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Archive for Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Social Service League Thrift Store serves as city’s hidden gift shop

December 22, 2012

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Thank goodness Kansas is the Sunflower State rather than the Tulip State or some other less-endowed species of flora.

Jean Ann Pike, manager of the Social Service League Thrift Store, 905 Rhode Island St., organizes items Wednesday at the store. Lawrence’s counterweight to the big-box store, the thrift store not only has an eclectic stock of cheaply priced items for sale but also works with social service agencies to provide clothes and household items to the poor.

Jean Ann Pike, manager of the Social Service League Thrift Store, 905 Rhode Island St., organizes items Wednesday at the store. Lawrence’s counterweight to the big-box store, the thrift store not only has an eclectic stock of cheaply priced items for sale but also works with social service agencies to provide clothes and household items to the poor.

Ian Schneck, 18, of Lawrence, sorts through a box of toys Wednesday at the Social Service League Thrift Store. All items in the store are donations from community members.

Ian Schneck, 18, of Lawrence, sorts through a box of toys Wednesday at the Social Service League Thrift Store. All items in the store are donations from community members.

You see, in the window of the Social Service League Thrift Store, 905 Rhode Island St., there’s a large poster board of two gorillas standing proud. But it is a sunflower that is the really important part of the scene. A strategically placed expansive sunflower is pasted on the poster board to cover the male gorilla’s midsection.

“It started out as a shade to screen the sun,” Jean Ann Pike, the manager and lone employee of the thrift store, says of her pet gorillas. “But I keep them up there because they’re fun.”

They also are a reminder of just what type of place

shoppers have stumbled upon here. In a nutshell, it is Lawrence’s counterweight to the big-box store shopping experience.

“I don’t see the challenge in those other stores,” Pike says. “Anybody can walk in there and buy what everybody else is buying. Where is the fun in that?”

There’s no question, though, which end of the spectrum Lawrence is more weighted toward these days. On Black Friday, there were no lines out the door at the thrift shop. There won’t be a barrage of shoppers lining up for after-Christmas deals either. In fact, most Lawrence holiday shoppers won’t ever set foot in the store.

But don’t kid yourself: Business is booming here. The Social Service League, which has roots dating back to 1863 in Lawrence, provides vouchers to various social service agencies that serve the poor. Each voucher entitles a shopper to fill a bag with clothes or household items.

On this day, by about 1:30 p.m., shoppers have redeemed 24 vouchers.

“There were times that it would be 24 in a week,” Pike says. “But the need is really high now.”

Shoppers wander through what could be called a maze of merchandise. Half the store is in an old 1890s stone house. Old bedrooms, a dining room or a kitchen are now retail departments for books or toys or some other grouping of products.

The second half of the store is a concrete-block building where you can find all sorts of items, such as clothing, shoes and coats — the last of which you may want to buy if you stay for very long. The old building captures the chill of a Kansas morning and doesn’t let it go. That’s in large part because Pike believes in a light hand with the store’s thermostat, creating a frugality that seems to fit the place.

“I came down here to buy a curtain rod about a week after moving to town,” Pike recalls of her first visit to the store in the late 1990s. “I just looked around and said, ‘these people get it. They really understand poverty.’”

Pike started volunteering right away and became an employee and manager in 2000.

Now, she is also a chief shopping strategist. She frequently tells shoppers to not just skim the top of the boxes. Dig in there. Every box is like Christmas, she says. There’s no telling what may be in a box. Sometimes store employees take a vow not to mention what they found in a box; other times, they’re not sure what it is.

All items in the store are donations from community members, most of whom drive up to the back alley and unload under the watchful eyes of the gorillas and a security system that seems to amount to a series of signs that remind people the store helps the needy and that stealing from it will produce “really bad karma.”

Why anyone would steal from here is tough to figure. Most every item is $1 or $2, but a price tag seldom stands in the way of people leaving the store with the necessities they need. Maybe there is something to the karma concept because it all seems to work out.

“You would be amazed at how many people pay more than what we’re asking because they know it helps,” Pike says.

All the proceeds of the store go to keep the store and its voucher program afloat, or else they go to the Social Service League’s vision fund, which pays for eye exams and glasses for those in need.

In a way, it is the poor helping the poor here. Donations come from all walks of life, but Pike notes the giving spirit of the less fortunate.

“It is amazing how many people who don’t have anything are willing to share what they have,” Pike says.

Pike, though, says she also could point to bankers and lawyers and other professionals who are regular shoppers of the store because they understand the value of a good deal.

Indeed, the store attracts all types — like this young man who seems to be gathering a collection of dress slacks, suit jackets and other finery.

When he sees Pike, he stops and gives her a hug.

“I’m getting married today,” he says.

“Well then, give me a real hug,” Pike says.

He does and then goes about spending his big day searching for the next surprise in a box of merchandise.

“I get to know people and be a part of their lives,” Pike says. “That’s the best part.”

That’s tough service to find at a big-box store. But of course, this isn’t a big-box store. This is Lawrence’s hidden gift shop, where soon enough people discover the most valuable gifts are the ones you can’t buy.

Thankfully, that includes the gorilla’s sunflower.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at clawhorn@ljworld.com.

Comments

Richard Heckler 1 year, 9 months ago

A wonderful place to donate excess baggage which most of us have plenty of .....

2

twinetowngirl 1 year, 9 months ago

I have never even heard of this place! Seems like a brilliant idea to donate your stuff to them vs. Goodwill where the CEO's make 100k a yr.

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Anydaynow 1 year, 9 months ago

My grandmother moved to Lawrence in the early 1970's and became a steady customer there after walking from 9th & Maine about once a week. She bought very nice clothes for my children. I didn't suppose it was still there. Good for them since the economy is so dense.

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irvan moore 1 year, 9 months ago

and please remember when KT was there before Jean Ann, it's been a great place for years

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lawdog 1 year, 9 months ago

Jean Ann is a wonderful person and she certainly has been doing an awesome job!

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christine45 1 year, 9 months ago

I agree Jean Ann is a wonderful person. We run a similar venue in Eudora Kansas called His Hands Clothing CLoset. I started this venue to help Eudora and surrounding areas from our own home in the basement. I started this venue in oct of 2009, and was then only getting items free from craigslist and freecylce, daily, sometimes 6+ times a day our vehicle was driven and loaded to the max to bring it back to help locals make ends meet in todays tough economy, we have helped countless from all over the map to date. We recently in June of 2012 renovated a bldg built in 1890 to open up as a thrift store, since we dont get any kind of local funding we need to keep up what we do to help many. We love helping foster parents, grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, single parents, etc. ANyone could use and appreciate a great bargain. I wish folks would appreciate what we do more, truly it goes unnoticed for the most part. We give all our overage to countless agencies, from SOcial Services League, to Penn House, to Pregnancy Care Center of Lawrence, to the School Districts Closets in Douglas COunty, and beyond, we help families who have lost it all in fires, etc. We are different in we are a mom and pop shop, almost all we do is done by our own family, from keeping the budget to running this non profit it is mostly done either by myself or my family. It can be all consuming but we are rewarded by the knowledge that so many love the savings we provide and the mission we stand for that is simple to help others. Keeping it local, and doing our best to keep decent items from the landfill is what we do each day. Using great quality donations to help others is what we are about. You dont have to be in a shiny bldg with doorbuster specials to lure them in, sometimes it is the little things that count. We LOVE douglas county and proud to be a part, even if very small. Working in conjunction to reach out to those who feel as if they have been forgotten. They will never be forgotten by us! His Hands Clothing Thrift Store, located in downtown Eudora Kansas. also on facebook.

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irvan moore 1 year, 9 months ago

yep, i think that we have been fortunate to have the folks running that place we do, does anybody remember who was there before KT? KT and Jean Ann are the two wonderfull people i remember there but i don't know the history and when it opened and who ran it from the start

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PhilChiles 1 year, 9 months ago

If you're feeling extra generous next time you're in the area, you can always buy their volunteers some coffee or some food...I'm know they'd appreciate it. In college I worked at a Goodwill and was astonished at how wasteful they were with donations; the stuff they threw away could supply a place like the League with a lot of quality merchandise. I've found the League to be much more efficient with how they use their donations, so I try to donate there instead.

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Katara 1 year, 9 months ago

I've been donating for years to Goodwill and have never known what SSL accepts. Now that I know, I'm going to donate to SSL instead. I much prefer something more direct and local.

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PhilChiles 1 year, 9 months ago

The problem at larger thrift stores is that the management, and many of the employees, have no real interest in dealing with used merchandise. It's just a job, and there are absolutely no consequences for being wasteful; no pressure to understand their customers. As a consequence, huge amounts of donations are thrown away or recycled, instead of being put out for sale. People donate a lot of junk, to be sure, but places like the League actually try to make the most of what they receive.

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kernal 1 year, 9 months ago

Beatnik, The Social Service League building was Lawrence's first hospital. Don't remember if it became the Social Service League before or after 1900. I bet KT or Jean Anne know.

Think the oldest surviving house in Lawrence is also in the same block at 10th & Rhode Island.

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