A different sort of thrift store

Where do the items come from when you shop at a thrift store? And where does the money go? Socially conscious treasure hunters want to know, especially as the market for freecycled, recycled and repurposed goods turns profitable and competitive. Though most thrifts are volunteer-run, sometimes good old capitalist competition for the customer dollar can yield a better experience.

That's what I've found as a regular shopper at the three Community Thrift Stores in Orlando, which benefit veterans' organizations and are arranged and operated in the most efficient, consumer-friendly way. All have castoffs that are beyond wonderful coming out of the highly visible sorting areas, rack after rack, cart after cart, making every department rich with bargains.

Hearing that made Joe Piening, executive director of Amvets National Service Foundation in Maryland, happy — but from a distance. Amvets sells its donated inventory to the Community Thrift stores, which are privately owned businesses. Like the Vietnam Veterans of America and other nonprofit groups, the local Amvets office calls for donations, picks them up in trucks and then — unlike the Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries, which operate thrift stores as part of their job-training missions — sells the donations in bulk to thrift stores, many of them privately owned and with paid employees.

Consider the $42K annual salary listed in a recent classified ad for a manager at one of the Community stores. That kind of compensation may explain the efficiency and enthusiasm of the workers, all dressed in red T-shirts and eager to move the merchandise without cherry-picking or hoarding the good stuff (as often happens in volunteer-run shops). The potential for a thrilling find is always possible. And that's what gets a true thrift-store junkie high: that surprise, that odd, enticing piece; a treasure to score, to carry home and savor.

The relationship between Amvets and Community Thrift is not readily apparent to the average customer, and signage and questions to employees don't really clarify the situation. But the arrangement doesn't appear to be a problem; the sale of the donations does directly benefit Amvets and Vietnam Veterans of America, Piening says.

He says that the seven Amvets stores operating in different parts of the country require more effort than his sell-in-bulk arrangement at the Community Thrifts. "I can run a store myself or I can contract it out and not have to absorb all the costs," he says. "We have only two funding sources: direct mail and thrift-store donations."

Quentin Butcher, business manager for Vietnam Veterans of America (based in Silver Spring, Md.), agrees. "We don't own the thrift stores because we don't have programs like Goodwill. What we do is folks donate to us, we come around and get the donations and sell them to the local, privately owned shops we've contracted with," he explains. "We're a $6 million organization, and 75 to 85 percent of our funds come from the thrift donations."

None of that was important to me the other day at the Community affiliate on Silver Star Road, called Amvets Silver Star Thrift (3601 Vineland Road). Nothing jumped out and begged to go home with me. Then the glass airplane sculpture in the "boutique" case caught my eye. It was $8.98, a remarkable price — but one that would have been better if its color-coded tag had been tan, the one bannered above the aisles as the week's special. Everything is labeled by color, and a tan sticker would have reduced the price by 40 percent.

Still, the glass was heavy and brilliant, the design — an old prop plane tipping to bank over frosted-glass clouds — charming and the condition pristine. I ran my hands over the edges, easier than scanning for chips. And then I saw it, etched into the glass in just the right script: "Daum France." Bingo! I was in the checkout line, behind the tattered ropes, cash in hand, with my Daum and my single tan-tag (reduced from $1.91 to $1.15) item, a bud vase from the famous Blenko studios in West Virginia.

At the Community Thrift stores, cash is queen, so there are ATMs in each shop. Cashiers at Silver Star, as at the other two stores — in College Park (6015 Edgewater Drive) and south of downtown (5456 S. Orange Ave.) — wait at registers on platforms a foot or so above the floor, so they can see throughout the open shop. As a smiling shopper left with her bag of DVDs, the clerk bellowed "Next!" The register rang up my two items at $10.79; I put my cash on the counter's taped-off square, under the overhead camera that records each purchase and waited. Five seconds later, the clerk held my change out under the camera, placed it into my hand next to the sales slip, and — click.

Then I went on to the next Community on South Orange. Deborah Brown was there, on a break from work, looking for white accessories — mainly shoes, her weakness. "I'm pretty much into clothes, ones with the 40 percent discount or on the Wednesdays when they have the buy-two-get-one-free offer," she confesses. "Best of all are high heels, with pointed toes — and white. I have all different types, and always head right to the shoes.

"But," Brown says, flicking the hangers almost faster than the eye can follow and suddenly pulling a white sweatsuit from a jammed rack, "I like white, see, and this is white. I don't even care what brand it is — it's well-made. And it's a 14 — that's good. I never try anything on in the store; they don't let you if it's less than $4.94 so I don't bother. I just buy it and take it straight to the dry cleaner."

In a few days, Brown will pick up her latest treasure from the dry cleaner — who will charge more than she paid for the entire outfit — and add it to her collection. My Daum sculpture — my best treasure ever — is on my coffee table. And that'll keep me from jonesing for a thrift fix for at least another couple of weeks.

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