Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Not thrifty in support — Bishop’s Attic needs bigger space to keep up with mounting donations

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

The donations room behind the back partition at Bishop’s Attic thrift store in Soldotna could be a scene from a horror movie for anyone who hates housework.

Kitchenwares and picture frames form stacks needing to be dusted. Boxes of electronics components and small appliances wait to be arranged on a shelf. Bags containing who-knows-what (one time it was a petrified horn) sit in corners until someone has time to see what’s inside.

Then there’s the clothes: Sacks and stacks of them, all piled into a mountain of fabric reaching nearly to the ceiling.

Going through it all — checking for holes and stains, sorting by size and style, affixing prices and getting it out on the racks — is a labor of love, say the store’s volunteers and employees.

If that’s the case, then Bishop’s Attic is certainly well loved, because there’s a whole lot of work involved.

“It’s overwhelming, but it’s good,” said Julie Soltis, who volunteers at Bishop’s Attic up to six days a week. “Some days you open the door and you want to go back home again.”

Donations have tripled in the last three years, and they don’t come in any predictable pattern, said Betty Phelps, who has worked at Bishop’s Attic for 15 years.

“Every day is different. You just don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even want to say we have cleared out three bags, because then it’s like, kabam!

“Everyone says with the economy people would be holding back and holding on to their stuff, but they’re not. We’re getting more clothes than I’ve ever seen.”

Dealing with donations is a constant battle that can never be won, at least in Bishop’s Attic’s current configuration. Even if the store had more volunteers — which it needs — and could somehow create extra hours in the day to go through all the stuff, there still isn’t room to display everything for sale. For all the racks, stacks, shelves and display cases full of items in the store, there’s just as much or more waiting behind the partition.

And that’s just in the clothes and housewares store. A few doors down in the Soldotna strip mall along the Kenai Spur Highway is another Bishop’s Attic store devoted to furniture, crafts, sports equipment and seasonal items. That store was opened to alleviate crowding in the original store. Now it’s just as full.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Keeping up with donations may be an impossible task, but Bishop’s Attic wouldn’t have it any other way. The more donations the store gets, the more items it can sell, and the more it can help the community.

“Everything that we make here, after we pay bills, goes right back into the community,” Phelps said.

The Kenai and Soldotna Catholic churches operate Bishop’s Attic. It opened in Soldotna about 15 years ago as a way to meet the needs of the community, said Jackie Swanson, a member of Bishop’s Attic’s board of directors.

Selling affordable clothes and merchandise is helpful to people with low incomes, but where the store really provides service is in donating the money generated from the store’s sales. In the last five years, Bishop’s Attic has donated about $115,000 to various community groups, including the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, ABC Crisis Pregnancy Center, Love, INC., and the National and International Aid Agency, Swanson said.

The store generates money for three continuing education scholarships and provides community service opportunities. It also gives gift certificates to people in need, such as victims of house fires, residents of the LeeShore Center, returning National Guard members and people helped by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

“That’s what we’re there for, to supply for the needs in the community,” Swanson said. “The community supports the store. It’s just so gratifying to see the piles of things that come in on a regular basis and be able to turn that around to the community.”

Business has grown 50 percent over the last five years, which means the amount the organization can give back to the community has grown, as well. With continued community support the board of directors sees potential to contribute even more but needs more space to do it, so it has been considering finding a bigger home for Bishop’s Attic.

It’s a difficult decision to make. On one hand, a bigger space would mean more merchandise could be displayed and potentially sold. On the other, it could mean higher costs, which cuts into the amount the organization can donate.

“The more we pay in overhead, the less we can give back to the community, so it is a double-edged sword,” said Carol Brenckle, board president.

“As a board, we have some responsibility to make some good choices,” Swanson said. “We feel like, in business you need to gamble sometimes, but we’re in a little bit different position here, so we need to be courageous and careful at the same time.”

Meanwhile, employees and volunteers try to move as much merchandise as they can, but don’t put out so much that racks and shelves get crowded.

Sales are a big help. The store often has 50-percent-off sales, and the $5-a-bag sales at the end of each month are legendary. It also helps that the store draws an array of shoppers.
“We reach out to a wide customer base, not just those who have a desperate need, but a wide range,” Swanson said. “I know when I walk in there I walk out with something, and I’m not even shopping.”

Gary Merryman, of Soldotna, says he shops at Bishop’s Attic a couple times a month looking for items he can’t find anywhere else. He likes to tinker, and the thrift store often has components he can use in his projects.

“We’ve got limited shopping down here,” he said. “… You come in here sometimes and find some odds and ends to put something together with.”

He said he could afford to shop elsewhere, but everyone appreciates a bargain.

“It’s just a good place to come, and you see all types of people in here. It’s not just people down on their luck, it’s people like myself. You shouldn’t categorize someone as down and out just because they come in here.”

Suzanne Lagasse, of Soldotna, said she sometimes finds clothes for her daughters, but more often is looking for business casual work clothes for her.

“I just don’t see the point in spending big money on name brands at the store when you can get them here, too. I figure, let someone else pay the big bucks,” she said.

“I get a charge out of someone saying, ‘That’s a cute outfit.’ I’ll say, ‘This whole thing was five bucks at the thrift store.’”

Whatever the reasons that bring customers in, Phelps hopes they keep coming, so Bishop’s Attic can keep growing.

“We can help so many more people,” especially if the store had a bigger space, she said. “I pray about this every night. It could happen. Nothing’s impossible through Christ.”

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