(Photo Caption: Shawna Hammond and Shirley Gleditsch (Photo: provided by Thrifty)
By Neil Cosgrove
The beginnings of the East End Community Thrift Store, commonly known as “Thrifty,” were indeed humble, recalls Shirley Gleditsch, one of its founders. With less than half of its current space, it began in a building across the street from where the shop is now, with no bathroom and a sheet of heavy plastic functioning as a back door.
Set-up of the shop began on the day of an infamous March, 1993 blizzard, with men who were sheltering at East Liberty Presbyterian Church moving the boxes of donations left at that same church. On April 14, 1993, on Ms. Gleditsch’s birthday, Thrifty opened for the first time. Twenty five years ago, the shop was open two days a week and was meant to have two functions—to provide affordable merchandise to those in need of it, and to help fund its owner, the Thomas Merton Center.
This month, after overcoming and meeting numerous obstacles and challenges, Thrifty continues its mission. “We are there for the homeless, for people with mental illness, for people just starting up, people coming out of prison, people who’ve had fires,” says Shawna Hammond, a store manager who first discovered Thrifty in 1996 like so many other volunteers had, as a customer. Many of Thrifty’s customers arrive with community-distributed vouchers that ease the cost of shopping even more than the shop’s bottom-dollar pricing.
In May, 1994 Thrifty moved across the street to its current location, 5123 Penn Avenue, into a building recently purchased for the Merton Center. From then on, business at the shop grew steadily—until the fateful day after Christmas in 2000, when the building was gutted by a catastrophic fire. No one knows just how the fire started; it may have been children who came in through an unsecured wooden door in the back, hoping to get warm; it may have been an arsonist.
No matter. The shop re-opened nine months later, in September, 2001, after a remodeling that cost over $100,000, funded by a combination of fund-raisers and insurance, according to Ms. Gleditsch. In the interim, Thrifty continued to exchange clothing and other supplies for vouchers at the Thomas Merton Center itself, next door.
Further expansion occurred in the guise of a furniture annex located two doors west of the shop, in the building currently occupied by Pittsburghers for Public Transit, a Merton Center project. After operating for around seven years, the annex was shut down in 2015 in the midst of the second great challenge to Thrifty’s existence. “We didn’t make any money on it,” says Ms. Gleditsch. “It was just a community service.”
That aforementioned challenge was reconstruction of Penn Avenue between Winebiddle and Evaline Streets, which took much longer than anticipated, starting in 2013 and ending in spring of 2016. Construction fencing even forced Thrifty’s closing for a few weeks in August, 2014. “Our walk-ins kept us afloat,” Ms. Hammond observes. “Otherwise there was no reason to stay open.”
Store traffic following the street construction has increased steadily but slowly, with the introduction of parking fees on Thrifty’s section of Penn Avenue complicating the recovery. Competition from such new sources as online stores and the Planet donation boxes now found in many a church and school parking lot are other factors, says Ms. Hammond. What Thrifty provides that other outlets cannot is the sense of community and belonging that has been its hallmark for 25 years. “We still take time to talk to the customers,” Ms. Hammond adds.
This past year was better for sales and fund-raising than 2016, and the volunteers who sustain Thrifty hope that upward trend will continue. A visit to the store does reveal the presence of significantly more activity than was the case in the not-too-distant past.
Thrifty has never existed solely on the income derived from customers, and this year, to mark the store’s 25th anniversary, supporters can ensure its continued service to the people of Pittsburgh’s East End by making donations in increments of $25 ($50, $75, $100) via check, cash, or PayPal through the East End Community Thrift Store website.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.