MONMOUTH — In a building filled with gently used $3 toys, 75-cent T-shirts and bags of books for $2.50 each, Shanda Velazquez gravitated to the 25-cent section.
She worked at a campground and needed tiny decorations for a camp-wide fairy house project.
“You can always find something at Vestry,” said Velazquez, who used to volunteer as a clothes-sorter at the Vestry Community Thrift Store in Monmouth and now is a weekly shopper there. “You pretty much think of what you want and come looking and find it. It’s really amazing. And then you find all this stuff you don’t need and you go, ‘But I have to have this!'”
Like, it turned out, an intricately carved, if slightly broken, 25-cent dragon.
“That’s going in my own personal little fairy garden,” Velazquez said excitedly, sweeping the dragon off to the register for safe keeping while she finished shopping. “Wow. That’s a find!”
Thrift store director and founder Kathy Perless hears that lot, and not just about palm-sized dragon statues. Think L.L. Bean jackets and out-of-print books, craft kits and vintage dishes.
“We have people line up before we open up,” Perless said. “I often look at the people and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ They’re here for the bargains.”
And not just at Vestry.
Once dismissed as frumpish, tacky and just generally uncool, Maine’s church thrift shops are seeing a resurgence.
Bargain hunters stop by for their low prices and array of the unusual. Low-income families like getting the clothes and household items they desperately need without feeling like they’re taking charity. Environment-minded shoppers like being able to reuse, recycle or upcycle someone else’s castoffs.
“It’s everybody now,” Perless said. “Now it’s becoming a choice. It’s becoming exciting. . . . It’s people who want or think differently, outside the box. Outside the big box stores, if you will.”
Trucks magically appear
There are dozens of church thrift shops in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. Some started as clothes closets and expanded over the decades; others opened more recently, springing to life as fully formed as any Walmart, if a lot smaller and with pants and shirts sold by the bag full.
“It was just sort of put in my heart that it would be really nice if we had a storefront that I could say, ‘Listen, we might not have money available or we might not have this (particular item), but come down. What do you need? Do you need clothes for the kids?” said Anna Vierling, who helped found The Homestead, part of the Community Baptist Church in Sabattus.
Such shops are usually located next to — or at least nearby — the churches that sponsor them.
All rely on donations.
“Sometimes we get things in the mail. Sometimes trucks magically appear. Sometimes it’s a local donation,” said Tammie Gould with the United Methodist Economic Ministry Thrift Shop in the Franklin County town of Salem.
Clothes, books and toys are most common, dropped off in 30-gallon garbage bags or delivered in cardboard boxes or left on the doorstep overnight. Sometimes families donate whole estates after someone dies.
The Leeds Community Church’s thrift shop recently received a whole houseful of items from the sons of an elderly couple who died.
“The first day they came with five pickup (truck) loads of things. They have come with at least that many more,” said longtime volunteer Thelma Waite. “The things — almost all of them — were great things. Many, many, many crafts. This woman had a lot of hobbies.”
Then there are the truly unusual donations.
The Salem thrift shop regularly gets items from people visiting Carrabassett Valley to ski. It currently has a jacket signed by famed skier and Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street.
“We haven’t decided what to do with it,” Gould said. “Right now it’s just upstairs waiting for winter and then we’ll figure it out.”
The Vestry Thrift Store, which is sponsored by the Monmouth United Church, has received everything from diamonds to dirty diapers. Literally. It’s gotten diamonds and it’s gotten dirty diapers. And other unexpected items.
Most, probably, by accident.
“Ammunition, guns, gold, drugs,” Perless listed. “People’s wills who haven’t died yet! I actually brought it back to the woman and said, ‘You’re not dead yet.’ She was like, ‘Oh, my god, I don’t know how that got here.'”
Then there are the Social Security cards and credit cards left in purses, the wads of cash forgotten in pants pockets, the personal diaries tossed in among books. And other things. So many other things.
“It’s just funny, you could really do a sociological study of a community through their thrift stores. I’ve always said that I should work on a Ph.D. that way. Because it’s just amazing. You see what the beliefs are in a community, what they spend their money on,” Perless said. “Oh! I also have a stash of 98 Viagra pills if you need some. They were stuffed in a mitten. . . . I just laughed, thinking, ‘Somebody’s not having much fun tonight.'”
Although church thrift shops don’t sell the drugs, dirty diapers or personal financial information they get, there’s still plenty to bring in buyers who want a deal, want to save the environment or just want a treasure hunt.
“It’s the girls who are working in the bank, the ladies who are working in the hospital offices. They’re coming in to get clothes. And they’re so funny because they brag to each other about a bargain,” said Gould at the Salem thrift shop. “We’re even seeing more young men.”
Barbara Buck knows that bargain-hunting feeling well.
“I come here a lot,” said Buck, who lives in Winthrop and wandered in to Vestry the same afternoon Velazquez found her slightly broken dragon for a quarter. “You can’t beat the prices . . . and I’m supporting the church.”
She typically shops for her adult son and 10-year-old grandson, filling a bag with clothes and shoes for $6. Sometimes she finds stuff for herself, including the shirt she happened to be wearing on this shopping trip.
This day’s needs: shorts for her son and something for her grandson.
This day’s finds: a basket, a purse, a fleece jacket, a shirt and a fleece vest, all for less than $6. There was also the large, gray-framed wall mirror that she eyed — $5, marked down from $10 — but did not buy.
“Look at that beautiful mirror. How much would you pay for that at Pier 1 Imports or whatever? If I had a room big enough, I’d buy it in a minute,” she said to fellow shopper Steve Tucker, an old schoolmate who also dropped by the shop.
Buck was out for bargains. Tucker leaned more toward treasure.
His favorite finds have included a men’s L.L. Bean vest and a series of out-of-print books.
“It’s funny, you come in and see people have the same taste as you do. After a while they accumulate all this stuff and then they decide, ‘Oh, I’m not going to read those again, so I’ll get rid of them because I need the space and I’m downsizing, minimizing,'” Tucker said. “Then I come through and go, ‘Wow.'”
A bookshelf full of free VHS movies caught his attention and he began to browse, skimming past “Back to the Future,” “School of Rock,” “Hannibal” and what looked like every Disney movie ever put on tape.
“I’ve got to stop hoarding, that’s what I’ve got to do,” Tucker joked.
Not everyone buys to keep. At the Bartlett Memorial United Methodist Church thrift shop in Jay, shoppers tend to use the place as a kind of lending library.
“They come in and grab a bunch of romance books, then the next year (they) come and donate those back again and pick out new ones,” said Pastor Doris Morgan.
Vestry has the same experience, but with dishware. Plates and glasses are so cheap there that families buy them to use as eclectic place settings at wedding receptions or barbecues, then wash and re-donate them.
It pleases Perless to see the dishes used, but vexes her when they return. The secret to a really good thrift shop, she said, is a constantly changing inventory.
“We’ve got to keep turning them over,” she said.
Because they get their items for free, church thrift shops can afford to price toys for a dime or dishes for a quarter and still make money.
Part of that income usually goes back into the shop to pay for heat, lights and upkeep. Some shops use the rest of the money to fund summer camps or college scholarships or to pay for children’s activities in the community. Some send the money back to their churches. Some use the funds to help pay for other projects, like a food pantry.
All make sure people in need get necessary items, whether they can pay or not.
At The Homestead in Sabattus, a woman recently happened by the shop with a friend. The woman and her two teenage children had spent the past six months living in her car and had just gotten an apartment, but they had nothing to put in it.
“I was able to pack her little car full of everything she would need for her kitchen, for the apartment, for decorations, whatever we had for bedding, everything,” Vierling said. “And it didn’t even make a dent in what’s been blessed, what’s been donated. That’s where I’m always so humbled, that we’re able to have that for people.”
Then there are the times when blankets and shoes aren’t what’s needed.
“We’re a resource for people who are lonely. They come and kind of make contact. They know somebody’s there, that somebody will listen to them if they want to say something or need to talk,” said Morgan, the pastor at the thrift shop in Jay. “And if somebody wants prayer, we will pray with them.”
As popular as church thrift shops are with shoppers and community members, though, they aren’t quite so popular with volunteers. For several shops, that’s becoming a problem.
The St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop in Lewiston is run entirely by a small cadre of longtime volunteers, most of them elderly. When volunteers have left, it’s been a struggle to find replacements.
“The youngest, we call her the baby, she’s like 68 or 69,” said Pauline Marsh, who manages the shop. “I’m 80. I have two other ladies here that are 80. One is 94. She’s still working, (but) I don’t know for how much longer.
“I was asked a couple of years ago, ‘Where do you see St. Vincent’s in 10 years?'” Marsh continued. “I said I think I see it closed because we’re not going to have anybody to work it.”
Thrift shop organizers hope their increasing popularity will someday, hopefully soon, lead to more volunteers.
In the meantime, they’re happy to be busy.
“People keep saying, ‘How can you keep doing this? Isn’t it depressing?’ It not to me! It’s a treasure hunt,” Perless said. “It all pulls us still back together as a community.”
Kathy Perless, manager of the Vestry Community Thrift Store in Monmouth, poses for a photo near the dish display recently. “Ammunition, guns, gold, drugs,” Perless said, listing some things the thrift store has received. “People’s wills who haven’t died yet! I actually brought it back to the woman and said, ‘You’re not dead yet.’ She was like, ‘Oh, my god, I don’t know how that got here.'”
Vestry Community Thrift Store in Monmouth has unusual and random treasures for sale.
Some of the items for sale at the Vestry Community Thrift Store in Monmouth.
The Vestry Community Thrift Store in Monmouth, which is sponsored by Monmouth United Church, is located on Main Street.
Often there are items at the Vestry Community Thrift Store in Monmouth that are free or deeply discounted, such as these shoes and boots found during a recent visit.
The dishes display is very popular in the Vestry Community Thrift Store in Monmouth.
A recent window display at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop in Lewiston. The thrift shop is popular with shoppers, though it’s struggling to find volunteers.
The Homestead is a thrift store affiliated with the Community Baptist Church in Sabattus.