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Jim Kenyon: Giving the gift of thrift in South Royalton

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/2/2019 10:22:01 PM
Modified: 11/2/2019 10:35:30 PM

Raelene Lemery hadn’t seen the slender middle-aged man in her store before, and she’s familiar with just about everyone in town. (She’s not known as the “Mayor of Royalton” for nothing.)

The 79-year-old Lemery has run the nonprofit thrift shop at the back of the 108 Chelsea Station Restaurant on South Royalton’s main street for decades.

When she’s not helping customers find winter boots and jackets or sifting through bags of donated clothes and household goods, Lemery is often holding court at Chelsea Station’s corner table, nearest the thrift shop’s entrance.

She offered the stranger a seat at the table.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Lemery asked.

He’d like that, he said.

The man, who wore a baseball cap over his tightly cropped hair, politely explained that he hadn’t come to shop. Nor was he looking for a handout.

He needed to find work. He could stack firewood and do other odd jobs. This fall, he had spent all of his money, which wasn’t much, on fixing his truck after it had broken down during a trip through the Upper Valley. He wanted get back to his home in Bangor, Maine, but didn’t have money for gas.

Lemery retrieved two $20 bills from the thrift shop’s cash box. The man hesitated, but Lemery reassured him that she wasn’t offering him charity. “Just pay it forward when you can,” she told him.

Lemery had no idea whether he would. She didn’t catch his name.

“This woman has the biggest heart of any person I know,” said Dora Collins, a Royalton resident who volunteers at the thrift shop and spends a fair amount of time at the diner’s corner table.

The thrift shop dates back to 1968, according to a faded clipping from the weekly White River Valley Herald that Lemery pulled from her shoulder bag. A small group of women started the shop to fill a need in the community.

Fifty years later, “the need is still there,” Lemery said. “It’s probably getting worse.”

When I stopped by last week, Lemery handed me a card that was on her desk when she had arrived at the shop that day. The note was from a woman who had come in a few days earlier, looking for Halloween costumes and winter clothes for her grandchildren but didn’t have the means to pay for them.

Lemery made sure that she didn’t leave empty-handed. This has been a “huge help as I try to support and raise (my grandchildren),” the woman wrote.

Lemery, who grew up in South Royalton and now lives in nearby Stockbridge, Vt., knows a little something about hard times. Tropical Storm Irene whacked her home pretty good. Eight years later, she’s still cobbling together money to finish repairs.

At her age and coming off double knee replacement surgery, Lemery couldn’t have been faulted if she had walked away from the thrift shop when the opportunity presented itself about a year ago. After backing the shop for years, the United Church of South Royalton, better known as the Red Door Church, decided it could no longer afford to foot the bills.

I don’t blame the church’s leaders. I’m guessing the thrift shop isn’t a big moneymaker. The church also took on a huge responsibility a couple of years ago when the town’s food shelf closed. It embarked on a major fundraising drive to open a new South Royalton Area Food Shelf in a renovated building on Route 14.

Although the church’s focus is now on the food shelf, it didn’t want to leave Lemery in the lurch. It’s been paying the thrift shop’s $350 monthly rent since January and will continue doing so through the end of this year. “The church blessed me by paying the rent for a year,” Lemery told me.

“Raelene is devoted to helping people in need,” said the Rev. Josh Moore, the church’s pastor for the last six years. “We want to do what we can to support her.”

With the help of South Royalton resident Ernie Amsden, Lemery has completed the paperwork that allows the thrift shop to keep its nonprofit status.

The shop, which is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m to 3 p.m., isn’t big on ambiance. Shelves loaded with pillows and blankets are piled above racks of clothes and jackets. Everything, including baby clothes, in the dimly lit basement goes for $1 a bag,

About the only change that I can see that Lemery and the other volunteers have made is with the name.

Some supporters wanted to call it “Raelene’s,” but Lemery nixed that idea. It’s now the Sunshine Thrift Shop — as in “bringing a ray of sunshine into people’s lives,” Lemery said.

To help with future rent payments and electric bills, Lemery applied for a community grant from a local bank. The town’s elementary school gave her $300 so she can keep providing winter coats and boots to kids in need.

Social service organizations also have her phone number on speed dial, particularly with winter approaching. “If they have someone who is trying to get their life back together, they know they can call Raelene,” said Pam Greene, a store volunteer.

Walking around the small shop, I spotted a child’s winter parka for $3. A pair of never-been-worn women’s jeans could be had for $5. At $15, a name-brand men’s tweed sports coat seemed underpriced.

“A lot of people say I sell stuff too cheap and I give too much away,” Lemery said. “But that’s what we’re here for.”

Last Monday, Pam Levasseur, the town’s assistant librarian, was rummaging around in the shop’s basement for crafts supplies for a children’s science program.

“If I need it, it’s usually here,” Levasseur said.

When she was opening the shop’s mail the other day, Lemery came across an envelope with no return address. Inside she found a cashier’s check for $50 with “Thank You” written in the bottom corner.

That’s odd, Lemery thought. Then she glanced at the envelope’s postmark. The check had been mailed from Bangor, Maine.

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




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