president Sue Kolbe. “We make sure it’s a good fit. Otherwise it’s no fun for anyone.”
The membership leans toward longtime Aspenites – there is no member in her 20s – but not necessarily toward the wealthy. If anything, there is a working-class culture in the shop, a sense among staffers that there is work to be done. Among the members are massage therapists, retail salespeople, retired schoolteachers and artists, as well as socialites. Kolbe has worked the desk at Big Burns Bears, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s kids’ school in Snowmass, for 15 years, and lives in Glenwood Springs.
“The myth it debunks is that this is a hoity-toity place, or an exclusive place,” said Gensch, who assists in her husband’s home-building business. “Some of the girls who work here are enormously wealthy. And others are equally not. And we’re a team. This is a melting pot of the various stratas and cultures of this community.”
They are looking to grow that pot by adding some 30 members. A volunteer open-house is scheduled for Nov. 11, at 5 p.m.
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The Thrift Shop of Aspen was founded in 1949 – the same year that Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke threw the Goethe Bicentennial and launched the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival – for the limited purpose of supporting Aspen’s hospital. One of its earliest achievements was raising money to build a break room for the hospital nurses. In the early years, the Thrift Shop bounced from one downtown location to the next. In 1981, it moved to its current location next to the fire station. The property is owned by the city of Aspen, and leased to the Thrift Shop for one dollar a year.
Once a month, the membership gathers in the Elks Building to hear grant requests from local nonprofits. After requests are heard, the members deliberate on how to dole out its gifts, which total about $20,000 a month. (That amount was somewhat less the last 18 months, as some cash was put into the building fund. The majority of the construction money came from donations, however.) Over the decades, the organization has expanded its umbrella, with grants going to such regulars as the Aspen Hockey Club, the Pitkin County Senior Center, various child-care facilities and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Folklorico program. It only hears grant requests from recognized nonprofits, but it has a separate application process for students seeking scholarships. It sets aside some $38,000 a year for scholarships, given primarily to service-oriented students.
While the scope has broadened, the essential functions have remained the same. Primarily, the Thrift Shop turns unwanted items into cash for worthy local causes, roughly a quarter-million dollars annually. Members take pride in how efficiently they do this, and the culture of thriftiness that prevails: Their one annual extravagance, a Christmas lunch, was turned into a potluck last year, as the organization saved up for the new building.
“It’s one of the most rewarding parts of our volunteerism – to hear the good stuff that the organizations we give to are doing,” said Kolbe, the president. “We do hard work so we can write checks.”
For volunteers, the Thrift Shop is a community service and a social outlet; Gensch compares it to a book club or sorority. For donors, it is a way to keep unwanted items out of the Dumpster and get a tax deduction. Low-budget customers get warm coats and designer jeans for rock-bottom prices; those shopping more as a sport have a bargain-basement boutique where Prada shoes, North Face camping gear and signed, first-edition books might turn up.
For Stephan Isberian, the Thrift Shop is part of his everyday routine. A dealer of merchandise himself, the owner of Isberian Rug Company visits the store almost daily. Some of his interest is to lend assistance; he offers expertise in pricing more-expensive goods, and will even sell lower-priced rugs brought to him by clients and donate the cash to the Thrift Shop.
But Isberian is also a shopper and browser who satisfies his habit amid the store’s constantly rotating racks of items. “The variety of stuff that shows up, the quality, I have a fascination with that,” said Isberian, who has popped in almost daily since he moved to Aspen 42 years ago, buying things for friends and family. “If you go in there every day, you kind of know what’s on the rack, and you can zone in on the new stuff. If you haven’t been in there in a few weeks, it can take a while to see what’s come in.”
• • • •
Without even entering a store, a first-time Aspen visitor would recognize that the town has been blessed with material wealth. But the Thrift Shop is the most interesting, dynamic and socially redemptive example of Aspen’s abundance. It’s a good bet that Isberian wouldn’t make daily visits to a second-hand store in Pueblo to see what new goods were coming in.
Christina Patterson regularly checks out other thrift stores in her travels. The experience, to sum up, is “depressing.”
“Ohmigod, this is so upscale,” echoed Marie Kelly, who worked in second-hand shops before moving to Aspen. “It’s a night-and-day difference. You don’t expect the ambience of a Neiman Marcus in a thrift shop.”
“People will drop a bag of Prada boots, leather jackets. After Christmas, there’s stuff – Amen Wardy bowls – barely unwrapped,” said Nancy Gensch. “It’s a unique situation for a thrift shop.”
The Thrift Shop is careful to protect its image as a first-rate, second-hand store. They don’t accept bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, the ripped shirts and chipped dishes. And items that don’t measure up, or simply don’t sell, are sent elsewhere – to downvalley thrift stores, Indian reservations, even to Nepal.
The value of the Thrift Shop was acknowledged with a unique experience in the early stages of the fundraising for the new building. The organization was preparing to ask the Gates Family Foundation for a modest grant of $25,000. A foundation representative came to investigate.
“This lady was watching the stream of people come in and out of the shop. She said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this – you should ask for more,'” said Gensch. “She saw what went on, what we were doing, all this support for the nonprofits in the valley.”
The new store is built and occupied, but the fundraising continues. The Thrift Shop is still seeking $150,000.
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There is an oft-observed Thrift Shop phenomenon: Aspen’s wealthy residents rarely come in the front door to shop, but they do come to the back-door drop-off area to unload goods. And when they do, they are likely to get out of the car and have a look around.
“Everyone who comes to the back door has their head on a swivel,” Gensch said. “Even people who drive their fancy cars, dropping stuff off, get out to see what’s come in, maybe pillage.”
Gensch points out the connection established between Aspen’s rich and the regular when a dishwasher buys the jeans that once belonged to a billionaire.
“The people who live in Starwood would never cross paths with the people who clean their houses. But we are the hub that creates a relationship there,” she said.
Gensch also observes one other thing the Thrift Shop says about Aspen. For all the wealth and weirdness and exclusivity and distance from Middle America, people in Aspen like to shop. They seem to like having a second-hand store – even if it isn’t a normal one.
“The myth is that Aspen doesn’t have normal people,” she said. “I think, in general, the residents of Aspen are normal people. They do what people do.”