Tucked into the southwest corner of Church and Snyder is one of Elmira’s finest gems. The building, which once was a restaurant that fed scores of people comfort food, now is thrift store that feeds scores of people who have no food. Modest, without a hint of ostentation, that building is hustling and bustling with sorters and pricers, seekers and finders. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure, or so they say. When that junked treasure is sold and the revenue is passed on rather than kept, it is a win-win all around. Welcome to the MCC Thrift and Gift in small-town Elmira.
Errands related to both family and business have me in town often, and I will take an extra fifteen minutes to decompress and ‘self-soothe’ with a wander through that little shop. My library and my wardrobe have been augmented by my finds. Jars and crocks found there line our shelves, keeping the flour and sugar safe from the mice that find their way in through the cracks of this old stone house. Others’ cast off yarn stashes fill my thrifted baskets, ready resources to fuel my rekindled penchant for knitting. I have found light bulbs, vacuum cleaner bags, jars of nails, cards, tools, Birkenstocks, paper clips, John Deere tractors (albeit small ones), office chairs, linens, a typewriter, and a perfect stool to place beside the evaporator to take the weight off weary legs during sap season.
Then there’s the silent auction. Donated items that are deemed more valuable are placed on silent auction and opened to bidding. Sometimes items will be collected at intake and held to be sold through auction all together. Collections of art, old books, or musical instruments will fill the store front, waiting for the highest bidder. A friend and I will keep an eye out on each other’s bids and text each other with updates. I have done Christmas shopping through silent auction items and added to my collection of old things, but there are numerous times where I’ve been out bid. I still think of that antique crystal knife-rest set that got away… hopefully it isn’t collecting dust on a store shelf somewhere, but rather, graces a table now and then.
Recently, I chatted with Betty, the general manager of the thrift store (who once favoured the store with live organ music on an organ that was part of the silent auction). She told me how the community pooled finances to purchase the building in 2005 for $770 000. Some donated their money, others were paid back, and in two years the building was paid off. The store does over a million dollars in sales each year with $55 000 being donated to Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) each month. Last year there was $40 000 sold in Christmas items alone.
There are a handful of paid staff who manage the store, but without the volunteers, 200 of them give or take, this place would not function. Betty toured me through the various “departments”, and Santa’s workshop comes to mind. The place is a beehive of activity. Volunteers taking in and unloading donated items, volunteers sorting and pricing, volunteers stocking the shelves, and volunteers setting up seasonal displays. Betty said she tells the volunteers that their net hourly wage is $27 meaning that after four hours of volunteering, they have donated about $110. The friendliness of the volunteers and the managers creates an atmosphere of community and neighbourliness (I’ve even seen people napping in the store). A commemorative book entitled “Live What You Believe – Celebrating 40 Years of MCC Thrift in Ontario” honours the many Thrift volunteers in Ontario. Volunteers recount their own stories of how MCC aided them when they were refugees fleeing after WWII. Other volunteers tell of the satisfaction of giving to their communities and the interaction with other volunteers and customers that is so fulfilling. One volunteer mentions becoming part of the ‘Naughty Knotters’, a group of women who knot quilts for countries in need.
MCC Thrift began in 1972 in Manitoba when four women gathered over tea (Live What You Believe – Celebrating 40 Years of MCC Thrift in Ontario). MCC had just announced that they would no longer be shipping clothing overseas, and one of the organizers lamented that what they needed was a machine that would turn the clothing into money for MCC. These four women at their tea party came up with what they thought was a short-term plan to do just that. They rented a small space and set up what would be the first MCC thrift shop. They thought that in three to six months their closets and the closets of the community would be empty and the project would be complete. However, the movement expanded and grew and spread to other areas, including Ontario. Thrift now contributes millions of dollars annually to MCC (Ontario 2015/2016 annual report pamphlet).
Four women who did what they could.
Their idea has taken consumerism and turned it on its head.
When I asked Betty what donated item has been most interesting, she and another manager thought it was probably the chicken plucker – a barrel-shaped container with protrusions that plucked the feathers off the chicken while it turned. It was donated in Kitchener, but they sent it to Elmira as Thrift’s reputation in Elmira has a hint of hick. And yes, it did sell. Betty also told of one customer who found a vase priced at $1 on the store shelves. He came to her and said he’s going to pay $20 for it as it was a valuable Moorcroft vase (Moorcroft must be a “who’s who” in the vase world). Betty said they want to price things fairly because they want customers to be able to find those gems.
During one of my quick jaunts through the store, I happed upon one of those gems which caught my fancy. It was an old piano stool, the kind with cast iron and glass feet and a swivel seat. Surely there would be a corner in my big old house for such a thing. Now the logical thing to do when purchasing something to sit on is to sit on it and try it out. I lowered myself onto the stool which promptly broke, and I crashed to the floor, flat on my tush. Nearby customers gasped, and I felt like an awkward flustered teenager as a gentleman kindly offered to help me back up. “You could have hit your head!” one lady exclaimed when I assured them all that I was fine. Can you imagine if I had sustained a concussion while browsing at the MCC Thrift Store?! Horrors!
Thinking that my Dad would be able to help me fix the broken stool, I decided to purchase it and went up front to talk to a manager about the fact that it broke when I sat on it (I could see it had been glued underneath). He proceeds to tell me that they had sat on it before they put it out! Now what is a girl to make of a comment like that?! Betty sweetly lowered the price as balm for both my bruised tush and my bruised ego.
Four women having tea who did what they could – again an invitation to live fully into the life that is right in my lap. According to Betty, it’s the generousity of the community with their donations, their time, and their finances that makes the shop such a success. I think we all have something that is uniquely ours to share – a reflection of the Artist’s brilliant work. What does that look like for me today on this very day? What does that look like for you?
And now, I have a silent auction bid to consider..