February 16, 2016
Behind the Curtain – What’s it really like to run a thrift shop?
Kathie Olson, Arc’s Value Village Thrift & Donation Center Richfield.
I never intended to manage a thrift store. That really wasn’t what I was shooting for. I mean, I always loved working in fine retail as a hobby for something fun to do when I needed some extra cash or was between “real” jobs, but I had never considered it to be a career step. Then one day a surprising opportunity came up a bit out of nowhere – Arc’s Value Village needed a store manager. And more surprisingly, I applied. It seemed right somehow. I had known about Arc for years because I have a brother with Down’s Syndrome, and I always made a point of bringing my donations to the Arc’s Value Village in Richfield. And I had this love of retail, plus a background in nonprofit management. So, 1+1+1= I applied.
It was pretty hard to know what to expect when I took the job. I wondered what happened with the donations that were dropped off; what got selected, and what we would do with anything we couldn’t sell. I wondered about the people that worked here – what brought them to this work, sorting through bags of cast-off treasures? Did they love it or hate it? Was this a labor of love, or just a job?
The first thing I learned is that the Arc’s Value Village team is tenacious. You have to be in this line of work. Every day they sift through boxes and bags filled with vintage and antique items from grandma’s basement, or a box of old books, or a bin filled with kids toys, and everything comes with its own biological story. The dust of a thousand houses surrounds our team every day. It’s not always easy or fun to sift through raw donations, and that’s the truth. It takes a lot of thought and training to figure out what to send to the sales floor, what to recycle, and what we absolutely have no choice but to throw away.
Think of everything in your home – every pair of shoes, every book and serving dish and throw pillow. Our team is responsible for being knowledgeable about a huge range of products, brands, and quality indicators, because we pride ourselves on selling only the highest quality merchandise. If you want cheap junk, you probably want to try another thrift shop. We just don’t put it out onto our sales floor. Every day team members gather during their shift to talk about fashion trends, how to recognize quality merchandise, how to recycle items that don’t meet our quality standards, and how to work together as part of a team that is funding an important mission. We talk about all of these things every single day.
Arc’s Value Village is proud to employ people with all kinds of abilities, and we are excited that we have so many different kinds of paid and volunteer positions that fit all kinds of strengths. At my store, we hired a young man named Ryan, who has autism. His job is to unpack bags of donated clothing – carefully stacking the shirts, pants, skirts, and jackets with the tags at the top and facing up, sleeves and pant legs folded to keep the pile neat and manageable. Every day before he leaves, he stops into the manager’s office to tell us how many bags he unpacked that day. We encourage him, thank him, and we see in Ryan the reason why we work so hard, get so dirty some days, and spend our own time shopping other thrift stores, antique shops, yard sales and eBay to educate ourselves on the products we see. Because when we sell the right quality products at the right price, people like Ryan and his family benefit.
The Arc Greater Twin Cities receives about half of its program revenues from the Arc’s Value Village business, so we know how important it is for us to get it right. To do good sorting and recycle absolutely everything we possibly can. We bring pounds of metals and electronics to the recycling centers, and work with the county environmental services to make sure we are in compliance with safe disposal of hazmat materials.
When we do our job well, families like Ryan’s have access to a better life, a safer life, a more productive life, and we can tell other businesses how important it is to include people with disabilities in their teams. Ryan is part of our team, and we are part of his. We get dirty some days, but we also have fun. We get to discover amazing treasures that so many people generously donate to our mission, and then we get to watch happy customers as they find that treasure on the sales floor and walk out the door with a great product at a great price.
It’s hard work. And it’s fun. And it matters every single day. So when I tell people I run a thrift shop, I say it with pride. Because I know I work with a team that cares about each other and does the best job they can so that everyone can have a better day. Please come and shop with us, compare our quality and prices to other second-hand resale shops in the area. Please come volunteer with us, help us do more good. Please donate generously, you get a cleaner home, and families get a better life. Thanks for being a part of our team in whatever way you engage with Arc’s Value Village. You matter too.