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Bargains with a Difference

Recycling has never been so chic

Sally Mara Sturman

If it’s true, as Hemingway claimed, that a moral act is one where you feel good afterwards, then thrift shops are good not only for your wallet but also for your character. Whether you’re donating or buying, the thrift shop experience leaves you feeling virtuous and smart. Not only can you snag designer clothing, housewares and genuine antiques for a fraction of their retail or Antiques Roadshow value, but the money these shops earn can better the lives of senior citizens, brighten the days of hospital patients, or bring water to a remote village in Africa.

The principle is simple: Donated items are sold to benefit a variety of charities and causes. The shops are staffed primarily by volunteers, who put in long hours sorting and pricing and maintaining a clean and cheerful atmosphere on the selling floor. Some shops, like the Rummage Room in Old Greenwich, keep wish lists and will call you when that double stroller or size-six coat comes in. Inveterate thrift-shoppers know, however, that the trick to finding great deals is to go often, with an open mind and time to explore. And in a community where people dress well and live well — and giving is part of living — there is much to offer.

Going west to east, there are four thrift shops in town: the Merry Go Round Thrift Shop, the Greenwich Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop, the Act II Consignment Shop (not strictly a thrift shop but all proceeds do go to charity) and the Rummage Room. A recent pass through all four garnered a Marks & Spencer ankle-length denim skirt ($6.50), an Anne Klein linen jacket ($15), a French blue-and-white quilted coverlet with matching sham and accent pillow ($20), ten pristine linen napkins ($5), and for $30, an unopened Elizabeth Bradley needlepoint kit that retails for $180. How could anyone resist? (Call it research.)

The Merry Go Round Thrift Shop, which benefits the general operating fund of the Merry Go Round senior residence, aka the Mews, is tucked into the back of the barn-red building that abuts the Mews’s lovely flagstone courtyard. The shop is light and bright and small, but like a well-ordered ship’s cabin, holds an amazing amount. Women’s wear is in the front room, sorted by racks into suits, blouses, skirts, pants and a sumptuous array of nightwear ranging from a gold-thread-embroidered turquoise silk caftan for $150 to a pair of blue silk pajamas for $10 that would have looked just swell on Carole Lombard. The women’s suits included a peach-colored Giorgio Armani for $80, an embroidered green linen Escada for $100, and a lighthearted “Ladies Who Lunch” array from the late-lamented Razook’s. Men’s wear is in the back room, where you can find a finely tailored chalk stripe or glen plaid suit for between $40 and $60, or crisp Brooks Brothers seersucker trousers for $30. There are golf shirts (and golf clubs), blazers in summery hues and ties galore. All clothing is in excellent condition. “We try to tell our donors,” says Jack Ceci, who has managed the shop for twelve years, “that if it’s something you wouldn’t wear yourself or give to a friend, then we can’t use it. Our shoppers are very savvy. Even though it’s a thrift shop and they want a bargain, they want good quality.”

Everywhere you look something intrigues or evokes the decades past: myriad Trivial Pursuit editions, lamps without shades and shades without lamps, a glass-shelved display case filled with what a friend in the antiques trade calls “the good goods” — cut-crystal vases and stemware, objets d’art, odd pieces of great-grandmother’s sterling and china — and four copper chafing dishes just waiting for some Brasso and a buffet table. Evening gowns and furs are in a closet by the front door, and Jack will gladly show you the full-length Canadian fisher fur coat, which was appraised for $6,000 and is marked at $2,500.

“I’m a native of Greenwich, and I never knew this was here,” says Jack, who trained for a year with the shop’s founder, Joan Ottman, before taking the reins. “It’s like a little secret off the Avenue. And I’ve gotten to know all the residents. I have a very special place in my heart for seniors. They’ve become friends, and that’s really why I’m here.”

 Since 1921 the Greenwich Hospital Auxiliary Thrift Shop has been selling the gently used goods of Greenwich. Its purpose is to improve the quality of patients’ lives in innumerable ways, which today can range from cable TV to workout clothes for rehab, and the shop also provides job interview outfits for women in need. The Sherwood Place shop is beautifully organized but only because the creative and tireless volunteers are adept at making order out of chaos. Storage is woefully limited, and the big excitement is that the shop will be moving to a more spacious and permanent home; in January the hospital purchased the building and adjacent parking lot at 199 Hamilton Avenue. Fingers crossed, the shop will be resettled in the renovated space by November. “Just in time for the Christmas rush,” manager Raquel Cueto says with a smile.

“There’s been a major push by the auxiliary,” says volunteer and past auxiliary president Patricia Eggert, “to get us into new facilities that are updated, greener. But the whole operation is green because we’re reusing and recycling.

For example, if people donate sneakers that are unsalable, they go straight to the town’s sneaker recycling program. We gave hundreds of pairs last year.”

“There’s definitely an ethical component as to why people volunteer and why they shop here,” says Maureen Johnson, an environmental lawyer who is chairman of the shop’s volunteers. “We support that, to conserve and not exploit the environment, even if it’s just reusing clothing.”

Libby Edelman has been a volunteer for twenty-seven years (“I’m older than I look,” she jokes) and started working in the thrift shop as a much-needed distraction when her late husband was ill. “I’d never had exposure to this kind of thing,” she says, “but I thought why not? And I fit right in. We have a terrific team here — that’s what brings us back, week after week.”

Where the hospital thrift shop differs from the others in town is its twenty-five feet of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a bibliophile’s playground with a vintage section of long-forgotten novelists like Olive Higgins Prouty and Kathleen Norris. The complete works of Theodore Roosevelt ($75) are behind the front counter with the other antiques, like the miniature collection of Chinese snuff bottles in carved jade ($45 to $75 apiece). The shop also accepts furniture — three Victorian balloon-back side chairs were economically priced at $100 — and there is an ample assortment of clothing, which gets marked down every few weeks. “We really do have something for every occasion,” says Libby. “And, of course, the wedding dresses have been worn only once!”

 With its lofty ceilings and ornate plaster moldings, crystal chandeliers and marble fireplaces, the Act II Consignment Shop is one of the most elegant shops in Greenwich — the only clue that you’re not in a posh boutique is the price tags. The shop is sponsored by the Second Congregational Church and is located in the Solomon Mead House on Maple Avenue, which was once owned by eccentric millionaire Hetty Green.

(A notorious penny-pincher, one wonders what she’d think of a resale shop in her home.) The beautifully proportioned mansion was built in 1858 of the same locally quarried stone as the church, which bought it in 1952 for $51,200.

Children’s clothing and toys, books and display cases of the “good goods” are in the former front parlor. Sorry, but the spectacular gilt-framed pier mirror over the fireplace is not for sale, although manager Pat Knight says dealers ask all the time. Women’s wear is in the paneled dining room, where the Victorian sofa by the fireplace is piled with pleasingly aged needlepoint cushions.

The two glassed-in porches are filled with rack upon rack of men’s wear and coats, as well as shoes and small sections of bed linens and luggage.

The women’s clothing runs a mouthwatering gamut from casual to evening, which, for the most part, is under $50: a bugle-beaded black chiffon tunic for $15, an entrance-making scarlet satin ballgown with an antebellum skirt for $30. The women’s suits are a steal. A Jones New York four-ply silk crepe suit in a delectable shade of periwinkle was priced at $25 and would go very nicely with the never-been-worn Charles Jourdan pumps in gleaming black kid for $28.

Act II accepts donations as well as consignments. “We don’t really know how it breaks down, exactly,” says Pat, “because certain years we get more donations than other years. This year we have more consignments, probably because of the economy.” Profits go to the church’s outreach programs, including Heartcare International, which provides open-heart surgery to children in Central America and the Caribbean; Habitat for Humanity; Pacific House (a men’s shelter in Stamford); and the Prayer Shawl Ministry for the ill or grieving. As is standard with consignment agreements, prices go down each month. Nothing stays on the floor longer than three months and, in another layer of giving, whatever doesn’t sell goes to Neighbor to Neighbor or Goodwill; winter coats go to Midnight Run, which supplies warm clothing for New York City’s homeless. (The other thrift shops have similar policies.) “Everything is priced to sell,” says Pat, who has managed the shop as a volunteer for over twenty years. “Our purpose is threefold: to raise money to provide outreach for the church, to provide fellowship for the women of the church and to be a service to the community. So our prices have always been a little lower than a lot of shops.

 The Rummage Room has occupied the same tin-ceilinged shop in Old Greenwich since 1955. It is sponsored by the Women’s Fellowship of the First Congregational Church, and the proceeds are divvied up between a long list including the Boys & Girls Club, the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal  Fund, Hill House, Kids in Crisis, the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, and overseas charities. “It is amazing what one little hole-in-the-wall shop can earn in a year and make a difference to local and world missions,” says Mary Jane Penwell, who is on the fellowship’s allocations committee. Mary Jane began volunteering at the shop fourteen years ago after surviving a harrowing bout with cancer and considers the money she spends there (with eight grandchildren it adds up) as part of her tithe. “We help women and children who are victims of domestic abuse, we help children in Africa whose parents have died of AIDS, we provide wells to villages where women used to have to walk hours to get water,” she says enthusiastically. “We are so passionate about this.”

The mission is serious but the work is pure fun, and the atmosphere around the long table in the back room where donations are assessed is like a sorority reunion. Goodies eliciting oohs and aahs from the Tuesday regulars included a couple of hand-appliquéd table runners and a pair of gorgeous bronze velvet pillows anonymously donated by a Greenwich Avenue merchant. (You’ll have to wait for Opening Day in September, however; manager Maria Driege holds back choice items all year for the annual event, which last year raked in over $9,000.) Stories come thick and fast: the time they found $100 in a raincoat pocket, the $1,500 diamond ring that fell out of an old hair dryer, the day a local store donated two unclothed mannequins and Maria blithely strapped them into the back seat of her car and drove through town to the shop, and the oddest donation ever — a small box of what were unmistakably funerary  ashes. “I didn’t know what to do!” Maria recalls. “So I took it to the church, and the pastor blessed it. Of course, I don’t know if he blessed an old tree or a person.”

Prices here are also deliberately low — most of the clothing is $15 and under — and even after Bennett’s up the street appraises the better jewelry, they still price it sensibly. When Maria became the manager in 1996, she began creating the window displays for which the shop is known, marking every event on the calendar from the brides of June to April Fool’s Day, when volunteers in wild ’n’ wacky outfits pose in the windows as live models. The shelf over her desk is stuffed with photo albums documenting the windows and the shop’s many parties. Awards for the best holiday window, given by the First Night festival, line the wall; the 2007 winner featured a troop of penguin dolls Maria saved for three years. But it’s not about the awards; It’s about the camaraderie. “We have so much fun I can’t tell you,” she says warmly. “These people are like my family.”