Five years ago, the Community Closet thrift store hauled a truckload of eclectic vintage clothing 500 miles over the mountains to the inaugural Treefort Music Festival in Boise, Idaho.
The Closet’s popup shop — on a downtown street, surrounded by live indie music — was an instant hit. Band members and concertgoers found items they loved and spread the word, giving rise to its reliable and cherished presence at Treefort every year since.
“I bought a beautiful ‘60s cotton wedding dress here. I LOVE this store. Long live Treefort,” an anonymous shopper wrote in the Closet’s “guestbook.”
“Bought a trench coat from these guys four years ago, and still wear it today,” wrote musician-shopper Jay Shaw.
To gear up for this year’s festival, the Community Closet staff has been culling donations to its nonprofit Montana store for months, setting aside snap-shirts, wool shirts, funky dresses, hipster hats and coats, and handmade vintage pieces. Closet CEO Caron Cooper branded this line of clothes “Deluxe Rural Wear (DRW).”
“Many DRW products are 1970s and 1980s vintage wear from the rural West,” Cooper said. “We stock up on items we think will particularly appeal to people with creative sensibilities and personalized fashion sense, like you see at Treefort.”
The wide array of secondhand clothes at great prices has earned the store a sweet reputation at the festival, held this year from March 22nd to 26th.
“The Community Closet has been a blessing for every Treefort,” wrote Berg, guitarist for
the Portland, Ore.-based band And And And. “The ‘Fairest Store of Them All.’ Shoes, boots, and weird vintage clothes have decorated my life for the past four years. Thank you for what you do and who you are.”
WHERE FASHION MEETS PHILANTHROPY
The Closet’s presence at Treefort grew out of Cooper’s never-ending search for new markets to support the Livingston-based organization.
Cooper founded the Community Closet in 2005 based on the concept of “Reuse, Recycle, Reinvest,” and her personal and professional assessment that this rural community of 7,000 people would support a well-run nonprofit thrift store. She was right.
People throughout the region donate clothes, books, furniture and household items, all of which is sorted and sold at bargain prices at one of the Closet’s three stores. All proceeds go back into the community through grants to local nonprofit and community organizations, events and needy individuals.
Thus far this “Fashion Meets Philanthropy” enterprise has generated more than $350,000 in grants. The store also donates merchandise to teachers, schools and other nonprofit organizations, and gives vouchers to needy individuals and families.
The stores’ inventory reflects the store’s Montana location, Livingston’s ranching and railroad history, and the variety of cowboys and rodeo queens, artists and writers, outdoors enthusiasts and Hollywood stars who call this place home.
One shopper recalled: “My boyfriend found these shoes he called ‘his’ the second he saw them. After buying them, this woman wandered up to him and softly whispered. ‘Those were donated by Peter Fonda’ He whispered back, ‘These will be mine forever!’”
INSPIRATION TO GO ON THE ROAD
The story of the Closet and Treefort, Cooper said, “is also a story of me and Bill,” her now 20-year-old son.
“Five years ago, when he was a sophomore in high school, he came to me asking to take off school and have me drive him to a four-day concert in Boise,” she recalled. “Of course my first reaction was, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“But the previous year, Bill and I had gone to The Decemberists concert in Missoula for his birthday present. I realized then, while looking at the attendees, that this was the crowd for all the cool 1970s vintage we got in the store, but had no local market for.”
To get his mom on board, Bill started playing music from Treefort artists “in the morning while we were hanging out together,” she recalled. “One artist in particular, Sallie Ford, really caught my attention. So I agreed. It seemed like Treefort would be a perfect way to test the market for a different splinter of thrift.”
That first year, Cooper learned a few key lessons. Many of the bands had been touring for weeks — the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, also falls in March — and didn’t have any socks. “So we offered free socks,” she said.
Indie bands also don’t have much money, “but they loved our product,” she said. “So we gave every band member we saw at the booth a free item to promote it to other bands and bring customers over. When we closed the booth up at night we left a couple of coats out for free in case late-night concertgoers are cold. And on the last day, any Treefort volunteer got a free item.”
These ideas worked. People came looking for the Closet’s pop-up shop. Band members autographed the Closet’s mannequin. As Cooper said, “Who knows how famous these bands, and our products, might become.” And the stories grew.
“Hey! My bandmate forgot to bring something warm to Treefort last year and I got him a FABULOUS crochet poncho, which I stole from him as soon as we got home,” wrote Maggie Morris, of Genders, a three-piece “fuzzed-out, dream pop band” from Portland, Ore. “I still wear it and get compliments on it and even wore it as a costume in a music video! Thanks for keeping us music kids looking freshhhh! XO.”
As the festival has "morphed from quirky music festival to consuming community event” over the years, growing from 137 bands in 2012 to 411 this year, it’s also become known for its “personable close-knit vibe.” And the Closet’s mobile store has evolved right along with it.
“We've developed relationships with the bands, fans and promoters we see over and over again,” said Closet CEO Caron Cooper. “Repeat customers come up to us and say things like, ‘Hey, remember me? I bought the moonboots last year.’ Or ‘I wore those shoes around Europe.’ And there are folks in bands that ask me about Bill when he's not there because they've watched him grow up.”
To see just what the Closet takes to Treefort, stop by the Livingston thrift store and have a look at the DRW rack. But do it soon, the whole thing goes on the road next week!
Excerpts from the Closet’s Treefort guestbook:
“Wooden Indian Burial Ground says hello! Thanks for being rad!”
“Bought my first snap-shirt two or three years ago at Treefort — get tons of compliments — tell them all I got it from the best thrift store in Park County. Thanks, Rich.”
“I got a pair of shoes here a few years ago, they ended up being my favorite shoes. I traveled all over Europe in those. Thank you! - Jackie Hutchens”
“Receipt: Duncan from Scam Dunk took a giant stripey button down (short sleeve). Thanks!”