Of Many Things

A Goodwill thrift store was at one end of the Maryland town where I grew up, and my first bike came from therea sturdy model that my mother repainted in dark blue. Even as an adult, I used to stop by on trips home, drawn by the store’s amazingly varied contents. I still use a thrift shop alarm clock, and I remain a thrift shop browser to this day.

Here in New York City, a number of Goodwill and Salvation Army stores dot the landscape, along with many other shops that raise money for charitable causes. The Arthritis Foundation, for example, operates one, and another raises funds for the New York City Opera. Still others help people with AIDS. In Manhattan, though, prices are not as low as you might expect. At the City Opera Thrift Shop, I saw a three-piece furniture set selling for $450. As for clothes, even the Salvation Army in my own neighborhood on the Lower East Side charges $19.99 for a used blazer.

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For the real bargains, you have to go out into the boroughs. One early spring Saturday, I did just that, taking the D train up to the Bronx, where I visited Our Lady of Refuge Thrift Shop. It was begun 18 years ago by Eleanor Marigliano, a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. The store is on the ground floor of a small apartment building in a poor neighborhood on Briggs Ave.

As I approached, it was just after 12 noonopening timeand a sizeable group, mostly women and children, was making its way in past the outdoor display of bikes and furniture. Sr. Marigliano was circulating briskly among those first customers. At the counter by the front windows stood another sister, flanked by Gladys, a native of the Dominican Republica co-worker who has helped in the shop since it opened. Because virtually all the customers speak only Spanish, Gladys plays a key role. But she also finds time to teach in the religious education program at Our Lady of Refuge parish, which is the main beneficiary of the shop’s earnings. So are several very poor residents, who receive modest stipends for cleaning and sorting, along with two homeless men.

A fourth helper stood at the rear counter. All were needed, though, because as more customers arrived, the store became very crowded indeed. The result was a certain amount of polite pushing and nudging as customers moved about, carrying for their purchases red plastic baskets of the kind often found in supermarkets. One older woman padded back and forth in a pair of rubber-soled shoes she was trying on, and a child nearby was wailing loudly. Most of the customers’ interest focused on clothing, which, in contrast to thrift shops in Manhattan, was being sold for rock-bottom prices.

Besides helping Our Lady of Refuge parish, the thrift shop makes it possible for neighborhood residents to meet needs that might not be met otherwise, andas Sr. Marigliano put itthe buyers can make their purchases without a loss of dignity. She also observed that the shop serves an ecological purpose. Clothing, household wares and furniture that might be thrown outone effect of what she called the abundance of waste that characterizes our American culturecan be recycled there for those who cannot afford new products. There is no lack of donations. This morning, she said, a woman dropped off 20 sweatersthe end of winter, you knowall in excellent condition. They will sell for a dollar each.

Sr. Marigliano acknowledged that her prices can stay low because the building is owned by a nonprofit housing group that has not raised the rent since the shop opened. In Manhattan, by contrast, sharp rental increases have driven some thrift shops out of business and forced others to relocate. But low-income shoppers will search them out, and put their contents to good use in a city that glaringly exemplifies the widening gap between rich and poor.

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