- Round Robin Upscale Resale in Middlebury
Visitors to the historic Marble Works District in downtown Middlebury may have noticed an unusual partnership. Tucked in the southeastern corner of the business complex, amid other retail outlets such as Noonie's Deli, Costello's Market and Otter Creek Used Books, is the Round Robin Upscale Resale thrift shop. Wander inside to browse its secondhand apparel and housewares, and it's hard to miss the large wooden sign behind the counter informing shoppers that all proceeds benefit nearby Porter Medical Center.
Many Americans are aware that hospital costs have been climbing at dizzying rates in recent years. Of the $3.5 trillion the U.S. spent on health care in 2017, the single largest chunk — $1.1 trillion, or about 33 percent — went to hospital care, according to data from the American Medical Association.
It's also no secret that many Vermont hospitals have had trouble stanching the flow of hemorrhaging money. According to a recent analysis by the Green Mountain Care Board, more than half of the state's 14 hospitals, including Porter, operated in the red last year.
Still, considering the enormous financial pressures facing Vermont's hospitals, can the sale of $6 T-shirts and $12 summer dresses really make a difference — especially for a medical center that, according to a hospital spokesperson, has an annual operating budget of $100 million?
In a word, yes. If you or a loved one has been to Porter in recent years to give birth, undergo surgery, recover from a heart attack or receive rehab, you can thank Round Robin for helping to keep the hospital equipped with the latest medical technology.
Ronald Hallman is vice president of development and public relations at Porter Medical Center, which is now part of the University of Vermont Health Network. He's also the official liaison for the Porter Medical Center Auxiliary, a nonprofit organization founded in 1934.
For decades, the auxiliary organized fundraisers to augment hospital revenues. In 1975 it opened Round Robin, which operated at two previous locations before moving to Marble Works. The secondhand store is now the auxiliary's largest moneymaker.
Robin Huestis, who manages Round Robin — no, she's not the Robin in the name — has worked there for 24 years. As the store's only paid employee, Huestis wears many hats: She manages the finances, arranges advertising, provides customer service and schedules the store's 40 volunteers.
Huestis also washes and mends all of the donated clothes and decides which are salable and which she should donate to local churches; old blankets and frayed towels go to Homeward Bound, Addison County's Humane Society.
"It's not like we have an inventory we're buying," she explained. "Pretty much everything comes from the community. But everyone who donates also comes in and shops. So it's a win-win."
"Robin has this pretty magical skill to be able to say, 'Oh, yes! I remember there's this dress around the corner that'll be just perfect with those shoes,'" Hallman noted.
Indeed, during a midday interview in the shop last week, three women stopped to chat while browsing a dress rack.
"We're from Rutland," said Alice Choiniere. "We like thrift shops, and we always stop here."
She doesn't shop there expressly to support the Porter Medical Center, but "because we can find good things here," Choiniere said, noting that her granddaughter was born at Porter five years ago.
"But supporting the hospital is a nice benefit, too," her friend chimed in.
After 24 years, Huestis seems to know what her customers want. In 2017, Round Robin did nearly $160,000 in annual sales, up from $135,000 in 2012. That's an impressive haul, considering that many of the shop's items are priced below $10. After operating expenses, the net profits go to the Porter Hospital Auxiliary, whose board of trustees decides how to spend the money.
As Hallman explained, each spring he goes before the board to present a "menu of needs" — four or five capital projects that Porter would like to see funded, which tend to be patient oriented. As he put it, "They don't want to renovate a lobby."
For example, the auxiliary is about to make its second $75,000 payment on a pledge it made last year to renovate Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing, part of Porter's medical complex. That donation will fund two end-of-life suites for patients receiving hospice care at the nursing home. It will also cover renovations to Helen Porter facilities that serve patients in short-term rehab.
Two years ago, the auxiliary donated $131,000 to replace all of Porter's outdated heart monitors. Several years before that, it gave $150,000 to fund the hospital's new birthing center.
"You look at all these items marked $3, $4, $10, and then you look at $150,000 in revenue. That's a lot of items," Hallman added. "It's amazing. I don't know how Robin and her volunteers do it."
Those volunteers include Agnes James, now in her eighties, who started with Round Robin in 1975 when the store first opened.
"Her sons bring her, and she comes with her oxygen tank. She just loves being here," Huestis added. "You'll find that our volunteers are very, very dedicated."
If thrifting to fund heart monitors and birthing centers sounds uniquely Vermonty, it's not. Dozens of medical facilities around the country, from Stony Brook Southampton Hospital on Long Island to Seattle Children's Hospital in Washington, also rely on revenues from secondhand stores.
Closer to home, Replays Resale Shop, in the Blue Mall in South Burlington, has funded various projects at the University of Vermont Medical Center, including cardiac rehab equipment, construction of a newborn nursery, infant transport warmers and support for breast cancer patients.
Perhaps the real question is where that $1.1 trillion in U.S. hospital care spending is going.