Spirit of giving
Donations, volunteers drive Selkirk MCC Thrift and Furniture Store’s efforts to help around the world and here at home
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/04/2022 (342 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Only four months into 2022, Christmas goodies are already piling up in the basement of a North End thrift shop, ready for the next festive season.
When donations of artificial trees, decorations, stockings and Santa hats hit the loading dock of the Selkirk MCC Thrift and Furniture Store, they are put aside for “Christmas volunteer” MaryLou Driedger to organize during her weekly Tuesday morning shift.
“It gives you a glimpse of someone’s life,” the retired teacher says of sorting through boxes of tree ornaments or decorations donated to the thrift shop.
“I often find crafty homemade things people have made for other people.”
Each week, Driedger adds four or five boxes of priced Christmas items to the shelves in a dark basement storage room, a space that will be completely filled by November, when the Christmas stock moves back to the shop floor.
In the 50 years since the first Mennonite Central Committee thrift shop opened its doors in Altona, Canadian thrift shops under the MCC banner have contributed $305 million to the work of the international Christian relief and development organization. Using the tag line “where every purchase is a gift to the world,” a thrift shop is more than a revenue stream, serving also as a community hub offering affordable items for sale and giving secondhand goods a new life, says Kristine Heinrichs, thrift co-ordinator for MCC Manitoba.
“It’s about getting people interested in ecology and considering how what they purchase and what they throw out is going to be impactful on the earth in the next 50 years,” she says of environmental reasons to buy thrifted items.
Before anyone can purchase a used toaster and or secondhand sweater, volunteers and staff at the two-storey brick shop at 511 Selkirk Ave. sort and price a huge range of housewares, clothes, books and games, making quick decisions on what can be sold and what needs to find another home, says Heather Lewis, one of the store’s two paid managers.
Unsellable metal, glass and plastic items hit the recycling bins, craft and art supplies are handed off to ArtsJunktion, and damaged or dirty clothes head to other agencies for recycling.
“A solid 80 to 85 per cent of what we receive gets onto the floor,” explains Karl Langelotz, who shares management duties with Lewis.
“People have entrusted their goods with us so we’re responsible with it and don’t just throw it out.”
That responsibility begins at the small loading dock off the back lane. Two days a week, volunteers pick up furniture and other donations with the store’s truck. Donors also show up with their vehicles packed with boxes of bins, often from a family member who is moving or recently deceased. Lewis or one of her volunteers will take a quick assessment of the donation and gently point out which items are not suitable for their shop.
“We try to screen at the door when people are dropping off,” she explains during a behind-the-scenes tour of the thrift shop.
“My (volunteer) drivers have the last say. If we don’t think we can sell it, they don’t take it.”
Those unsellable items include encyclopedia sets, university textbooks, china cabinets, electric organs, and upholstered furniture with rips, stains or smelling heavily of smoke.
Like other thrift shops, the Selkirk store follows Health Canada guidelines on selling baby gear such as strollers, car seats and cribs to ensure items meet current safety regulations.
Larger items such as furniture and electronics are priced immediately and moved to the sale floor, while clothing, books, and housewares are packed into the freight elevator at the back of the shop and moved into the second floor, where volunteers sort and price them before stacking them on wheeled carts and shelving to go back down the elevator to the shop’s retail floor.
“Within a five-week period, things go on the floor and then ultimately leave,” Lewis says of the colour-coding system that triggers discounts after three weeks. Items that don’t sell eventually move to the 25 cent rack and may eventually find their way to a free bin.
Surrounded by overflowing bookshelves, boxes of seasonal clothing, and racks of clothes hangers, volunteers sort and price goods at several workstations, visiting and laughing while they dig through boxes and bags of new donations.
“I used to work downstairs (in the store) and then I found out how much fun it was up here,” says Linda Strahl, a volunteer for the last 20 years.
“It’s socialization. You share, you talk.”
Volunteers are the backbone of Mennonite Central Committee’s network of 16 thrift shops in Manitoba, with an estimated 1,600 people volunteering regularly. Some offer a few hours a week, while others commit to a nearly full-time work schedule to keep those secondhand shops running, says Heinrichs, an avid thrift shopper herself.
“I consider these people to be some of the greatest donors to MCC by giving their time,” says the former assistant manager at the Selkirk shop and an avid thrift shopper herself.
“They’re skilled people who are offering their skills to MCC.”
Those volunteers are also skilled at sniffing out unusual things as they price clothing and housewares. Strahl recalls peeling back the black lining of a small wooden box to find a passport issued in 1969, belonging to a person now long deceased.
“I just cut it up and put it in the garbage,” she says of her find.
“We have surprises all the time.”
Yet even the oddest item may find a new home, says Lewis, since collectors and hobbyists stop by frequently to check out new stock.
“Sometimes it’s exciting to get these interesting things and find someone who might want it,” she says of vinyl records, vintage clothing or small collectibles.
But most of the stock is more useful than collectible, with small appliances, household linens, backpacks and winter clothing and boots in highest demand. The shop caters to modest budgets, so customers searching for a greeting card can find one for a quarter or purchase five for a dollar.
“It’s not just about the money,” Lewis says about the low-priced greetings cards, organized by occasion.
“People need a sympathy card and they can’t afford to pay $6 at the drug store.”
Pulling in about $10,000 to $15,000 a month — sales were affected by pandemic closures over the past two years — the little shop on Selkirk Avenue donates a large percentage of its profits to the work of Mennonite Central Committee, but also supports local organizations.
“We also want to make sure everyone in the neighbourhood is OK and they have what they need,” says Lewis.
That means the next time the doorbell rings, Lewis, Langelotz or a volunteer will offer a smile and a hand to the stranger offering them boxes of assorted items. Like any thrift shop, they depend on the donations to fill their shelves, and they’re grateful for the ongoing generosity of Winnipeggers.
“I try to make sure to say thank you to donors because these are gifts,” says Langelotz.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
Updated on Monday, April 25, 2022 12:00 PM CDT: Corrects number to 16 thrift shops.