Spotlight Exclusives

The Pandemic Dilemmas Confronting Thrift Stores

Brieanne Berry and Luisa S. Deprez Brieanne Berry and Luisa S. Deprez, posted on

Brieanne Berry is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine

They approached the meeting site cautiously, arriving singly and standing an awkward distance apart from each other. Instead of meeting inside the local community center, they met in the shade of an outdoor pavilion. Instead of the warm sound of conversation and laughter, the conversation is stilted: “oh, is that you? I could hardly recognize you with your mask on!” It was a meeting of a community-based thrift store – a small volunteer operation, run almost exclusively by women in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. The volunteers had gathered to discuss how they might respond to the pandemic.

The thrift store in rural Penobscot County, Maine had been closed since mid-March once the full impact of the pandemic became clear. The women, who typically spend one day per week sorting and selling used goods, know they fall into the high-risk category for complications associated with COVID-19. They are all over age 65 – a population that has to date, made up eight out of ten COVID-19-related deaths in the United States and nearly all deaths in Maine. Almost 28% of cases in the state are among those 60 years and older; 52% of all cases are women. Many of the thrift shop volunteers have underlying health conditions – or live with those who do – a factor associated with more severe COVID-19 outcomes. And all volunteer in a small space with cramped, crowded aisles that attracts throngs of community members to shop, socialize, and donate. All these factors combine to make volunteering in a thrift shop an activity of the “highest risk” for seniors.

But the risk of contracting COVID-19 was not the only peril discussed at the meeting. The volunteers expressed concerns about those who wouldn’t be able to shop at the store – people who might need access to the low-cost goods the thrift store provides to the community. They also worry about their non-profit’s continued ability to provide funds to support community services. This thrift store, like many small, community-based thrift shops across the country, does more than sell clothing and home goods at bargain-basement prices. It also funds an astounding array of programs, which range from a school backpack program that addresses food insecurity, to local food pantries and community health services. This funding comes from the sale of used goods, and with the thrift store closed there is no money coming in. At a time when they see the need for community assistance more than ever, the idea that this supplemental social safety net might be in jeopardy worries the volunteers nearly as much as the pandemic.

The immense strain on formal social safety net programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps (SNAP), and housing vouchers has been well-documented. Yet the informal social safety net, of which thrift stores are an important part, is under the same strain, and facing a far greater risk of collapsing. Elderly women have, for so long, done the invisible work of accepting, sorting, and selling discarded goods to benefit the community. How do we proceed knowing that these women are at risk while the people they serve are in need?  What is the risk to the community if they do not remain open?

The plight of non-profits in the wake of the pandemic is tenuous at best. These thrift stores, stalwarts of communities around the country, are confronting the same dilemmas as larger non-profits: How do you provide an essential service if the workforce cannot work?

With the onset of COVID-19 and thrift store closures, the volunteers worry about those who have few other options to obtain goods cheaply in the area: families with newborns; unemployed workers who can barely pay utility bills and rent, or buy food; poor and low-income children needing clothes and school supplies; seniors on fixed budgets; and families whose children or parents moved back in and need basic supplies. These shops have long served as a supplemental safety net of sorts for people who are poor and in need but too often ashamed or reticent to seek assistance from government programs. In Penobscot County, poverty is not a stranger: 14.7% of the population and 17.1% of children are poor. Now, these percentages are undoubtedly higher.

While there is a stigma often associated with wearing used clothes or buying used wares, these items – donations from community members – are a way to save money. Many of the thrift store volunteers use the phrase “donation with dignity” – the idea that they should only accept items that they would be comfortable purchasing themselves or giving to a close friend. Indeed, thrift stores offer a place to shop with dignity. They connect patrons to the community and provide them with access to the support they need to thrive.

A special quality of thrift stores, especially those in rural areas and small towns, is that they are run by people living in the community. Going into a thrift store is like meeting a neighbor in the drugstore; there is a feeling of ease that may lessen the shame often associated with being in need. One thrift store manager described her customers, saying “they’re very proud, and many of them are embarrassed by their situations.” Because thrift stores rely on social networks to operate, many of the women who volunteer also know the people coming in. They know when kids are growing out of coats and pants, and they know which families have just had to replace their boiler and can’t afford winter boots. They know which families are having a hard time putting food on the table because of a lost job. In response, they slip gift cards to grocery stores into patrons’ hands as they leave with bags full of gently used clothes or set aside items for them to pick up the next time they’re in the shop.

Oftentimes when we think of thrift stores, we think about finding a bargain or offloading our unwanted stuff so that it can be used again. What we may not consider is that shopping, donating, and volunteering at thrift stores also generates social capital – networks of trust, reciprocity, and support that are useful to people. Social capital is a way of doing with rather than doing for – an important distinction because it helps us understand one reason why thrift stores are so helpful to the community: they are a place where people take care of each other. Thrift stores may just be the hidden engines of cohesion in rural communities.

Many Americans went into the nationwide lockdown with limited or no savings, unprepared for the current financial challenges. The cost of this pandemic on individuals and families is staggering.  Families are struggling, anxious that the basics – food, shelter, and health – are even farther out of reach. Seventy-seven percent (77%) of low-to moderate-income American households don’t have enough assets to withstand three months without income. Almost 25% of people, not working because they’re caring for a child not in school or day care, do not have enough to eat. Those who lost hours or jobs found it “difficult to get by.” Housing insecurity is becoming more pronounced. In early August, of the 66% of renters worried about eviction,  two-thirds had not yet made a complete August payment.

The number people living in families with combined weekly earnings below the federal poverty line rose by 24% from February to May. Twelve million people eligible for their $1,200 “stimulus” cash have not received it because they are too poor to have filled out a tax form or don’t know how to claim it.

These are the people for whom thrift shops are a lifeline.

Non-profits in this country are stretched to the limit. Small, community-based thrift stores are facing similar challenges. These shops, so difficult to quantify because of their size and informal nature, are scattered across the country. It seems as though every small town has at least one located in a church basement, senior citizen center, or another out-of-the-way space. They are overwhelmingly powered by volunteers, older women who give their time – sometimes as much as 50 or 60 hours a month or more – to help their communities, their neighbors. Many volunteers view their work as an important social function that keeps them connected to and valued by their community and feeling less alone. They also have a great time volunteering – their friends are volunteers and they love looking through the stuff, imagining where it came from and who might find value in it.

Yet right now, many volunteers wonder about how essential their work really is. If it is essential, can they keep doing it? They are precisely those most at risk of experiencing the most harmful effects of exposure to COVID-19.  But few have the time or expertise needed to develop action plans to reopen their stores safely, and in accordance with guidance from the state and federal government – an uncertainty that places both the volunteers and patrons at risk.

While large thrift stores, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, will probably continue to operate and accept used goods, although they too are under enormous stress, the community-based thrift stores that provide critical redistributive functions for those most in need are at risk of shutting down for good. This hidden safety net is often obscured because it is informal aid distributed by word of mouth and social connections rather than through a formalized bureaucratic process. It is also hidden because it is powered by elderly women whose work is too often underacknowledged and undervalued. What, we ask, might be lost first – the thrift shops or the workers in them?

Brieanne Berry is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Sociology at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. This commentary reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of these universities. Brieanne and Luisa are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

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