Customers continue to rely on rock-bottom prices
By Sabina Mollot
To some they’re places to dig for hidden treasures at a cheap price, while to others, unable to turn elsewhere for the things they need, they’re a lifeline. They’re also the foot soldiers of the nonprofit world, positioned at street level for anyone to breeze on in, and, depending on their needs that day, contribute by leaving the unwanted contents of their closets behind, or by spending a few bucks.
Local bargain hunters are especially fortunate, considering that a two-block stretch on East 23rd Street, between Second Avenue and Lexington, is home to half a dozen thrift shops. They are Cauz for Pawz, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Vintage Thrift, Housing Works and City Opera. At the beginning of the recession, in 2008, these shops were busier than ever, at the time reporting to Town & Village that they were doing well in sales as many more people came to rely on their rock bottom prices. However, they noted that donations had fallen, with many of those same people opting to hold onto the things they had.
Recently, T&V caught up with representatives from a few of the stores that make up Thrift Shop Row to ask how things were going these days, and everyone we spoke with said their organizations were faring well, thanks to a continued reliance on their low priced goods, but also generous people donating.
Most of these same shops will be holding sales on August 17, which is National Thrift Store Day. The event in New York is run by the organization ReuseNYC, which receives city funding and encourages shopping at thrift stores. However, not all participating stores are obligated to hold a sale, which Reuse rep Jessica Huaman explained to Town & Village is because some stores’ operators have told Reuse they couldn’t lower prices any more than what they were currently offering. So, instead, rather than promoting great deals, the event has shifted to focus more on promoting shopping for second hand items as a form of recycling and creating green jobs. It’s at each store’s discretion to decide what type of discounts, if any, to offer, said Huaman, so those looking for deals may want to call stores ahead of time to confirm that there’s a sale.
At Cauz for Pawz, a relatively new addition to the street at just four years old, director Cathryn Duhigg said the store, at 212 East 23rd Street was finally seeing an uptick in sales and donations after an especially tough winter. Duhigg acknowledged the past couple of years have been tough, with the brutal winters partially to blame, but, she added, the past couple of months have been better. Duhigg said she anticipates further improvement.
“I think you’re going to see a resurgence in this business,” she said. “I think people who are educated will say, ‘Why spend when you can get a Calvin Klein suit for $20?’ We have (designer items) a lot. Our donors are amazing.”
Duhigg added that artwork has been a surprising draw, and there’s currently a plan to hold an art show in the fall. Cauz for Pawz also has enjoyed a rabid following for its support of a number of animal related causes.
In July, the store held a winter coat sale, with Duhigg saying based on what she’s seen, many of the customers are truly in need of low-priced clothing.
“I know their situations, and you have to give back,” she said. However, she added, there’s also no shortage of art school girls who come to scour the racks for vintage items. “They don’t want traditional, they want something different,” said Duhigg.
While discussing the store, a customer passing by chimed in that she once scored eight pairs of sandals for $5 each during a sale. The woman, Brooklynite Merle O’Brien, said she often comes to East 23rd Street to shop, usually because she’s looking for deals on clothes to send to friends in her native South America. “I don’t buy anything full price anywhere,” she said.
As Town & Village reported last week, Duhigg had gotten the shocking news that the shop had lost its lease due to a new urgent care center moving into the space and a vacant space next door. However, she’s currently shopping around for new spaces and hopes to be in the new one before the current one closes on August 28. She said there would be discounts offered for Thrift Store Day, though the amount hadn’t been determined.
At Salvation Army, at 208 East 23rd Street, customers come for the huge selection of men and women’s clothing at dirt cheap prices as well as some kids’ items.
Angela Kelly, manager of the 23rd Street location, is relatively new there, having worked previously at a store in Chelsea. However, from what she’s seen recently, “Things are really picking up.”
She added, “This is a competitive street. You have Goodwill, Cauz for Pawz and Housing Works.” Still, Kelly noted, “I think the store’s doing better than in recent years. I’ve seen the numbers from a couple of years because we keep a journal. Things were pretty bad last year and that goes for all of us in the Salvation Army. In Chelsea, donations were down, but this year I’ve seen it go back up. You never know; maybe it’s more people getting jobs.”
Gramercy, meanwhile, has also been good lately in both donations received and in numbers with customers continually picking up low-priced items (usually under $10) from popular brands like Banana Republic and Gap.
Not that Kelly worries about labels; her priority is to offer low-priced goods that won’t stay on the racks too long. “I don’t worry about designers,” she said. “I’m here for the person like myself that just wants nice stuff at reasonable prices. We’re just trying to be there for the everyday person.”
The store’s main challenge recently has been getting insurance to pay for the costs from when a truck backed up onto the sidewalk over two months ago, knocking down the Salvation Army’s awning. “You know insurance,” she sighed.
Salvation Army will be holding a sale on Thrift Store Day, though the extent of the discounts was not announced.
At the Goodwill store at 220 East 23rd Street, manager Ivory White also had good news to report; business was doing well for the nonprofit, with proceeds going to things like helping the disabled and veterans get job training. Popular items are anything considered vintage, in particular clothing. Customers include students looking “for something different” as well as costume designers looking for inspiration “and we can’t forget about resellers,” said White. They, as well as collectors, tend to buy things like baseball cards, vintage telephones, paintings and prints. Additionally, “People are donating,” she said. “Before they were holding onto stuff, but now we don’t have that issue.”
Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Norther New Jersey will be an official participant in Thrift Store Day, though employees told T&V they didn’t know if the store would be holding a sale.
Just south of 23rd Street on 286 Third Avenue sits another thrift shop, Vintage Thrift, which has a room full of houseware items and a wall lined with books, in addition to the front section which has men’s and women’s clothing and women’s accessories. Sales rep Charles Bradfield said donations of items like antiques, art and even mink coats come from all around the city. Many come from those wanting to help the organization the store benefits, the United Jewish Council of the East Side.
“We have loyal donors,” said Bradfield, adding that for the types of items they specialize in, like midcentury furniture, the store will go as far away as New Jersey to pick things up. Customers have apparently been loyal too.
“We have everyone from the fashion industry to people who are quite famous, so I’m not going to say who they are,” said Bradfield. “Business is great.” Items that are the most popular are the antiques and women’s jewelry.
Vintage Thrift, like all the other thrift stores profiled, will take just about any donation as long as it’s in good condition, although furniture is another matter. Larger items are usually rejected, due to limited space to display furniture and also because people in Manhattan just don’t have room for them. Anything from Ikea’s a no-no, as the company’s merchandise tends to get destroyed in transit.