Jim Kenyon: Nonprofit Listen adds spendy boutique to Lebanon thrift store

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/23/2022 9:36:22 AM
Modified: 1/25/2022 4:34:29 PM

A thousand bucks for a coat? (Granted, it’s 100% cashmere.) What about $250 for a designer winter jacket with a faux fur collar? And $100 for a chic blazer that looks like it could belong in Nancy Pelosi’s work wardrobe?

Welcome to Listen Boutique, “where shoppers can look for that higher end clothing purchase.”

The boutique, which opened last Tuesday, takes up just one room inside Listen’s 13,000-square-foot thrift store on Miracle Mile in Lebanon. But judging from early Facebook returns, not everyone approves of Listen’s venture into upscale pricing, even on a small scale.

“Listen is losing what it means to be a thrift store,” started out a post on the nonprofit’s Facebook page that immediately drew a trio of thumbs-ups.

In announcing the boutique’s opening, Listen reminded its Facebook followers that “our primary mission is to provide a space where affordable clothing is available for everyone in the Upper Valley.

“However, we’ve heard from some folks that they’d like to see a space where some of our higher quality, more expensive clothes can be seen together.”

I don’t have a problem with that.

Listen, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is an Upper Valley gem. It helps people who are struggling with rent payments and heating fuel bills. It operates a food pantry that distributes 20,000 boxes of food a year and also runs community dinners that serve 80 to 100 meals six nights a week. It foots the bill for summer camps for more than 100 kids whose families can’t afford to send them.

Listen pumps $1.25 million a year into its social service programs. The thrift stores in Lebanon, White River Junction and Canaan provide about 25% of the revenue used to run those programs.

So when Listen Executive Director Kyle Fisher heard from employees and people in the community that a boutique could help the bottom line, he gave the green light.

“It’s an experiment for us,” he told me. “One of the great things about the Upper Valley area is the quality of donations we get. It’s an insult to our donors not to get as much value as we can for items, so we’re in a better financial position to help people in need.”

On Thursday, I stopped by the new boutique, which occupies prime window space at the front of the store. Some items had their original tags, which indicated to me — the astute shopper that I am — that they’d never been worn.

Listen’s luxury clothing prices seemed more than fair. A Vineyard Vines men’s water-repellent jacket listed for $239 on the company’s website could be had for $50. Pants that — according to the sales tag — an Upper Valley retail store had marked for $60 was available in the boutique for $25.

Some people argue Listen shouldn’t put donated clothes at prices that not everyone can afford. But in an odd way, the new boutique is leveling the playing field.

Listen’s thrift stores have become prime bargain hunting territory for “re-sellers,” Fisher said. They arrive when the doors open in the morning to quickly grab clothing new to the sales floor. After taking advantage of Listen’s low prices, they sell the items for big profits on eBay or in consignment shops.

“Other people never get to see these items,” Fisher said.

If the boutique’s bumped-up prices are cutting into their profit margin, re-sellers might think twice before snatching whatever name-brand clothes they can get hand their hands on, Fisher said.

Listen was hearing complaints about its prices long before the boutique opened. During one of our conversations before she retired as Listen’s executive director in 2016, Merilynn Bourne addressed the subject head-on.

“People say to me all the time, ‘You’re charging to much,’ ” Bourne said. “Well, good luck finding a place in the Upper Valley where you can get better deals.”

Bourne, who spent 15 years at Listen’s helm, wasn’t one to mince words. “If we don’t make money, we can’t survive,” she told me.

After checking out the boutique, I walked around other parts of the store. Finding bargains wasn’t a problem. In Kid’s Corner, an infant’s snowsuit was selling for $4. In the rows of clothing for adults, I came across Levi’s jeans for $5 and winter jackets for $15.

Listen provides clothing and furniture vouchers for individuals and families who are having trouble making ends meet.

And unlike many nonprofits, Listen doesn’t rely on government funding, which gives it more “flexibility to offer immediate help where the need is,” Fisher said.

In other words, Listen doesn’t have to worry about complying with government red tape. When someone comes in seeking warm clothes for an infant or a bed for an apartment they’ve just moved into, they aren’t greeted with a mound of paperwork.

“We don’t have to ask people a lot of questions or make judgments,” Fisher said.

I encourage anyone who questions whether Listen is fulfilling its mission to look at the organization’s federal tax filings. They’re available online at GuideStar, which specializes in reporting on U.S. nonprofits.

For its most recent filing in 2020, Listen earned GuideStar’s top grade for transparency and accountability — a distinction achieved by less than 5% of registered nonprofits.

Now back to the $1,000 cashmere coat.

When I returned to the boutique on Friday, I found a shopper with the coat firmly in her grasp.

After working in commercial real estate in another part of the country, the woman said she had moved to the Woodstock area. She didn’t want to give me her name, mentioning something about preferring her mother not find out about the extravagant purchase she was soon to make.

The woman had come to Listen in search of dining room chairs. Then she spotted the Italian-made coat in the window. “It’s a Loro Piana,” she informed me. “It’s a $10,000 coat.”

Holy Neiman Marcus. Judging from my Google search, I don’t doubt it.

The woman negotiated the price down to $800, which was still a bonanza for Listen.

Said Fisher, “That’s two more propane tanks we can fill.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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