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Deep in Debt, One Pennsylvania Humane Society Gets Thrifty

The board wasn't convinced, but LeRoy Stearns believed a thrift store could help get the Crawford County Humane Society out of its financial woes. He believed it so much, in fact, that he invested thousands of dollars in personal savings into the venture.

The board wasn't convinced, but LeRoy Stearns believed a thrift store could help get the Crawford County Humane Society out of its financial woes. He believed it so much, in fact, that he invested thousands of dollars in personal savings into the venture.

What It Is...

The Second Chance Thrift Store in Meadville, Pennsylvania, is certainly cleaner and better-looking than many thrift stores in America: The walls are bright white, the trim a cheerful purple and green, the goods well-organized. And the storefront flutters with colorful flags.

Aside from its unusually cute and clean appearance, though, you could mix up the store with any number of excellent secondhand shops: It sells clothes, shoes, and furniture; it takes donations of goods from the community; it brings in money that goes to a worthy cause.

But how many thrift store employees can say that the place where they work is single-handedly responsible for the continued existence of a community’s animal shelter?

Why They Did It...

In 2000, LeRoy Stearns, president and executive director of the Crawford County Humane Society, was in a real bind. The organization was in serious danger of going under, having racked up $250,000 worth of debt, and the board was discussing what to do. Many thought the organization would have to shut down, and few thought that Stearns’ idea of starting a thrift store would do anything but become a further financial burden. “We’d already had rummage sales, many times,” says Stearns. “They’d net maybe $1,000 and ended up not being worth the time and expense.” Many board members feared that a thrift store would be a bigger version of the same.

But Stearns did his research, visiting thrift stores as far away as Colorado and Florida to get an idea of how other shelters had made the idea work for them. He studied all their methods—everything from pricing merchandise to setting up attractive displays to managing donated goods. He finally found another model even closer to home: the thrift store of the Cumberland SPCA in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. From its staff Stearns was able to get some advice on starting up, including helpful tips on what licenses he’d need in order to set up the business relationship between the thrift shop and the animal shelter.

Believing it could work, Stearns took a risk: He used $25,000 of his own money to get the store started up. “I told [the board], ‘I’ll financially back the thrift store, and if it fails, then that’s my donation to the humane society,’ ” says Stearns.

How They Did It...

As a member of the town council, Stearns knew of retail space that was going to open up, and the owner of the property gave the group an excellent deal: He allowed them to sign a short three-month lease so that if the venture didn’t look like it was going to work, the humane society could vacate quickly. With a good deal on display racks and other merchandising equipment from an Ames store that was going out of business, the Second Chance Thrift Store started setting up in the space—right on the main drag in Meadville, a five-block walk from Allegheny College—and was open for business two weeks later. “The staff and I spent a lot of hours there getting the place ready,” says Stearns.

There were some hitches along the way, he notes. For any organization considering setting up a thrift store, Stearns has one major piece of advice on what not to do: Don’t rely on volunteers to run the store. The store had problems at first with good items disappearing sometime between donation and being put out on the selling floor. Some of the items were being stolen, but others were just being snapped up by bargain-savvy volunteers before the public got to see them.

Staff and volunteers want first pick of the donated merchandise, says Stearns, but that creates inventory issues: not enough good items for sale, and therefore not enough motivation for the community to come in to shop. The store now has a rule that items must be out for display for two days before employees are allowed to purchase them. And there’s more accountability, Stearns says, for paid staff to make sure things are being done right. The store still uses volunteers for other aspects of the work; volunteers clean, dust, and even go in as secret shoppers to keep track of how they’re treated and how the store looks and smells.

“The most important people in the store are the sorters,” says Stearns, “because they decide what merchandise goes out for sale and they make sure your racks aren’t full of stained clothes.”

The stained-clothes phenomenon occurs most often in the summer, when people tend to dump the unsold leftovers from yard sales at the store, he says. Staff now ask people with a large number of items to schedule an appointment; employees then go out and handpick from the items the donor wants to give. “I want 100 percent of the profits to go to the animals, not to the garbage,” says Stearns.

What It's Done...

Stearns and his staff keep the store looking and smelling clean, and a computer allows customers to browse for adoptable pets while browsing for clothes.
After two years in business, it’s clear that the thrift store is a hit in Meadville. The store has free, fresh popcorn for shoppers every Thursday—something that always increases the profits those days—and employees dress up for Halloween and Valentine’s Day. And the staff take every opportunity to remind shoppers where the money is going, making the connection between the store and the shelter clear through signs and through a computer where browsers can peek at the shelter’s adoptable animals. Some of the students from the college who’ve come in to shop have ended up helping with the shelter’s dog training programs, too.

All the promotions serve as reminders to people that the Crawford County Humane Society is part of the community— reminders not lost on the clothing store owner who gave the store a bunch of brand new clothes because he thought the cause was great and the shop looked as classy as his own; or on the donor who came in and gave the store $20,000 because she thought what they were doing was so great for the shelter and the community. “We get compliments every day,” says Stearns. “We have a multimillionaire who lives in Meadville who comes in to shop at our thrift store—I think that really says something, when you have the ‘upper crust’ shopping. I never imagined it would be this way.”

Most importantly, though, after two years in business the thrift store brings in about $400,000 a year—$280,000 of which is profit that goes directly to the shelter. Stearns made back his personal investment in three months, and the board members who were so skeptical threw a party for him and the rest of the store staff when it became clear the venture was truly going to save the animal shelter. If all goes according to plan, the shelter will be debt-free by the end of this year—a fact that tickles Stearns to no end. “The accountant called after a month and said, ‘What are you doing at that store?’” Stearns recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, whatever it is, keep it up!’ ”

It all boils down to selling good items for a good cause—and making sure the store is pleasant and fun to be in, he says. And not only has the risky venture saved the Crawford County Humane Society, but he’s starting to get calls from other humane societies interested in starting thrift stores of their own. He’s sent information to a shelter in Idaho and several other places— repaying the kindnesses and guidance he received when he first thought a thrift store might be just the way to go. “I’m delighted to do it,” he says. “In my experience, what you give to the world you get back, 100 percent.”


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