Thrift Shop dials for dollars
It’s easy to overlook the Thrift Shop of Aspen, which is sandwiched between a popular coffee shop and the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department on Hopkins Avenue. Tall trees shade the storefront from the sun, and it’s set back from the street far enough that tourists may stroll right past without even noticing it.
And yet, to its dedicated, die-hard fans, this tucked-away location is the center of Aspen’s retail universe. Merchandise comes in the back door, in the form of donations, and flies out the front door, at rock-bottom prices. Sure, there are other used clothing and housewares stores in Aspen, but nowhere else can you find a pair of Fendi pumps for $10.
The Thrift Shop may be the first stop for Aspen newcomers looking to outfit their apartments on the cheap, and everyone goes there for Halloween costumes, but the store has made an indelible mark on the community that stretches far beyond bargain-priced retail goods. Most of the shop’s income, whether it’s $1 for a cassette tape or $15 for an electronic toy, goes straight back to the community in support of small, nonprofit organizations.Consider this: Since 2000 the store has given away almost $2 million to organizations that promote the arts, education, youth activities and the environment, as well as college scholarships for local students. The women who work at the store are all volunteers – 92 percent of the shop’s annual revenue is given away in monthly grants. The other 8 percent pays for the store’s low overhead – utilities, trash, window washing and supplies.And here’s something else most people don’t know: Aspen has supported this thrift shop since 1949, when it began as a simple way to raise money for the community hospital. Although the store has had several locations over the years, its business model is still a simple one – sell gently used goods donated by locals and give away the money to local charitable organizations.But one thing is about to change. For the first time in the shop’s 58-year history, the ladies are asking the community for help in the form of monetary contributions. They aim to raise $1.5 million to pay for a new building at the same location, to go hand in hand with the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s new station. Along with their spiffy new digs will come a second level, which will allow them to expand their merchandise selection, sell more and, thus, give more back to the community.
In 1949, when a group of local women decided to sell used goods to purchase equipment for Aspen Valley Hospital, the Thrift Shop was established in a small house on Main Street, where the Shell station now stands. Later, as the shop expanded, it hopped around town, to the Armory that’s now City Hall, the Elks Building, the building that currently houses the Ralph Lauren store, even the Wheeler Opera House. The store has been in its current location since 1981.Alberta Moore, who at 92 years old is the only original member of this group who still volunteers regularly, remembers stopping by the store one day in 1949 and asking volunteer Louiva Stapleton if she needed any help. “‘Yes,’ she said to me, ‘You can start helping right now,'” Moore remembers with a laugh. “So I started straightening the place up.”To this day, Thrift Shop volunteers are still an all-female group, although current president Sue Kolbe says the volunteers’ husbands are virtual volunteers who routinely perform various jobs.”The store started out as being a group of women, in a time when men worked and women raised kids. Way back then they set the hours so women could get the kids to school, come in and volunteer, close up the store and pick the kids up, go home and have time to make dinner,” Kolbe said. The store’s hours have remained 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. most days of the week, except for Tuesday evenings, when the store reopens between 4 and 7 p.m.The all-female workforce is a tradition, Kolbe said, and since no one has ever challenged that tradition, it hasn’t been changed. “We have plenty of men who stop by occasionally and help, or if there are guys in the store and there’s a task we can’t do alone, we’ll ask a few of them to give us a hand and they always do,” Kolbe said.
A lot is crammed into the Thrift Shop’s current 2,000 square feet – the occasional pair of high-end shoes are just the tip of the iceberg. Racks crowded with clothing fill the first floor, as do a wall full of electronic equipment and shelves of lamps. Downstairs are rows of shoes, toys, housewares, books and bedding, an entire room of winter sporting goods and crutches of all sizes conveniently located nearby.
“I tell the world – you don’t ever need to buy anything new,” said volunteer Margie Musgrave on a busy Monday. After the weekend’s yard sales and closet cleaning projects, the alley behind the shop is crowded with bags and boxes of donations, and volunteers are charged every day with sorting the goods, often using a “Would my sister/mother/grandmother wear this or buy this?” standard for clothing and throwing away items that have stains or holes.Aspen Music Festival and School students depend on the store for the typical concert uniform of white shirts and black skirts and pants, and certain locals pass through the store every day, hunting for bargains. Stephan Isberian, a self-proclaimed compulsive collector and buyer, is in the store daily, keeping an eye on the merchandise.”Aspen has such a cosmopolitan cross-section of people that stuff shows up that you wouldn’t find elsewhere – it’s the variety of off-the-wall things that catch my eye,” he says. “I buy things and either hoard them and bring them back, use them or give them away. When I know somebody is looking for something, and I can buy it for them there, it’s always rewarding.
“To me, the Thrift Shop is one of the most unique places anywhere, and it’s probably one of the most worthwhile of all the charities since it puts so much money into the community. It’s one of the most important places in Aspen.”Giving back by the fistfulThe first Monday of every month is when the Thrift Shop’s volunteers get together to decide where the money raised should go. At each of these meetings, small nonprofits request help – treasurer Lynda McCarthy said they hear presentations from around 85 organizations each year. The shop has a policy of assisti only groups that have achieved 501(c)3 nonprofit status and tends to work with groups rather than individuals.”If every woman who was in trouble came to us for help, we can’t help her as well as Response does,” Kolbe said of the nonprofit, domestic-violence organization that the Thrift Shop routinely supports. The list of local organizations helped over the years includes more than 200 nonprofits, and covers categories like school programs, youth sporting events, local theater and music groups, environmental organizations and more.
“I consider them to be my guardian angels,” says Ray Adams, local composer in residence for the Aspen Choral Society. Adams visits a Thrift Shop monthly meeting once a year to ask for help with the Choral Society’s annual Christmastime performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” And each year he walks away with a sponsorship for one of the performance’s four nights – a $5,000 commitment that pays for stipends for the professional orchestra, housing for musicians and other costs like posters and programs.”We need about 10 groups in the valley like these ladies,” Adams said. The Choral Society receives funding from grants, the cities of Aspen and Glenwood Springs, and individual donors. But nothing matches the familiarity of seeing the women from the thrift shop once a year to ask for support.”One year I just went in and told a joke, and then on my way out said, ‘By the way, can you help me with the Messiah this year as well?’ Ray said. “They’re incredible women. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all angels.”But support from the Thrift Shop reaches far beyond dollars. The store shares clothing and goods with other thrift shops in places like Silt and Denver, sends clothes to be dispersed on Indian reservations and is always happy to donate clothing directly to people in need, free of charge. When families in Glenwood Springs lost homes and possessions in the 2002 Coal Seam fire, the Thrift Shop donated clothing and then asked that month’s charity recipients if they wouldn’t mind holding off with their grants for a month so that the fire victims could receive some more help.No one disagreed with that decision, Kolbe said, and so families and individuals who needed help faster than the Red Cross could deliver were given between $600 and $1,000 in assistance.The Thrift Shop also gives out $36,000 in scholarships to local high school students each year, McCarthy said. “We are your community’s thrift shop,” she said. “We serve all the people that often have no place else to go. We give towels to the animal shelter and sheets to the Deaf Camp. Anyone who has a need, we try and make things happen for them.”
Pulling together $1.5 million for a new building isn’t a small endeavor, even for an organization as revered in the community as the Thrift Shop. Next door, the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department is using its special taxing district to collect property taxes that will pay for a new three-story station. The Thrift Shop doesn’t have the ability to collect taxes but has already taken in $800,000 for the upcoming project.
“We’ve raised $100,000 from our membership alone – each and every one of our volunteers saw the importance of this building,” Kolbe said. The rest of the money has come from individual donors and pledges, two of which were very large. One anonymous donor has given the shop $300,000. Of course, the store still has $700,000 left to raise, even though it’s getting reduced fees from the contractor, and plans to use in-kind donations during the construction process.”We tried to do this the Thrift Shop way by just adding one more floor to this building, but the engineer said structurally that wouldn’t be possible,” Kolbe said. The new building will be 4,555 square feet, giving the shop more space for sales, sorting and storage.Although the fire station is expected to take two years to build, Kolbe said that with efforts to speed along the building process, the Thrift Shop hopes to have the new store ready for business in about a year. In the meantime, volunteers are investigating alternate locations for the shop during construction. Aspen Fire Chief Darryl Grob said he looks forward to continuing their close relationship as neighbors. “The fire department is all about rushing to the aid of neighbors, and the Thrift Shop is all about coming to the aid of neighbors,” he said. “We have the same ethical grounding. They’re great people – cooperative, industrious and hardworking as all get out, and they do a tremendous amount of work up and down the valley.”
And, sure, Grob said he occasionally passes through the shop’s front doors during a break from work, checking out the good deals to be had.”It’s hard to imagine that there’s somebody who doesn’t,” he said.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org