By Dan Pool
A little over 20 years ago, I met with a group that would form the Community Thrift Store and I gave my honest assessment – it’ll never work, at least not for long.
I wasn’t merely speculating. The town had just gone through cleaning up and cleaning out a combination of thrift store and homeless shelter in the old Roper Hospital. It was a mess, junk all over the street around it.
A plan where people handle others’ unwanted household goods and clothing for no pay in an efficient, long-term arrangement seemed unlikely.
Two decades later and $6 million in donations to other groups, proves me wrong in a dramatic fashion. What I underestimated was Don Russell’s gumption. That man, The Don of Non Profits, wasn’t about to let his Thrift Store not succeed. And he was ably joined by the tireless Stan Barnett, who sadly passed away this week.
Russell, a former military serviceman and then a civilian who handled military programs until his retirement, is a firm believer and teacher in self-betterment classes.
So when asked why he thought his Thrift Store would succeed, he doesn’t miss a beat, “If you believe in yourself, get excited about your work and pray, God will do it.”
He makes it sound simple, starting a business with 100 volunteers and one cash register that goes on to generate $9 million in revenue over two decades. Not only does the Thrift Store cover its costs, the local Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Club, Good Samaritan, Cares, Joy House and transitional housing facility can all trace some of their seed money or expansion money back to the Thrift Store and their sales of used couches, clothes and books.
Russell was asked to start the Thrift Store by the former head of Family Connections whose program needed more money. Goodwill and the Salvation Army both declined to get involved here.
Instead of giving up, Russell travelled to similar stores, asking “what mistakes did you make that I can avoid?”
Using entrepreneurial/problem solving skills, Russell, with a small committee, put a plan together then moved on to the next stage - getting excited about whatever you are doing. This excitement brought a pool of volunteers with key skills and plenty of start-up money. Russell makes it plain enthusiasm is both contagious and necessary to get anything off the ground.
Once opened, the Thrift Store operates “by process” and “with a business strategy that God is in charge,” Russell said. “We don’t have managers. We run by volunteers.” Key to this is the social interaction/ feeling of purpose inculcated among those who come every week to handle old clothing and sort through the bags looking for sellable items versus trash.
A key place the Thrift Store differs from a regular store in philosophy is their ultimate judging criteria isn’t how much money this will make but how much good it will do. For example, Russell doesn’t see the $7,000 they spend on waste disposal some months as loss but rather as a gain for the community.
This philosophy has largely worked but not without a few glitches, including a recent mammoth pile of mattresses that had to be removed by the county.
Ever optimistic, Russell points out that even that outcome is better than those mattresses ending up on roadsides.
Giving away free clothes or furnishings to those who can’t afford to pay isn’t a loss for the Thrift Store, but another gain to the community.
For two decades Don Russell and his can-do attitude (part military program administrator and part self-betterment instructor) has made the Thrift Store a bedrock of this community.
For all this we salute the work.