- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

Thrift stores have been recycling items for years, since way before the idea was trendy. One person’s unwanted blazer is another’s treasured find. And where else can you buy furniture priced to sell or out-of-print book editions and benefit charity at the same time?

Clearly, thrift stores attract shoppers for myriad reasons, including the thrill of hunting for a quality piece on sale, but the stores also offer a glimpse of what items our society uses, gives up and reuses.

“Thrift stores are a way of looking at the remnants of our cultural history. … Like little museums with ever-changing exhibits,” says Chriss Slevin, co-author of “Dirt Cheap, Real Good: A Highway Guide to Thrift Stores in the Washington, D.C. Area.”

Ms. Slevin and her thrift-loving buddy, Leah Smith, are avid thrift-store shoppers. They planned and recorded their personal road trip to more than 200 thrift and resale stores in and around the District a little more than two years ago.

“Often, I love a hard-core junk shop because that’s where you find the most unusual objects, and you have to root around to find them,” Ms. Slevin says.

There are hundreds of visitors guides to the District, but these two women tapped into the underdiscussed world of thrift-store shopping.

A thrift store is a resale shop run by a nonprofit organization for the benefit of specific charitable causes. Thrift stores are very different from consignment stores, which split their profits with the person who consigned the product sold.

Thrift Shop Consignments Inc., just over the P Street Bridge in Northwest, is a prime example of this distinction. The managers and volunteers transformed the store from a thrift store into a consignment shop for the purpose of raising more money for charity. The store supports the Board of Visitors of Children’s Hospital, the Child Health Center Board of Children’s Hospital, the Ladies’ Board of the House of Mercy and the Founders Board of St. John’s Community Services Inc.

Kathy Barker, a volunteer at the shop, says people bring more and better-quality items if they get something, too.

The consignment store sits in a quiet neighborhood of old lampposts, aged buildings, brick sidewalks and friendly faces. Students from George Washington University frequent the store alongside senior citizens from the retirement home down the street.

Katrina Groeger, the store’s assistant manager, explains that the locals are responsible for the high-quality products the store is able to offer and that those locals have an incentive to consign because they will get some of the profits made.

The store used to sell clothing and appliances. Now it sells only “high-quality furniture and antiques,” says Diane Falk, the store manager.

The shop had been a thrift store since its founding in 1930, but it is able to give more money to the charities it supports now that the inventory of consigned furniture and antiques is worth more.

While consigning products improves selection, thrift stores such as Goodwill and Salvation Army serve the needy with their profits and their products.

“If you didn’t have any money, you could get a voucher to get free clothes,” says Barrington Cummigs, store manager for the only Salvation Army store in the District, in Northeast. Otherwise, any profits go to benefit community-oriented charities, he says, such as drug-rehabilitation programs and a shelter for battered women.

This concept of recycling appeals to many District visitors and residents, who shop at local thrift and consignment stores, but it also is one of the convictions of the owners, as well.

For John Coon, owner of for-profit Washington Consignment: A Capital Classic, recycling is one of the greatest aspects of consignment.

“This whole industry is recycling,” he says.

To illustrate his point, Mr. Coon tells the story of two old chairs brought into the shop not long ago by a man in his 70s.

“They had had a life already,” he says.

Then a family came in and purchased the chairs to refurbish and use once again, thus giving them a whole new life.

Washington Consignment has three branches in the area, and each has a its own distinct atmosphere.

Kathleen McGarrah, manager at the Connecticut Avenue store in Northwest, draws attention to Billie Holiday playing in the background.

“Everyone says they love the music here,” Ms. McGarrah says.

Her store and the one on Wisconsin Avenue Northwest have mascots. One has a hairless sphinx cat named Lord Cameron, and the other has a parrot named Q.T. Both pets were so-dubbed by Mr. Coon’s 6-year-old boys, Noah and Marcus. The third store is on Nicholson Lane in Rockville.

Washington Consignment stores are upscale, with some artwork priced as high as $10,000.

“Everybody consigns through us,” Mr. Coon says. “Laura Bush comes in here.”

Other consignment stores in the District, such as Clothes Encounters, are far less pricey but still maintain an upscale inventory. While the store is for-profit, whatever it does not sell goes to benefit local charities if the consignors agree.

“We try to keep the prices low,” says store owner Linda McMullen, but she explains that the store will not accept certain brands, such as clothes from Old Navy, in an effort to keep the selection upscale.

“It’s a very small neighborhood store,” Ms. McMullen says, but its cozy atmosphere attracts a number of “usual customers” who frequent it weekly or even daily.

While some patrons enjoy the hide-and-seek that comes with searching for a good buy, others may be put off by the stigma that secondhand stores are somehow inferior or dirty. Not to worry. The National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops (NARTS) — founded to serve thrift, consignment and other resale store owners — ensures that its members are adequately educated in health and safety issues.

“Our stores are pretty well-informed about what they should take and what they shouldn’t,” says Adele Meyer, the executive director of NARTS, an educational trade association. “But we stress safety for every store, not just our own.”

Any thrift, consignment or resale store can become a member of NARTS. Members are entitled to a number of benefits, including being able to post the NARTS member decal within the store to make shoppers aware of the high standards with which the store complies.

NARTS cooperates with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and works to avoid the sale of recalled and unsafe products, but it caters to store owners rather than shoppers.

TheThriftShopper.com, however, is a free resource for both store owners and shoppers. Michael Gold and his wife, Cookie, run the site from their home in Winter Park, Fla., and work to promote thrift-store shopping over buying at consignment and other resale stores.

“If you shop a bona fide thrift store, the money you spend will help support a worthwhile charity,” Mr. Gold says.

Their Web site has been fully functioning for just about three months, but it has a thorough database of thrift stores across the nation, and the couple hope to expand into Canada, Great Britain, Australia and other countries that have thrift stores.

“Our vision for thrift shoppers is for them to be represented internationally as a community and have the opportunity to travel the world to shop and meet other thrifters,” Mr. Gold says.

Many countries do not have thrift stores, though, so the spirit of recycling and thrift that foreign visitors find in the District is highly significant.

“Thrift stores in the Washington, D.C., area are especially important because they are a representation of our country to foreign visitors,” Mr. Gold says.

His advice to the nation’s thrifters is, “Thrift stores are always restocking their shelves, and the more often you shop, the more stuff you’ll see.”

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