Thrift store empire started in Altona with determination of four housewives

MCC shops help poor at home, globally

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In another life, Linie Friesen may have been a businesswoman.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/08/2019 (1211 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In another life, Linie Friesen may have been a businesswoman.

During her 97 years, an entrepreneurial spirit shone through her work as a teacher and pushed her beyond her status as a wife, mother and prominent member of the Mennonite faith.

When the longtime Altona resident died earlier this year, she left a legacy that brings in millions of dollars annually for a non-profit organization that has stretched across North America. It was a project devised by four housewives — Friesen and three of her friends — that no one could have predicted would grow so exponentially. Today, the Mennonite Central Committee Thrift Store has more than 100 locations in Canada and the U.S., including 16 stores in Manitoba. Its flagship retail shop in Altona has expanded way beyond the meagre 10-by-20-foot rented space in which it began. Before the end of their first year, they needed more space. Forty-seven years later, at the height of a recent summer weekend half-price sale, the Altona store is bustling.

Supplied Linie Friesen and her son Eric. Linie was known for being hospitable and cheerful. "There was an elegance, a generosity, and yet a downhomeness," says longtime friend Lori Hiebert.

The concept of converting used clothing into cash for international Mennonite ministry efforts wasn’t immediately popular when Friesen, Selma Loewen, Susan Giesbrecht and Sara Stoesz came up with it back in 1972.

“We thought it was a good idea, but like I say, there was some skepticism. We hadn’t done anything like this. We’d always sent our clothing to the central station in Winnipeg, and from there the clothing was sent to needy countries. To have a thrift store in our little, small community wasn’t really a top priority,” said Ed Stoesz, husband of Sara Stoesz, one of two surviving members of the foursome who got the store up and running.

At 90, Ed Stoesz still volunteers in the Altona MCC thrift store almost every day.

He remembers the four friends, whom he fondly refers to as “the ladies,” suggesting the idea after they learned clothing donations destined for other countries were piling up in a Winnipeg warehouse. The store started with women’s clothes and later included men’s clothes, furniture and household items. It just “took off,” Stoesz said.

“We don’t want to blow our horn; we just want to serve. That’s basically our bottom line, and I think that has been very true with the other ladies.”

Gladys Terichow / MCC MCC thrift shop founders Linie Friesen (from left), Selma Loewen, Susan Giesbrecht and Sara Stoesz in 2007.

Their vision came long before second-hand stores were trendy, and before it was widely accepted for married women to work outside the home.

“That was typical of all four ladies — they didn’t have outside jobs, so they had time to volunteer,” Stoesz said.

“One thing developed after another. I remember in our house, the conversation was always ‘thrift store,’ every mealtime. And I kept saying, can’t we change the subject for a change?” he chuckled. “That was the beginning, and obviously, we didn’t know what this will become. But I’m glad there’s momentum there and there was support from the churches and the community brought this in… to go forward.”

There were similar conversations in the Friesen home between Linie and her husband Ted, recalls one of the couple’s three sons: an occasional comment about time spent on the thrift store or her (ultimately successful) efforts to establish a public library in town rather than being dedicated to traditional homemaking.

“This was all done in very genteel, Mennonite ways, but I do remember that,” Eric Friesen said.

Supplied Friesen, 6, (second from right) and her family, before they emigrated from Ukraine to Canada in 1928.

Ted, who was himself a successful businessman, having founded Friesens Corp. with his brothers, soon became one of the non-profit’s biggest supporters. He served on its executive board for many years before he died in 2016 at 95.

Whether founding a thrift store, getting approval for a public library, being part of a group establishing a new Mennonite church that offered services in English instead of only High German, or raising three hard-working sons, Linie wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“That’s the kind of person she was. She would rather be running a thrift shop than being a stay-at-home cook and doing laundry, but she did all those things.

“She did all the things that a woman did in the ’50s and ’60s… but she wanted to be out there doing the things that she believed in,” her son Eric said.

With his mom’s ability to stretch a dollar, multi-task and think of non-traditional ways to help out, “if she were a young woman now, I think she would be an entrepreneur.”

Supplied Linie Friesen with her sons Eric (from left), Tim and Paul on her 97th birthday in August 2018.

Among friends and neighbours, Linie was hospitable and cheerful, always offering tea or cookies to guests.

“There was an elegance, a generosity, and yet a downhomeness,” said Lori Hiebert, who works at the Altona Mennonite Church the Friesens helped found and has known the Friesen family for 39 years.

“They were wealthy, but you didn’t even think about that when you were there,” said Hiebert, who for years lived across the street and was regularly invited for dinner and a game of bridge.

Like many other women in the community, Linie’s determination was evident, Hiebert said.

“There are a lot of strong women and if they want something done, they find a way to do it.”

Leland Gerber / MCC In the 1970s, second-hand stores were a novelty.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Tony Siemens / MCC Sara Stoesz, right, and her husband Ed Stoesz in the Altona MCC thrift shop that she helped start in 1972.
Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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