Mind & Spirit

Rockford Rescue Mission Thrift Store Rescues, Recovers, Restores

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Fulfilling its mission to restore a broken world, the Rescue Mission’s latest project is helping those in need and benefitting a neighborhood. Step inside this unique thrift shop.

John Anderson, a thrift store volunteer and sophomore at East High School, cleans household items. (Jim Killam photo)

John Anderson, a thrift store volunteer and sophomore at East High School, cleans household items. (Jim Killam photo)

LaWanna Eldridge remembers the first time she walked into the former Bob’s Ace Hardware store after Rockford Rescue Mission bought it in 2012.

She stood in a back corner and looked out at 52,000 square feet – more than twice the space the Mission ever had used for its various incarnations of its thrift stores.

“I was like, there’s no way we can fill this,” she says. “But we did.”

Eldridge, assistant retail supervisor of the thrift store at 2710 20th St., Rockford, helps to oversee the processing and sales of thousands of donated items each week. In 2013, the store’s first full year of operation at the new site, sales accounted for 17.2 percent of the Mission’s $6.1 million budget. Ralph Monge, the Mission’s Director of Physical Operations, thinks that could grow to more than 30 percent.

The store averages 230 to 260 customers a day, and about $3,800 in sales. That’s about one-third more customers than at the old location on Kishwaukee Street, or when the Mission operated multiple store sites, Monge says. And the current numbers almost certainly will rise, now that the store has extended its weekday hours to 7 p.m.

Any doubts Mission leaders had about the new site were quickly eased on the store’s opening day, Nov. 16, 2012. At 9 a.m. as the doors were about to open, 300 people were waiting outside. For most of the day, remembers Sherry Pitney, the Mission’s Executive Director, the four checkout lines were 20 people deep.

“We did $33,000 those two days,” Pitney says. “We were happy, but man, were we tired.”
The draw to a thrift store, especially one as huge as this, is twofold. First, customers find good-quality merchandise at a fraction of the retail cost. And second, the store may feature a whole different range of merchandise from one day to the next.

“We have people come at 9 o’clock every morning, and they want to see what new items are on the floor,” Monge says.

Behind the 33,000-square-foot sales floor lies almost 20,000 additional square feet of processing space. Here, paid staff and volunteers churn through the 50 to 125 carloads of donations that pour in each day.

“You never know what you’re going to get,” Eldridge says. “It’s almost Christmas every day here. Whatever comes in, we push it out and we try to sell it. We try very hard to get everything that comes in the back door out to the sales floor within 24 hours.”

If that didn’t happen, the processors would quickly get buried back there. Every day, they sort and price 600 to 1,500 pieces of clothing and get them to the sales floor, Eldridge says. That’s along with 500 to 1,000 household items. Those don’t sell quite as quickly as clothes, so some (Christmas items, for instance) are moved to an overstock room. Still, 15 to 20 shopping carts of household items come to the sales floor daily.

On this day, staff member Diane White looks like she’s about to be swallowed by a hundred garage sales as she processes one household item at a time: pots and pans, framed pictures, knickknacks, toys and more.

The items come to her area from the dock, where volunteer John Anderson has been sorting and cleaning them. Anderson is part of a group of East High School students who volunteer regularly here as a class experience.

Then there’s Dave Klang’s area. Klang, a retired regular volunteer, helps identify and price antiques, oddities and … well, you be the judge:
• Apparently from a meat-packing company, a commercial fat-percentage measuring kit. The staff uses eBay, Craigslist and other Internet sites to help determine value of items like this. New, it would cost hundreds of dollars. When unsure, the staff prices items to move, knowing they were donated and that they’ll appeal to a tiny percentage of shoppers.
“The funny thing is, though, you put it out there and it will probably sell,” Klang says.
• Seventy-five assorted elephant figurines, which Klang bagged and priced for $3.99 each. “It was somebody’s whole collection,” he says. “Most of them have sold.”
• A whole bookshelf full of “M*A*S*H” episodes on VHS. This is the DVD era, but the store still sells lots of VHS tapes. “I’m waiting for a ‘M*A*S*H’ person to come in and buy it,” Klang says. “Looks like it’s every episode.”

Furniture is a top seller, usually at one-third to one-half of the retail price. If it doesn’t sell in a month, it’s reduced 25 percent, then 50 percent … but that’s rarely a problem.

“Generally furniture flies out of there,” Pitney says. “That’s a huge need in this community, used furniture. So if it’s nice, it’s gone that day almost.”

“Obviously it doesn’t do us any good to sit on it,” Monge adds. “So it is good to move it. The good part is that donations for furniture come in pretty regularly, and we are able to keep the floor full.”

Across the processing room, volunteer Wanda Motton runs an electric lint remover on clothing items as she sorts them by size and season. Staffer Frances McFarland sifts through a barrel of shoes, matching pairs to be moved to the sales floor.

After an item of clothing has been in the store two weeks, it’s reduced 20 percent for a week, then 30 percent, then 50 percent. Finally, it’s offered for 50 cents. If there still are no takers, it’s put in a baler and sold for rags. Monge says only about 5 percent of clothing the store processes ends up as rags.

Recycling has been another draw. Through an agreement with Universal Recycling, the Thrift Store accepts TVs, computers, appliances – anything electronic.

“We’re shipping in the area of about 10,000 pounds a month or more,” Monge says. “We don’t make much money off that. A little, through cellphones and laptops. But it’s a service.”
It’s also eliminated the problem of “fly-dumping,” where people would leave TVs and appliances outside the old Kishwaukee Street store at night, and the store would have to pay to get rid of the items.

A Neighborhood Fixture

When Bob’s Hardware closed in 2009 after more than 60 years in business, it left a hole in the neighborhood.

Mission leaders know that, and have sought to not only provide a great thrift store, but also a neighborhood hub. A second location of Restoration Cafe, a venture owned by the Mission, opened here in August 2013 and serves coffee, soups, pastries and a couple of old stand-bys.

“One of the things people told us when we first bought the building was, you have to have hot dogs and popcorn, just like Bob’s,” Eldridge says. “So we do. And we sell quite a bit.”
There’s also a ministry aspect, a tie-in with the Mission.

“For instance,” Pitney says, “we have opportunities to minister to people who are donating clothing from a loved one who has passed away. There are many neat stories of being able to pray with those people. It’s a very emotional thing for them.”

It’s all in keeping with the Mission’s philosophy of “Rescue, Recover, Restore.” That starts with serving hurting people at its downtown headquarters, but extends even to an old building that’s found a new purpose.

“The thing that we always hear is, people come in and they comment about how brightly lit the store is, how neat and organized the store is, how it smells good,” Monge says. “And it takes them too long to go through the store. That’s one of the complaints we get. That’s a great problem to have. You haven’t gotten through? Then come on back.”

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