Why Support Community Thrift Shops
The motto of the Episcopal Church, emblazoned on signs and bumper stickers, is:
“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”
The Episcopal-affiliated shop I managed from 2014-2019 displays this inclusive phrase near the front register, and I like to think it informs the way I manage the shop, and the way customers feel when they walk through our doors.
Regardless of affiliation, community thrift shops have a unique opportunity to create inclusive, equitable spaces.
Shopping is socioeconomically stratified
Think about it: most brick-and-mortar stores draw in a relatively small demographic. Middle class teenagers, plus size women, high income outdoor enthusiasts, low income single moms, wannabe fashionistas, or bargain shoppers.
Because of specific marketing goals and price points that match desired socioeconomic targets, even our shopping is stratified. In fact, retail employees are often trained, implicitly or explicitly, to either welcome or shun particular shoppers.
Case in point: one time I entered a Coach store in a ritzy Florida mall wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and cutoff shorts. The employees literally grimaced when I walked in the door, assuming that someone dressed like me wasn’t there to buy anything (as it turns out, they were right, but if they had treated me with kindness I may have added something to my mental wishlist).
On the other side of the coin, upper middle class shoppers are socially encouraged to stay away from stores where “poor people” congregate, places like K-Mart and Wal-Mart, for instance.
It sounds harsh to articulate that, but if you are or have been located within that demographic, you know it’s true. Sure, you may justify it on the basis of poor employee treatment or manufacturing policies, but at least a portion of the disgust you feel has to do with the physical space, and who tends to occupy it.
Involvement in community and civic groups has declined rapidly
People don’t get together anymore. A rapid decline in community involvement (as much as 50%) – whether in civic groups, bowling leagues, or religious services – over the last 30 or so years decreases our opportunities to interact with people in different economic and political demographics from our own.
One researcher speculates that this is a multi-fold issue: the rise of suburbs, recessions, more women in the workforce, greater mobility, and technology all contribute to the way society is structured.
By the same token, volunteerism has been in decline for more than a decade. Community groups and nonprofits are hemorrhaging participants on both sides, leaving them with little choice but to restructure or close their doors altogether. The end result is fewer resources for community engagement and involvement, and the breakdown of infrastructure that would allow us to reweave this social fabric.
Online echo chambers all but eliminate the need to interact with diverse populations
The rise of complex online forums like Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook make it easier to connect to like-minded people than ever before. In terms of creative and political synergy, this is an asset. But it also means we can attain much of our social fulfillment without ever leaving our homes.
And, because the internet is vast, we have no reason to congregate in diverse thought groups or tolerate conflict. The social borders are well maintained.
Where the thrift shop comes in
Thrift shops by their nature offer something for everyone. Prices are low, inventory is overflowing, and the environment is casual.
Mothers come in with their kids, clients from social service agencies shop free with vouchers, upper middle class donors peruse the racks after dropping off their goods. Homeless people stock up on t-shirts, college students buy party costumes, Trump supporters chat with hippies in the checkout line.
This is one of the last places where diverse populations coexist peacefully, finding common ground discussing the beauty of that $4.00 cashmere sweater or asking how old the baby is. This is a place where Christians catch a glimpse of the Kingdom and secular humanists restore their faith in humanity.
Thrift Shops as Ministry
As a practicing Christian, I often compare the “ministry” of the thrift shop to the ministry of more traditional church work. Theoretically, religious spaces are intended for everyone, but it’s easy to be burdened by the metaphorical heaviness of a church’s front doors.
Religious institutions have not, historically, been welcoming spaces for all. They have always been stratified along the lines of race, doctrine, sexual and political orientation, and social and economic class. This means that a significant portion of the population will feel unable to enter the community space of the sanctuary.
But the thrift shop is different. When a person enters the space of a thrift shop, they are equal. Rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, Trump follower or socialist, if they’ve come to browse, they’re welcome here.
Shopping in this space is as democratic as it gets. Everyone’s come for a deal, and a deal they shall receive. By contextualizing our mission as a sort of holistic ministry, we are often better equipped to meet people’s basic social needs – and certainly their material needs – than a typical commercial or religious space.
People are free to talk about their dying mother or their wayward kid, to share their work woes or their big dreams, to trade recipes and life stories. And when you give them the space to do it, they open up.
Of course, not every thrift shop is created equal. Some local and national shops in my area don’t find the right balance between raising funds for their outreach programs and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Sales are important, because they ensure you can sustain your financial commitments to local agencies, which ensures that they can sustain their work. But the way I see it, the most important resource we offer – and what makes us markedly different from other nonprofit models – is physical space and physical goods. We are uniquely equipped to meet people where they are, and to not understand that part of the mission is a moral problem.
There is one particular shop that advertises itself as an “upscale boutique” and, as a result, only attracts a more well-to-due clientele. Sure, they’re making bank for their charity, but where does that leave the people thrift shops were created for? And how does that help loosen the bonds of socioeconomic stratification?
Find a community thrift shop and support the heck out of it.
While you’re there, think about chatting with the volunteers, asking for fashion advice from a fellow shopper, and waving at a baby. You just might find that your life has become more meaningful than when you started out.
P.S. There are also practical reasons to shop at thrift shops, namely, that they keep stuff out of landfills and help you budget for higher priced, ethical goods.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.