Island thrift stores flourish with donations, purchases

Kathleen Carosi and her mother, Patrice O
Kathleen Carosi and her mother, Patrice O'Neill, drop off several bags of clothing at Good Cheer Thursday. Good Cheer has received so many donations in the last two months they are renting two storage rooms to store out-of-season items.
— image credit: Jennifer Conway

Where does it all come from? Why does South Whidbey have, donate and buy so much stuff?

None of the thrift store managers on South Whidbey know the answers to those questions, but are thankful to the customers who keep items coming -- and going -- who keep their businesses and causes afloat.

"I've never seen donations like this," said Kathy McLaughlin, manager of Good Cheer in Langley, as she and her staff did their best to process a mountain of donated goods this week.

She said in the store's 40 years of existence, it has never done the amount of business it did in August -- a whopping $35,800 in sales. A typical month for Good Cheer brings in an average of $30,000 a month, McLaughlin said, which in turn raises money for their food bank. Either way, that's a lot of money to be made off the things islanders are getting rid of.

"People buy a lot, but they also believe in recycling," she said. "They feel better giving it to someone that can benefit from it."

And the reason for so many donations? McLaughlin said the end of the garage sale season, families in the back-to-school cleanout mode or moving turns August through October into their busiest selling season.

"This is always the peak season," she said.

The constant flux of items in and out is the secret to success, McLaughlin said. She said many patrons stop in every week just to check what new items have been set out. Shoppers can satisfy their shopping fix without spending a ton of money.

McLaughlin said there isn't one certain type of person who donates, and donations are pulled out of cars with smoke pouring from them to shiny new Lexuses. She said many donators drop things off and turn around to go in the front door to buy more stuff.

"I think it's almost like a game in some ways," said McLaughlin.

She overhears many customers excited about their great finds, whether they are on a limited budget or a shopaholic. Those that overspend justify their spending by knowing the money goes to the food bank.

Many donators are able to give because they deduct the donations from their taxes. Tax deductible sheets are given to the donators, and on the honor system they are asked to value the item.

"Most people ask for a tax-deductible slip," said McLaughlin.

A few of the items brought in are unsellable, she said. Clothing that has a hole or grease stain, for example, is boxed up for World Concern. World Concern ships those items to 42 countries around the world. Last year, Good Cheer gave 16,000 pounds of clothes to World Concern.

"There is a percentage we have to throw away," said McLaughlin.

Some items that are especially dirty or filthy make their way to Island Recycling. She said Good Cheer spent approximately $3,300 on garbage disposal in the last six months. In those six months, Good Cheer raised approximately $184,000 from sales. While the garbage bill might seem high, McLaughlin said it's not much compared to the amount brought in from generous donations.

For the first time ever, Good Cheer has had to rent two 10-by-20 foot storage rooms. McLaughlin said they will rotate out of season items as they sell and as they are needed.

A lack of space is something the Senior Thrift Store in Bayview has had to deal with for many years. Currently underneath the El Corral Mexican restaurant, manager Lou Cohen has no doubts in his mind that the Senior Thrift Store will be able to support itself in a bigger, better location.

Cohen said organizers are hoping to have their new store in Freeland open in the first week of October.

From sales Cohen said the store averages nearly $20,000 a month, and hopes those numbers will only go up to raise more money for senior services.

"It's all in the name of helping the community," said Cohen.

Cohen, like all of the thrift store managers this week, does not feel any animosity or competition with the other stores. He said many shoppers make a point to stop at all the stores, sometimes in one day.

"We're nobody without the community," said Cohen. "We are all here to help different entities."

Cohen said many services rely on the sales from the store, including Island County senior centers, Meals on Wheels, information and assistance for seniors and a 15-unit low-income apartments.

In the six years he has been a manager at the store, he has seen many people donate, including seniors who are downsizing, families who are moving and families whose children are outgrowing their clothing.

At the WAIF Thrift Store in Freeland Thursday, Rain Simpson of Clinton dropped off a bag of clothing. She said she chose to donate to WAIF out of her love for animals. The two WAIF thrift stores on Whidbey Island benefit the animal shelter.

Every few months Simpson said she drops off a few items, usually clothing, and takes a few minutes to see what's on display.

"It shows the community is willing to recycle and reuse," Simpson said of the successful thrift stores.

Mercury Hubbard, manager of the WAIF Thrift Store, said while business is up, volunteers are down. She wasn't the only manager pleading for more volunteers, both McLaughlin and Cohen said they need volunteers as well.

"Thrift stores need the volunteer," said Cohen.

Hubbard said she had booming business the last weekend in August, but without volunteers to restock the shelves, the store looked emptier than usual. The one person who can usually be found in the store needs to man the cash register, she said.

Jamin Henderson, director of Second Chance Thrift store, said South Whidbey can support so many thrift stores because of the special type of people who live and visit on Whidbey Island.

"Personally, I think the community's really into recycling," said Henderson.

As one of the smaller stores on South Whidbey, Henderson said she still sees many types of donators.

"I think it's just a very giving community. It's great," she said.

With one storage unit to revolve the inventory, Henderson said the profits from their sales go to children both locally and internationally. They choose to sponsor programs such as the South Whidbey Youth Center, Helping Hand, the soup kitchen and even an inner-city school in Seattle.

"I think people just love thrift stores," Henderson said and smiled.

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