Do you love to hunt for treasure? Want to find a designer coat for a couple of bucks or vintage vinyl? What if you knew that every penny goes to help needy Birmingham residents? Gwen Harkness, co-president of 55th Place Thrift, tells us all about this Woodlawn gem in this week’s edition of Small Business Monday.
Gwen Harkness – It’s been five years since I started working at 55th Place Thrift Store in Woodlawn. It is located 55th Place between 1st AVE N and 1st AVE S. I am the co-president with Catherine Pace (for the past year) since we make good partners serving together. I was a regular customer and Catherine kept saying, “ I like you. I think with your outgoing personality, you’d be great here!” I told her I’d start when I got back from taking care of my sister after her hip surgery, stating, “I’ll be back!” I kept my word and have been there ever since.
55th Place Thrift Store carries everything from linens, housewares, books, adult clothing, shoes, sewing items, office supplies, dishes and a wide variety of knick-knacks. Due to limited space, we don’t carry large furniture. All of our items are donated and all of our staff are volunteers. That means that all of our profits go to benefit the outreach programs of the Episcopal Church in Birmingham. These include a daily meal served at Grace Episcopal, clothes closet, summer youth programs, senior living program at Episcopal Place and other services for the underprivileged. Since the store’s opening in 1988, we have been able to donate approximately two million dollars to these local programs.
We are open Wednesday through Saturday 10:00-3:30 – with the exception that we are closed on holiday weeks. We have seasonal clothing sales at end of each season, consisting of filling a large plastic bag for only 7.00! There is a different volunteer crew for each day of the week. Every Saturday has a different crew. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are generally when our retired volunteers work. Saturdays tend to be staffed by folks who work during the week. So even people who are working during the week can see the benefits of volunteering through our shop.
The most unusual situation we’ve had is a group of young men buying costumes for their band’s Halloween show in New Orleans. They were at the Woodlawn Cycle Café around the corner and were recommended to us. It was a hoot to see them trying on evening wear with hats and wigs for their show. When they found out we were a non-profit run by volunteers, they tipped us generously.
The best thing about working here is being able to serve a large community of people from different backgrounds, knowing that everything we sell is to help those in need. That’s my biggest satisfaction.
The hardest thing about running the business is not having enough volunteers. We are in desperate need of people to fill in when someone is out. We are constantly shifting our volunteer staff around from day to day to try and keep the doors open. Sometimes if we don’t have two people to cover a shift, we have to close for the day. If anyone would like to volunteer, it’s a low-pressure commitment. Most people only work one day a week or one Saturday a month. You could even be on a substitute list to come in as needed. Come visit us and give it a try! It’s easy and you can find treasures while you’re here!
The saddest thing I’ve had to do is find clothing for customers’ deceased loved ones who were being cared for by the East Side Funeral Home across the street. We were able to find a suit, shoes, and everything for the father of a family who could not afford to buy clothes. I’ve also had to do the same thing for a small child. When a family is in need, we provide items free of charge. It is gratifying to be able to help people in their time of need.
We have some amazing volunteers! Billy and Esther Daulton were regulars. When I had to go out of state for three months to care for my sister, they stepped in to volunteer with Catherine. When I got back, they continued because they liked it so much. Esther worked in the back of the store, pricing and putting out items. She passed away four months ago. They had been married 60 years and we all miss her terribly. Billy continues to come as the official greeter, including dressing up for holidays in the costumes that Esther made for him.
Barbara Jones, our inventory specialist, reminds me of the Energizer Bunny because she keeps on keepin’ on. I can’t say enough about her. She has been here since the store opened. Her services and knowledge of how to keep the inventory running is invaluable. She sorts incoming donations, prices and tags and puts them where they belong in the store. She can take care of a mountain of clothes faster than anyone I’ve seen, and has probably priced millions of pieces of merchandise. Most importantly, she always has a smile on her face.
Catherine Pace – The best part of working at 55th Place is making so many friends. I’ve been volunteering there for eight years and am now the co-president with Gwen. I feel bad when we are not able to meet someone’s needs for a specific item they may be looking for. I’m most proud of the fact that the store has been in the same location since 1988. I love that we are working hand-in-hand with the leaders of outreach programs of the Episcopal Diocese. All of our volunteers know they are able to help so many people.
I love how Birmingham is developing. It’s a city on the move! I see it every time I drive up to 55th Place with the revitalization of Woodlawn; all of the new stores, shops, and young people coming around! With the newly elected city officials, I feel that the city is moving forward. I’m optimistic about the rebirth of the neighborhoods and downtown!
For more information, visit – https://www.facebook.com/55th-Place-Thrift-Store-215393098987177/
Another recent business post – https://bhamnow.com/index.php/2017/08/14/small-business-monday-spotlight-goodyear-shoe-hospital/