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Thrift stores tell of hard times

Some shoppers love the thrill of the hunt, but many are looking for essentials. A shaky economy brings out the frugal - and the hungry.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published October 2, 2003

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Loretta Mueller looks at artwork Tuesday at the CASA Collection Thrift Shop in St. Petersburg, which has seen brisk sales. "There is a direct correlation between the . . . economy and thrift store sales," manager Debbie Cappola said.

ST. PETERSBURG - Last Friday, the Census Bureau said the ranks of the nation's poor had jumped 12 percent in 2002 to 34.6-million people.

Coupled with that, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 26 of the last 32 months have seen job losses, the worst stretch since 1939.

The bleak numbers weren't a surprise to the people who operate local thrift stores. They don't produce statistical reports, but they can tell foot traffic when they see it.

Inside the Metropolitan Charities thrift store on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, business was brisk on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. People combed racks of secondhand shirts and dresses and inspected previously owned night stands, lamps and glassware. A few blocks away at the CASA Collection Thrift Shop, they had the busiest August they've ever recorded.

Officials at thrift stores run by Goodwill, Hospice, the Spring and other organizations also reported strong business in recent months.

Some of the increase was attributed to factors such as larger stores, better merchandise and slashed prices.

But nearly all thrift store officials say the recent surge in new customers and higher sales reflect just how difficult life has become for many people.

"There is a direct correlation between the state of the economy and thrift store sales," said Debbie Cappola, store manager and program coordinator at the CASA store. "Our sales have increased substantially.

"August was an exceptionally good month, and it's normally one of our slowest."

Allison LeGros, manager of the Simply Spring Thrift Store in Tampa, said sales have tripled recently.

"Yesterday alone we did over $3,000 in sales," she said. "That's one of our best days ever.

"We put everything on sale and are doing more advertising, but the economy is definitely part of it. We have our regulars, but we've also been getting a lot of new customers. We sold a $400 Donna Karan dress yesterday for $30. People want those kinds of bargains."

Especially now.

Some people shop at thrift stores because they want to; they're collectors or serial bargain hunters or they consider it chic. Others shop there because they have little choice.

Eric Galloway, 42, a part-time sales manager from Pinellas Park who has been looking for full-time job for a year, had just bought two white dress shirts at the Metropolitan Charities thrift store. He spent $6.50.

He said he used to feel uneasy going into a thrift store. He worried he'd run into someone he knew.

"But things change," he said. "It's too expensive at the mall, and I've found great stuff here. Even when things get better, I'll probably come back."

Neva Tucker, a service representative for Verizon who lives in Clearwater, smiled and did her best runway turn near the checkout line at the CASA store. "I bought this here," she said proudly of the black dress she was wearing. "It was $75 new and I bought it for $5. I've had a lot of compliments on it. And I tell people, "If you knew where I got this, you'd die."'

It's not just secondhand clothing and furniture that an increasing number of people need. It's also food.

"We've really noticed an increase at our soup kitchen," said Sophie Sampson, president of the South Pinellas arm of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The organization operates a thrift store but also gives away goods to the needy. "Every chair is filled at every meal. We're serving 16,000 meals a month now.

"And we saw quite an increase in kids during the summer. They get free lunches during the school year but nothing in the summer."

Like several other charities, St. Vincent de Paul always has a demand for furniture, especially beds.

"We can't seem to keep enough of them," Sampson said. "A woman came in yesterday who has five children but no furniture. Not a lick. So we're working on getting her a table for the kids to sit to eat dinner.

"And shoes. We need men's shoes. Some of these men come with horrible-looking shoes, or no shoes at all."

Far too many people, she said, are one or two paychecks away from deep financial trouble.

"One little incident happens, like an illness. Or you get laid off. There's no money in the bank. The electricity gets turned off, and then they lose their home.

"But for the grace of God, any of us could be in that predicament."

[Last modified October 2, 2003, 02:49:35]


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