Ever since the Salvation Army’s “salvage brigade” was launched in 1897, with scavengers of used clothes receiving lodging and food, religion has played a leading role in the re-use industry. Historian Jennifer Le Zotte has detailed this connection in her 2017 book, From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies.
Another of the nation’s large thrift store operation, Goodwill, started when a Methodist minister hired the poor to collect goods for sale. Of the 25,000 resale shops in the U.S., the Census Bureau estimates that half are nonprofits with some religious affiliation.
Le Zotte, who teaches history and humanities at the University of Nevada-Reno, describes how the thrift industry moved from pushcarts to department store-like venues in the 1920s. Dropping the words “junk shop” and focusing on “thrift” allowed shoppers to feel better about themselves, Le Zotte found. When the thrift industry began in the U.S., nearly all the religion-based shops offered services to nearby residents who needed help.
The social-service component remains strong, even as thrift stores get new attention in the $15 billion fashion re-use industry. A multi-store thrift chain we visited recently in Florida began its operations in 1987 when parishioners began bringing food to homeless people they found living in a wooded area in affluent Naples.
The original St. Matthew’s House thrift shop now has expanded to six locations in southwest Florida, raising money for housing for the homeless and food for the needy. The chain also runs a drug and alcohol recovery program, a jail chaplain service, a catering company, car wash and detailing operation and a conference center. It dispatches ten trucks to pick up donations in 12 Southwest Florida cities.
The Bonita Springs, FL, outlet is typical, containing clothing, jewelry, furniture, housewares, and sporting equipment. Also typical for many religious thrift stores is the Christian music playing throughout the shop.
We found great prices on cold-weather gear (always a smart buy in Florida), such as $5.95 boy’s camo snow overalls and a $3.95 Betsey Johnson hot pink sweater.
Pricing was erratic — $10.95 for a silk striped Coldwater Creek long-sleeved blouse and just $1.95 for a pristine pair of L.L. Bean pair of shorts with multiple pockets.
A purple ruched top that’s ideal for travel — never needs ironing — was another find we snagged, for $3.95.
A red-tag 40 percent off sale was going on and we snagged a new-with-tags Sherpa To Go Bag pet carrier with a sheep’s wool insert for $15.55. The carriers cost $42 new.
Frequent shoppers also get points that translate into dollars off future purchases.
Le Zotte’s research holds true. We felt fine about our purchases because we knew that we were re-using well-made items and helping to provide needed services.
St. Matthew’s House of Treasures, 25091 Bernwood Dr., Bonita Springs, FL 34112. 239-495-0159. https://stmatthewshouse.org/how-we-do-it/thrift-stores/thift-storesdonate-goods/ Open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.