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Thrift stores and resale shops like Listen’s are booming in the Upper Valley

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    Out-of-season items, furniture available through Listen's voucher program and items that have not yet reached thrift store shelves on Lebanon, N.H.'s Miracle Mile are stored in an attached warehouse where Jason Stauffer, of West Lebanon, filed an newly donated American Flag Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. "We're lucky enough to live in an area with a variety of incomes and ethnicities," said Stauffer. "So you get to see a pretty good collection of unique things." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Greeter and donations receiver Scott Walsh, of Quechee, right, helps Alan Rudnai, of Austin, Texas, transfer closet organizers and clothes hangers to a donation bin outside the Listen thrift store in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Rundai spent the day cleaning out his parents' home in the Upper Valley, having furniture picked up and trucked to the store by a Listen crew. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

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    Shannon Dube, of Claremont, has worked for Listen thrift stores since 2001 and draws on her 18 years of experience to choose the prices for hard goods at the store on the Miracle Mile in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. "Basically I figure on most stuff, what would I pay for it," she said. She labeled this wine rack $5.00, and later priced a plunger at $1.25. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Leona Hunt, of Hartford, right, tosses a winter hat into a bin while pricing items with Jenia Murdock, Listen's retail volunteer coordinator, left, at the Listen thrift store in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Damaged items with rips or stains are weeded out before a price is determined based on quality, brand and type of material. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tashia Salls, of South Royalton, browses the racks at the Listen thrift store in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Brad and Jeanne Thompson, of Meriden, browse a shelf of books at Uplifting Thrifting in the White River Junction, Vt., train station Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. The Thompsons are volunteers for the annual Five Colleges Book Sale and stopped in to see what was on offer after hearing about the new store. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Gail Egner, of Thetford, puts up a sign directing train passengers to another part of the White River Junction, Vt., train station Friday, Dec. 13, 2019, the opening day of Uplifting Thrifting, a second-hand store she started planning to open two years ago. Egner plans to donate profits from the store to benefit children and families through local non-profits. She will also sell prepared food items out of the store for travelers coming through on Amtrak. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 12/14/2019 10:07:42 PM
Modified: 12/14/2019 10:07:39 PM

At 2:30 last Monday afternoon, not a single one of the 55 parking spaces at Listen Community’s Service’s thrift store on the Miracle Mile was available — in front of the store, along the side or even in the back. Visitors had to wait for another car to pull out just to find a space to park.

But a jam-packed parking lot is a problem other Upper Valley retailers probably wish they had.

Since opening 14 months ago, Listen’s thrift store in the former Bridgman’s Furniture building has been ringing up sales of clothing, housewares, furniture, jewelry, appliances, books, home decor, trinkets and tchotchkes to thousands of customers, some who travel from more than an hour away to cruise the racks and shelves looking for bargains or that rare treasure.

“I love this store. You don’t always find what you want, but you can get lucky,” said Edith Labonte, of Cabot, Vt., one day last week as she wheeled a cart out of the store with two white plastic bags of items she had just purchased.

Labonte proudly pointed to her purchases in the cart, including a standing sun lamp she bought for $3.75 and a lace ribbon Christmas bow flecked with a gold design that cost “only $1.25,” she noted, showing off the price tag.

“Are you kidding me?” she exclaimed.

While retail businesses are suffering due to the shift to online shopping — numerous storefronts remain vacant along the Route 12A commercial corridor in West Lebanon years after their tenants have left, and downtown Hanover has seen numerous longtime shops close — the “resale” industry is flourishing. From cast-off clothes to used furniture and appliances, consumers are embracing the thrift economy.

As market analysts predict that the industry will continue to grow, when it comes to thrift stores, the Upper Valley might be the Rodeo Drive of resale outlets.

Crowned by Listen’s $2 million, 32,000-square-foot thrift store that opened last year in Lebanon, the nonprofit also operates two satellite thrift stores in White River Junction — one for furniture and the other for apparel and other goods — and one in Canaan.

Other thrift stores — to name only a sampling — include a Salvation Army location in West Lebanon; The Good Buy Stores operated by Southeastern Vermont Community Action in Hartford and Springfield, Vt., known as SEVCA; Cover Home Repair in White River Junction; Turning Point’s Changes Thrift Store in Claremont (closed until February while it undergoes renovation); the Bridgewater Mill thrift store; and the Gifford Medical Center Auxiliary Thrift Shop in Randolph.

And last Friday, a new thrift store opened in the former welcome center at the train depot in White River Junction: Uplifting Thrifting, which, although incorporated as a business, will operate much like a nonprofit, its owner says.

Gail Egner, a Thetford resident who works as a graduate school administrator at Dartmouth, last week was busy transferring the contents from three storage units that she had been renting at U-Haul in Lebanon to stock the 1,800-square-foot space she is leasing from the Vermont Agency of Transportation, which owns the building.

Egner got a boost in items to sell when the owner of Abby’s Closet, the West Lebanon consignment store that closed in August, donated her unsold inventory to Uplifting Thrifting.

“This has been my dream for a while,” Egner said last week as she was setting up her store.

Egner said her plan is to work with area nonprofits “to give away all (her) profits to help children and local families.”

“(But) I also hope to hear from my customers about people who need a little extra help,” she said.

For SEVCA, the organization’s three thrift stores (it runs a third in Bellows Falls, Vt.) have been generating about $260,000 annually in sales in recent years, according to finance director Tom Clews. The money goes to help fund the nonprofit’s community programs.

“We’re not looking at profit margin. We’re looking at community value,” Clews said.

And importantly, he points out, “what we sell stays out of the landfill.”

Several of the thrift stores informally work with each other, either by referring customers to each other or by transferring donations to where they are needed most, said Adriana Curutchet, who runs the Bridgewater Mill thrift store.

The shop, which has been operating since 2006, has sales of anywhere from $90,000 to $140,000 annually, “depending on the year,” Curutchet said. The worst year was 2011, the summer of Tropical Storm Irene, when the building was closed for more than a month because of flooding.

She said the store processes some 80 tons of clothing each year, which it either sells through the store, donates to other nonprofits for distribution domestically or abroad, or supplies to recyclers who rag the cloth.

“Our customers are the homeless to the wealthy,” Curutchet said.

Despite the catch-all name, thrift stores are only a piece of the resale or “used goods” economy, which can encompass everything from stores operated by social service and mission-driven nonprofits to for-profit consignment stores such as The Pink Alligator in West Lebanon or Closet Treasures in Grantham, to higher-end antique stores and roadside flea markets and pawn shops.

But market research firm IBISWorld predicts that thrift stores alone — which it defines as those stores legally affiliated with a charity or nonprofit — are expected to generate $10.2 billion in sales in 2019, according to a 30-page analysis released earlier this year by market research firm IBISWorld.

The Los Angeles firm projects that thrift store sales will grow 1.3% annually over the next five years, helped by a change in consumer spending habits.

“Historically, the thrift stores industry has relied on customers who shop for secondhand goods out of necessity,” IBISWorld said. “However, thrift stores are increasingly catering to a wide variety of customers who are seeking unique items, high quality goods at lower prices to reduce their carbon footprint by recycling clothing and other goods.”

Those trends are evident to Kyle Fisher, executive director of Listen, which has seen such a robust reception during the first year of the Miracle Mile store that it recently had to add a third shift from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., when three workers organize and prepare the store for the next day’s sales because the daytime staff is too busy sorting, pricing and stocking the floor with merchandise.

“Thrift stores have become extremely popular with the younger generation, where it’s become a cool place to shop,” Fisher said. “Whereas in the past some people wouldn’t have been caught dead in a thrift store, now we also get antique dealers, people running their own eBay businesses and of all income levels. ... People like to brag about items they found at the thrift store.”

‘You have to have a system’

Opened in October 2018, the Miracle Mile store during its first year of business generated $250,000 in proceeds, which are funneled into Listen’s various nonprofit programs — from fuel and housing assistance to funding summer camp attendance for kids and operating a food pantry, according to Fisher.

“We’re very pleased where (revenue) came in,” Fisher said. “It beat the pro forma expectations we had in place.”

Fisher explained that in recent years Listen has seen demand for its programs double and is “on trajectory for another 25% increase” this year. Donor support along with the “fortuitous timing” of the Miracle Mile store has helped to meet increased funding needs, he said.

Unseen by the customers who scour the warren of rooms on the first floor of the Miracle Mile store, 25 people, both employees and volunteers, work in the basement to process incoming donations and get them ready to be placed on racks and shelves upstairs (another 11 people work on the sales floor and four in the adjacent warehouse).

Before Listen opened the store, managers visited other large thrift stores in the region, such as Goodwill’s facility near Nashua, N.H., to learn how to organize the factory-like intake and processing operation.

Listen staff noticed a huge influx of donations arriving in the weeks after the Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo premiered in January.

“On one Saturday we had more than 400 donations,” recalled Cody Jekubovich, manager of the Lebanon store, who said a “typical” Saturday is about 200 donations.

A video camera on the loading dock allows the “greeter” inside the building to see whenever a vehicle arrives. Once a donation has been accepted, workers first separate items from those that are good enough to go on sale from those to be discarded through recycling (Listen fills a 50-foot-long trailer with 30,000 pounds of clothing headed to a recycler every other week).

Among items Listen automatically sends to recycling: particle-board furniture and many kinds of electronics (although the nonprofit recycles as much as possible, last year it nonetheless spent nearly $100,000 in disposal costs at the Lebanon landfill, Fisher said).

TV sets, audio-visual equipment and computers often are in faulty working order and quickly become obsolete while “particle board gets soggy and falls apart,” explained Rob Broadwell, Listen’s warehouse manager.

The donated items are sorted by category — clothing, appliances, toys, housewares and so on — into industrial laundry-size bins and then move to the “pricing station.” That’s manned by volunteer teams overseen by a Listen staff member who, by cross-checking their own personal expertise against binders full of guidelines, assigns each item a price.

Listen uses a color-coded price tag system — white, blue and pink — that lets the staff know how long an item has been on the floor so that it can gradually mark down the price. A yellow tag is attached to seasonal items, such as Halloween or Christmas decorations.

The final step at the far end of the basement is “racking,” where items are pulled from the bins and put on a hanger and organized according to garment — children’s, women’s or men’s — and size. From there the racks are lifted by elevator to the sales floor, where they are put out for sale.

“You have to have a system or it won’t work,” said Karen Stone, Listen’s retail director. “You’re always trying to improve it.”

Sometimes there are gems — literally — that are donated. Earlier this year a Tiffany brooch was included in one donation, which after a little internet searching Listen staff learned was valued $1,000 — and priced accordingly. Then there are the bizarre donations, like the handmade jar that was filled with human teeth.

“We threw that out,” Jekubovich said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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