Little house of big bargains integral part of the successful Community Closet 'machine'
At 9:45 on a Saturday morning, the regulars are already gathering outside the Alley Annex. Some hang back and chat, sharing community news and gossip. Others shade their eyes and peer in the windows, scoping out the new treasures culled from the thrift store next door.
Inside the tiny alley house, sales clerk Robin Zank readies the till, then makes her way around the store to cherry pick a few items that she expects her regulars will like and put them front and center.
“I know what my early morning customers like and I’ll set them where people can see them, so they can easily find them,” she says, reaching for a half-hidden, colorful burlap and straw chicken, and repositioning it front and center. “That will be one of the first things to go.” Then she turns around and opens the door.
More than a dozen shoppers flow into the store, some making a beeline for items they’ve spotted through the windows. The chicken is, as predicted, one of the first things to go. “I know my people,” Zank says.
One woman rifles through a large stack of blankets. Another decisively grabs an eggbeater, then a pillow, and starts a pile under a large folding table in the main room. “I am a guard dog about people’s piles,” Zank says.
The Alley Annex is a branch of the adjacent Community Closet Thrift Store. Originally started as a way to move overstock and off-season items, it quickly developed its own clientele of regulars.
“There’s always one to two people I’ve never seen before and they’re kind of taken aback,” Zank says of the crowd that’s there at for the 10 o’clock opening. “The rest are regulars.”
‘Always good stuff’
The store’s inventory is fresh – and unpredictable – each Saturday. This weekend’s treasures include several boxes of records, a collection of cow decorations, and more boxes filled with kids’ craft kits and sewing patterns, part of a large donation from a Bozeman retail store.
The bins in the men’s, women’s and kids’ clothing rooms are full. There are also telephones, baseballs, pots and pans (with lids!) and other housewares, scarves, purses, knick-knacks, picture frames and lamps. Puzzles, games and kids’ toys are especially popular.
“On Saturdays, clothes, shoes, purses and appliances are $1 each,” Zank says. “Everything else is 20 cents – five for a dollar. The games are phenomenal sellers here. They don’t really sell in the other store because we can’t take the time to go through and count the pieces. But for 20 cents, people will take the risk.
“And I think one of the best things we have is the linens and blankets. There’s always good stuff there,” she says.
Almost on cue, a man plunks down two good blankets and a coffee cup on the table. He pays 60 cents and leaves happy.
Up next is a woman with 10 sheets and three blankets: $2.60. “My son is covering hay bales for his wedding, so people can sit, since they’ll all be dressed for the wedding,” she tells Zank. “We’re going to tie these on with ribbons.”
Next in line is Ken, a retired Cincinnati high school teacher who now lives in the Paradise Valley. He comes by periodically to get things for Arrowhead School kindergarten students.
“I taught 18 years olds and now I work with 5 year olds,” he says, putting several stuffed animals, a plastic helicopter, Coke bottles, a computer mouse and a Batman coloring book on the table. He throws in a beer glass and a couple of other items for his own use.
Ken doesn’t qualify for the teacher discount – “Teachers can take as much as they want for free,” Zank says – but he’s happy to contribute. “A couple of weeks ago I got a plastic dinosaur and that was a big hit,” he says. “And hey, today I got all this for $2.40.”
A couple that dedicated a good 30 minutes to a thorough search of the Annex winds up with five garbage bags and a hamper filled to the brim with items. As Robin tallies their treasures ($11.20), the woman takes one last look around. She spots a giant remote control and picks it up to show her husband. He explains: “I won’t go and get glasses so anytime she sees something huge, she says, ‘You could read that.’”
House on the alley
The annex – and its remarkable inventory – grew out of the Community Closet’s thrifty “Recycle, Reuse, Reinvest” philosophy. Area residents and businesses donate their gently used goods, which the thrift store recycles for purchase at vastly reduced prices, and the profits are reinvested in the community.
The Community Closet was a success from day one; so successful, in fact, that “we were being overrun with donations and there simply wasn’t enough room at the thrift store,” recalls Caron Cooper, president and CEO. “When the shelves and racks at a thrift store are too crowded, people stop trying. We had to eliminate a lot of the low-value merchandise that was hogging space on our store floor and making it unpleasant to shop.”
Cooper says neither she nor the staff felt good about tossing “the lesser-valued, but still eminently usable items. We were throwing away items that people could use.”
Plus, it was expensive. “During our first full year of business, 2006, we threw away 10 tons of materials. The next year, it was 65 tons. By 2008, our trash bills were more than $1,000 per month, and that was money that could have otherwise gone to community grants.”
A problem solver to her core, Cooper’s first idea was to work with the “rag market” recyclers who collect used clothing and resell them in bulk on the international market.
But there were hidden costs in that solution, too. Livingston is well off the beaten path and that geographic isolation limited the number of recyclers willing to participate. And those who did appeared at unpredictable intervals and the cost of storing clothes in between their visits didn’t pencil out.
Her next idea was to hold periodic “quarter-sales.” Besides moving merchandise, this allowed people of extremely limited means – many referred by social service agencies – to pay 25-cents per item and “shop with a renewed sense of pride that they could take care of their own family’s needs,” Cooper says.
Then in 2008, a small house across the alley from the thrift store became available. Cooper drafted a business plan for an “alley annex,” and the Community Closet’s board of directors approved the project “because of the potential for outreach, waste reduction and a significant impact on poverty in our community,” Cooper says.
Project start-up costs were $12,000, which covered modifications to the house and purchase of commercial-grade carts to wheel materials back and forth. All costs were covered by local fundraising, including several small regional grants.
“Our revenues increased and we were sending far less to the landfill almost immediately. We lowered net disposal costs by a whopping 80 percent,” Cooper says. “And, within the first year, requests for no-cost vouchers dropped 70 percent because folks could afford to buy their own basic goods.”
How it works
The steps that go into making the annex work efficiently took a while to iron out, but eventually settled into a successful routine.
“During the week we sort thrift-store overflow into bins,” Cooper says. “Many of the items are in perfectly good condition, but are donated in such volumes that we cannot sell them quickly enough. For example, it’s not unusual to have a donation with multiple pieces of the same size and style – the items were cheap enough that the consumer bought the same item in different colors. Ten pairs of pants from one donor in the same size and style would overwhelm our pants rack and just sit there. So we keep several for the thrift store (priced at $2.50) and move the rest over to the annex.”
The staff purges items from the shelves and racks. They also select items while sorting that are more worn, have a crack or a chip, or are missing a button. “If it has an imperfection, it goes to the annex,” Zank says. “If it is off-season or a holiday item that we don’t want to store,” that goes, too.
Staff wheel the full bins out the back door of the thrift store and right up the ramp to the annex throughout the week. By Saturday, the little house is brimming with inventory.
Zank opens the annex on Saturdays at 10 o’clock, which coincides with the half-price sale next door at the thrift store. On Saturday, the annex is the “dollar store.” After the store closes at 1 p.m., “more stuff comes in, so it’s refreshed on Sunday with new stuff,” Zank said.
On Sundays, the Annex is the “quarter store.”
And on those rare three-day weekends, Monday is nickel and penny day. “It’s fun to work there when people are getting things for a penny,” Zank said.
After the weekend, all the leftovers go out into the free bins in front of the thrift store. By the end of the week almost all the free items have been taken and the cycle starts over.
The Alley Annex is completely emptied and completely restocked every week. And fresh items at the annex and in the free bins mean things move quickly, Cooper said.
Over President’s Day weekend in February, the Community Closet posted a Facebook message inviting people to come and check out the bargains.
“Our usual group of three men were here on the porch when I got here,” said employee Teena Hagen, who worked the annex that day. “We had about 30-plus people here in the first 90 minutes. People just spread the word. I like to say this is the place where you can nickel and dime people and they actually like it.”
One woman got two bags of stuff for 85 cents.
Another woman filled two bags with her finds, “for gifts, mostly,” for just 36 cents. “I come here every week,” she said. “It’s mom’s time-out kind of thing.”
Gary, a friendly regular, found an armload of clothes for 40 cents.
The annex has become an integral part of the “big machine” that make the Community Closet’s “Recycle, Reuse, Reinvest” philosophy a reality. Since the thrift store opened in 2005, it has reinvested $300,000 in cash grants and $50,000 in in-kind donations back into the community, making a difference in thousands of people’s lives.