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    Landmark downtown thrift store to fold

    The SPARC Value Village store will shut for the final time so Clearwater can use the site to expand a retention pond.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 28, 2001

    CLEARWATER -- Sandral Gillman strolled among aisles and aisles of women's clothing at SPARC's Value Village on Thursday, a pile of dresses in her arms.

    Gillman, 60, has been shopping at the downtown thrift store for 20 years. "My treat to me is after I pay the water bill, I get to come over here and get something for myself," she said. "I love it here."

    Gillman and other customers have less than two weeks to take advantage of the thrift store's bargain prices on clothing, housewares, toys, books and furniture, the proceeds of which benefit the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens. Over its 34-year life, the thrift store has raised $3.2-million for UPARC.

    But now, the thrift store, run by Special People Aiding Retarded Citizens, is closing. Jan. 10 will be its final day.

    The city is buying the thrift store's building at 211 S Prospect Ave. from the Clearwater Housing Authority and will use the land to expand a downtown retention pond.

    Other social services, including the Religious Community Services Food Pantry, share the building with the thrift store and also have to leave. RCS is relocating to 700 Druid Road and expects to reopen Jan. 14.

    But the volunteer group that runs Value Village has been unable to find a new home for the thrift store. A volunteer committee identified five potential sites, but each was ruled out for different reasons including lack of parking, high price and costly renovations.

    "We have no money to buy a building and, rents are so high, if we pay $8,000 or $10,000 rent, there won't be any money for UPARC," said volunteer Ines Miller.

    The store moved several times during the years but settled on Prospect Street 25 years ago, and has built a large and loyal customer base.

    "It's almost like a death," said Marie Gibson, one of the original members of Epsilon Sigma Alpha sorority in Clearwater that formed a nonprofit organization in 1967 that became Special People Aiding Retarded Citizens.

    Some shoppers have come to the store for more than 20 years. Thursday the store was busy with young mothers with children, senior citizens and middle aged men. "It's just your average person and the person with money who knows a good deal," Gillman said. "It's been good for me all through my life."

    Juan Carlos, 34, just discovered the store in the last few months and has returned for the reasonably priced clothing. He said he wasn't sure where he would shop once Value Village closed.

    "For people that don't have much money, going shopping in expensive stores is not convenient," he said.

    Signs recently went up informing customers of the thrift store's final days. Merchandise is deeply discounted so it all can be sold.

    "I'm going to miss them so much," said Maria Elebengono, 29, of Clearwater, who has shopped at Value Village for six years. "They have such good prices. Places like this aren't supposed to close, never, ever."

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