Thrift Alone Can't Explain the Success of Vermont's Secondhand Stores | Economy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Thrift Alone Can't Explain the Success of Vermont's Secondhand Stores

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Ryan Wolik knows the perception some people have of thrift stores: drab secondhand shops filled with nothing but Chuck Mangione records and ceramic bric-a-brac.

The new Goodwill on Shelburne Road in South Burlington, where Wolik is manager, is not that kind of thrift store.

Since it opened in December, the Goodwill has sold used kayaks for $39.99 each, a vintage set of 50 Beethoven records for $29.99, and barely used clothing from Patagonia and L.L. Bean. Some donated items — such as a North Face jacket and a vintage Raggedy Ann board game — are so valuable they went on Goodwill’s eBay site, where they fetch more money than they would in the store.

“The best items never even make it onto the floor,” says Wolik. “We’ll be wheeling out a piece of furniture from the back, and some customer yells, ‘I’ll take it.’”

The new, 16,500-square-foot Goodwill store is the second to open in Vermont — the first, smaller store opened three years ago in Williston. Michelle Smith, a spokeswoman for Portland, Maine-based Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, says the charity saw a market opportunity in Vermont.

Nationwide, Goodwill’s 2324 retail stores are getting a bump from the recession. Whether it’s people who already shop at Goodwill, or first timers, “we have a lot more shoppers,” Smith says. The same goes for Goodwill donors — in Vermont, anyway.

The new store’s design reflects a rebranding campaign by the 107-year-old charity, which was started by Methodist minister Rev. Edgar J. Helms in Boston. For Goodwill, that means the walls are lime green instead of industrial white, store sections are marked with big, bold signs, and there’s a drive-through donation area to make drop-offs as painless as possible. The store aisles are wide, with enough new merchandise — from lampshades to bedsheets — to make a trip to Goodwill closer to a one-stop shopping experience.

Rebranding also meant constructing the store and warehouse using more eco-friendly building materials. The builder on the project was Jim Cameron of East Fairfield-based Green Dolphin LLC, whose team insulated the exterior walls with polystyrene blocks meant to give the building a tighter seal and reduce long-term energy costs.

Goodwill has reason to invest in Vermont. In its first three years, the Williston Goodwill store has been bucking a national trend. Nationally, the number of Goodwill donors is staying flat or increasing slightly, but those donors are giving less stuff. Vermont isn’t seeing that kind of decline, Smith says.

“Our donation stream is healthy and strong at the Williston store,” she continues. “We’ve been fortunate that the Greater Burlington community has donated to us so that we can keep up with demand.” (Another sign of strong local demand for budget or secondhand goods: The Salvation Army opened a new store in Essex Junction in January.)

The South Burlington Goodwill, on the former site of Tuscan Kitchen, held its grand opening last December 11 — just in time for the end-of-year rush of individuals making tax-deductible donations. On December 30, the store received 50 donations in a one-hour period, ranging from a few bags to entire cars full of old stuff, Wolik says. Sales and donations stayed steady through the winter months, she adds, usually a slow time for secondhand stores.

Based on its square footage, the new Goodwill is expected to gross $1 million a year from selling goods amassed from some 26,000 donations. Donated items may be shifted between the Williston and South Burlington stores depending on whether, and where, merchandise is moving.

The South Burlington store employs about 30 people, which is part of its social mission: to get people working and provide assistance to low-income families and individuals. Through its Good Neighbor program, Goodwill gave away more than a hundred $10 vouchers to Vermont residents in 2009 to purchase goods in its stores.

Less obvious are the behind-the-scenes projects. Goodwill runs an AmeriCorps program that places volunteers with local nonprofits such as the Clarina Howard Nichols Center in Morrisville, a battered women’s shelter; and Spring Lake Ranch in Cuttingsville, a therapeutic center for adults recovering from mental illness and substance abuse. The company plans to expand the AmeriCorps program this year to place volunteers in 10 new nonprofits.

Another local operation of Goodwill is Good Clean Property Services, which gives store employees additional work experience by giving them jobs cleaning buildings and Goodwill retail stores.

This month, Goodwill will partner with Orchard School in South Burlington to give elementary pupils experience volunteering in the store — greeting customers, bagging and sorting children’s books. Finally, on April 27, Goodwill is sponsoring a “green drinks” event at The Skinny Pancake in Burlington to promote computer recycling. The company has partnered with Dell Computers to keep e-waste out of landfills by encouraging folks to donate their old computers to Goodwill.

Wolik says the clientele at the new outlet is a mix of antique dealers, college students, senior citizens and bargain hunters.

The last category of customers — bargain hunters — don’t all necessarily share the same economic circumstances. Lee Findholt drove to the new Goodwill to donate an old Walkman, some shoes and other electronics. She wasn’t planning to shop, but the next thing she knew, Findholt found herself in the showroom with an armful of bargain treasures.

“I find great clothes for work here,” says Findholt, who lives in Hinesburg.

She says she frequents Goodwill for the “thrill of the hunt.” Some days that means coming up empty-handed, but other days she finds great treasures at rock-bottom prices.

Sometimes Findholt just discovers gag gifts: For years, she’s been buying her mother-in-law identical salt and pepper shakers — so she can’t tell them apart. Goodwill has supplied endless material for Findholt’s running family joke.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Goodwill Hunting"