In South Royalton, thrift shop was a ray of sunlight
|Published: 10-15-2023 2:47 AM
About a week ago, I got a call from Raelene Lemery, who had bittersweet news. The nonprofit thrift shop on South Royalton’s main street that she’s run for 40 years is closing later this month.
I say bittersweet because Lemery has been a one-person social service agency in her hometown for decades. She used the money her shop made from selling second-hand clothing and household goods at affordable prices to help people in need. Some days, she gave away more than she sold.
“She knows who is struggling and needs clothes for their kids,” said Richard Frary, a friend who volunteers at the thrift shop.
At the same time, Lemery isn’t getting any younger. At 83, she’s dealt with a myriad of health issues. She’s had both knees replaced, her gall bladder removed and two kidney surgeries.
When I stopped by the Sunshine Thrift Shop on Tuesday, Lemery was dealing with the aches and bruises from a nasty tumble she took in the bandstand at the Tunbridge World’s Fair a month ago that resulted in cracked ribs and a badly swollen right hand.
Despite the rumors, however, that began circulating after the going-out-business signs appeared on the storefront, “I’m not dying,” Lemery said, with a roll of her eyes.
Undoubtedly, Royalton and surrounding communities will be worse off without Lemery’s work on behalf of people down on their luck.
But she’s earned a break from the daily grind of overseeing a labor-intensive small business that relies on volunteer power.
Lemery and a small group of volunteers, led by Pamela Greene for the last eight years, are constantly sifting through boxes and bags of donated items to decide what to sell and what is beyond salvaging.
“People are always leaving stuff, they shouldn’t,” Frary said.
Closing the shop wasn’t Lemery’s idea. It was more of a chain reaction.
The store fills (as in overflowing) the back room and basement of the former 108 Chelsea Station Restaurant, which closed this spring. Tom Powers, an acclaimed writer and U.S. intelligence expert whose second-floor office is on the same street, has owned the building since 1984.
Powers has a potential new tenant, who — along with taking over the restaurant — is interested in the space occupied by the thrift shop. There’s a “good chance” it will become home to a bakery and cafe, Powers told me.
Lemery stressed that she doesn’t feel like Powers is giving her the boot. Her rent of $300 a month is far below market rate.
“I’m not angry at Tom,” she said. “He’s one of my favorite people in town. He’s blessed me many times over.”
For years, Lemery has provided a “wonderful service to the community,” Powers said. “She doesn’t wait for people to come to her for help. She seeks out people.”
It comes naturally.
Growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks” in the railroad town, “my family was poor, but my mother was still a giver,” Lemery said.
Recognizing that an older man who lived nearby had even less than her family, Mary Lemery would load up a small wagon with food and have her five daughters take turns pulling it to his house.
“I’ve never judged people,” Raelene Lemery said. “How do we know what they’ve been through? I don’t know anyone who wants to be poor just so they can get something for free.”
South Royalton has had a nonprofit thrift store since the late 1960s. The Community Shop, as it was called, was spearheaded by Sidney Newman and her sister Faith Ogden, a physician, to benefit an Orange County mental health organization and senior citizens group.
In the early 1980s, the sisters asked Lemery to take over the store — with two caveats that she’s always honored.
“I was never to sell a Bible,” Lemery said. “I was to give them away.”
“I was never to sell a toy gun,” she said, explaining that Newman and Ogden didn’t want children to get the impression that firearms couldn’t be dangerous.
Any toy gun dropped off at the store, Lemery smashed with a hammer.
Until about five years ago, Lemery ran the store with the backing of the United Church of South Royalton, better known for obvious reason as the Red Door Church. But when the church took over the responsibility of raising money and overseeing a new food shelf in town (the previous one had closed), it couldn’t afford to continue supporting the thrift store.
To help out Lemery until she finalized the paperwork to maintain the store’s nonprofit status, the church paid her rent for a year.
Some supporters encouraged Lemery to change the store’s name from the “Red Door” thrift shop to “Raelene’s.”
She wouldn’t hear it. “She’s always there for people who need help, but she doesn’t like to take credit,” said Sue Thresher, branch manager for Bar Harbor Bank and Trust in South Royalton.
For a new name, Lemery went with Sunshine Thrift Shop, hoping it could bring a “ray of sunshine into people’s lives,” she told me a while back.
Lemery has made sure the store lives up to its name. She recently heard from a woman who she was familiar with. Years ago, after suffering debilitating injuries in a car crash, the woman became addicted to prescription painkillers.
Following a relapse, she had recovered to the point that she could move into a subsidized apartment.
Lemery asked Frary, a retired trucker, to come with her to leave off towels and sheets at the woman’s apartment. But first Lemery wanted to stop at a grocery store to pick up a few essentials for the woman. The bill for fresh vegetables, meats and canned goods came to almost $100.
“I hope she used money from the store and not her own, but you never know with Raelene,” Frary said.
It wouldn’t have been the first time.
An older couple was on the verge of losing their house in Royalton, after falling behind in property tax payments. Lemery took out a bank loan for $3,000 to cover the back taxes the couple owed.
“She does things that not a lot of people know about,” said Thresher, the bank manager. “It’s not only financial support. She gives moral support.”
When I mentioned to Lemery that someone in town had told me about what she had done for the couple, she just shrugged. “It took quite a while, but they paid me back,” she said.
Signs taped to the front window of the shuttered Chelsea Station restaurant let people know Sunshine Thrift Shop will “close permanently on or about” Oct. 27. Until then, it’s open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“All profits,” the signs read, “will go to help folks in need.”
As if Lemery would have it any other way.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.