In one corner of the store, a 6-year-old boy looked at toys. Across from him, an old woman browsed through a collection of used books. Nearby, a young mother held up tiny baby clothes and carefully eyed her selections for size. In the same room, two female college students checked out vintage jeans.
It was Tuesday afternoon at the Social Service League Thrift Store, but it could have been any day. Every day, between 95 and 140 customers, a cross section of people from every walk of life, pass through the store. The diversity of the customers reflects the diversity of the organization itself.
John Naramore, president of the board of directors for the Social Service League, said that the organization's strength was its wide range of services for a wide range of people.
"It's a real feel-good organization," Naramore said. "We provide everything from companionship to information to goods and services."
The organization's most obvious service is operating the thrift store, a house with a large sign at 905 R.I. At the thrift store, donated clothes, shoes, furniture, home appliances, books and other assorted items are sold at relatively low prices. For example, this month's special offers shoppers all they can fit into a brown paper grocery bag for $1.50.
While it would seem that the items in the store were practically being given away, store manager K.T. Walsh said there was a big difference between charging money, even a small amount, and giving handouts.
"When people buy something for themselves, there is a lot of pride involved," Walsh said. "Spending their own money gives people dignity."
The low prices at the thrift store help maintain a balance that allows customers to pay their own way, Walsh said, yet still make ends meet.
"It's hard, because you want them to be able to pay, but you don't want to take their last meal," Walsh said. "We try to ease the burden."
Profits from the thrift store go directly to the Social Service League's two main projects: the shoe fund and the eye exam fund. The shoe fund enables Douglas County children from low-income families to receive coupons for a pair of new shoes at a Payless shoe store. The eye exam fund is a cooperative effort between the Social Service League and local doctors to give children free eye examinations.
The shoe fund and eye exam fund are the current projects of the organization, but new programs are always under consideration.
The board of directors is evaluating ideas for new programs, including a dental care program and an extension of the eye exam program that would provide eyeglasses for children.
Basically, the Social Service League's purpose is to address any community need that is not being addressed, Naramore said.
The league, Lawrence's oldest social service organization, was founded in 1882. It was created to address the needs of the Lawrence community, including everything from burying dead bodies from Quantrill's raid to creating the city's first integrated hospital, which became Lawrence Memorial Hospital. While the thrift store became the organization's primary focus in 1911, there continues to be an emphasis on responding to whatever the community needs.
"We need to be relevant," Naramore said. "We have to continue to meet the needs of the public."
Volunteers are instrumental in helping the organization meet these needs, Walsh said. The volunteers -- who sort through donations, wait on people at the store, and keep the store neat and orderly -- are crucial to the organization, Walsh said. She said that many of the volunteers at the thrift store were former customers who saw a need for help and came in to answer the call.
John Kirkpatrick, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for six months, finds time to volunteer at the Social Service League Thrift Store despite having two other jobs. He said being a volunteer is helping him enjoy being sober.
"Working here is more or less like therapy for me," Kirkpatrick said. "It keeps me busy. It keeps me happy. It keeps me in contact with a lot of people."
He said that going through hard times himself helped him identify better with some of the customers and created an understanding between himself and the customers.
"The customers here give me respect, and I give them respect," Kirkpatrick said.
It is that kind of place.
"One of the great things about the store, besides the obvious service it provides, is that there is no stigma or judgments placed on anyone who goes there," Naramore said.