Starting at 9 a.m. six days a week, the donations start flowing into the Montana Rescue Mission Bargain Center at 1233 S. 24th St. W.
There is clothing, great heaps and mountains of clothes for men, women and children for every season of the year. There are dishes and appliances and housewares of all kinds, rivers of fabrics and linens, back-breaking numbers of books and record albums, exercise equipment, luggage, Christmas decorations, lighting fixtures and a million and one of the gewgaws with which people decorate their homes.
Thrift stores like the MRM’s West End store occupy the middle ground in the United States’ massive consumer economy, a way station between the big-box stores and the landfill.
We are a nation of stuff—stuff in quantities unimaginable in much of the world and unimaginable in this country just a couple of generations ago. We have more stuff in storage units than many countries have in total.
To make room for new stuff, we eventually have to get rid of the old stuff, which leads to the steady stream of vehicles dropping off donations at places like the MRM store. And thus begins the never-ending process of sorting, preparing, pricing and re-selling, chores performed by store employees and a fair number of volunteers.
When the weather is nice, the store might see as many as 200 vehicles a day. Things are busiest in garage sale season, at the end of the school year and after holidays.
The sorting begins in the parking lot on the south side of the MRM store, just outside the receiving door. Items that are damaged, too dirty or too old go straight from the shopping carts used to collect donations into a huge, 40-cubic-yard dumpster that is hauled to the city landfill at least twice a week.
That is a sore spot for folks at the MRM.
“If it’s meant for the dump,” says Denise Smith, who does public relations and marketing for the rescue mission, “it costs us to take it to the dump for you.” That cost was $1,335 in April. In March it was $1,559.
Public service announcement: If your stuff is junk, don’t donate it to a charity.
There are some things the store cannot take, including drop-side cribs (choking hazard), mattresses made before 2007 (it has to do with fire-retardant materials) and car seats and booster seats. Those last two items cannot be resold if they’ve been involved in an auto accident, and there’s no way to determine whether that is the case.
Another sore spot for employees is the number of people who drop off donations after hours. (Donations are accepted Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) Almost every night, people leave donations outside the receiving door. And almost every time they do, other people show up and sort through it, leaving a big mess for the morning crew to clean up.
“It’s not only a mess,” says Richard Pilon, who’s worked for the mission for six years, the past three at the West End store. “The good stuff gets stolen.”
Donations that are not stolen or thrown immediately into the dumpster are first sorted into categories, including electronics, housewares, luggage and shoes, and placed in the appropriate shopping cart. Much of the stuff is sorted in a cramped receiving room just inside the door to the donation area, then quickly priced and pushed into another room to await placement in the retail area of the store.
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Darlene Gatchell was busy sorting and pricing linens in the bargain center basement.
Some things—clothes, fabrics, linens, holiday items and books and audio-visual materials—go downstairs for further processing. There, workers sort and price the holiday items, which are placed in separate storage areas until the holiday in question rolls around.
The books and related items are sorted and priced, almost all of them by Victoria Strong, who has worked at the West End bargain center since it opened in 2005. There, too, some things can’t be sold, including books inappropriate for a store with a Christian mission and children’s books published before 1985, because of the possible use of lead in the ink.
The store doesn’t accept donations of encyclopedia sets or Reader’s Digest condensed books because there are too many of them in the world and they don’t sell.
In addition, Strong says, “Five years ago we sold dictionaries. Now we can’t give them away because of the Internet.”
“Some things there are too many of,” she adds. “Everyone’s read ‘Dragon Tattoo.’” (Admission: Your Last Best News correspondent has not.)
Strong says some of the rejected books can be sold to bulk buyers but many are thrown out or set aside for recycling.
A lot of clothing is recycled, too, stored in garbage bags in the basement until it can be baled and sent out for recycling. Gary Drake, formerly the MRM director and now in charge of special projects, said most of the clothing is made into rags. Leather shoes are used to make bonded leather.
A list in the basement describes clothes that are to be set aside for baling. They include garments with broken zippers, missing buttons, stains, bad odors and frayed edges, and clothing containing hair or lint. In the way of linens, bed sheets with small corner pockets are baled because most mattresses nowadays are too large for them.
Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Among donations dropped off at the bargain center on Tuesday was a colorful painting of a bird.
Smith said the store had washing machines many years ago, but now the volume of clothing that comes in is too enormous to think of washing anything.
“If we had a washing machine,” says Darlene Gatchell, who was busy sorting linens, “we’d probably have to buy a new one after a year and we’d have to hire two people to run it.”
(Public service announcement No. 2: If you buy clothing at a thrift shop, wash it before you wear it. And you probably shouldn’t try on hats.)
Workers in the basement sort the clothing, smooth it out, fold it or put it on hangars and price each item. Sisyphus eternally pushed a boulder up a mountain; the downstairs sorters perpetually chip away at a mountain of clothing that never gets smaller.
A conveyor belt brings goods into the basement from the receiving room on the ground floor. Stuff that makes the cut goes into bins that snake through the basement on a conveyor with steel rollers, then up a conveyor belt at the far side of the basement and back to the ground floor.
It’s a lot of work and it gets done by a staff of 15 employees, some of them part-time, and some volunteers. Smith said the volunteers come from area schools and churches, and sometimes families come in to help.
No records are kept on how many items are taken in or sold, but Drake said profits from the thrift stores—there is also an MRM bargain center in the Heights—make up 25 to 30 percent of the MRM’s total revenues. In 2014, the most recent year for which federal tax reports are available, total revenues came to slightly more than $3.8 million.
That represents a lot of stuff.
The West End store has a total of 24,578 square feet on two floors, of which 14,500 square feet are used for retail, which gives you another idea of how much space is needed to process donations. The Heights store has 22,902 square feet on one floor, with 15,500 feet devoted to retail. That store takes in and processes its own donations.
Pilon, the worker who has been at the West End store for three years, says one of the strangest donations he ever took in was a skillet.
“It looked like they fried eggs,” he says. “It was an iron pan that was still hot.”
Fortunately for the Mission, it was a Griswold, described by Pilon as “the Cadillac of cast-iron frying pans.” It sold almost immediately, for $70.
Some people, Pilon says, “are emotionally attached to some of their stuff. One lady who made a donation asked to be left alone with her stuff for 15 minutes.” As he recalls, the items consisted of some clothing and a pair of shoes, and it was the shoes she was really going to miss.
When the 15 minutes were up, Pilon says, he went to where the woman was and found her crying.