ST. PETERSBURG — The prices are amazingly low — books for as little as a quarter, china for 10 cents, shoes from a buck to $2.50.
A visitor to the SouthSide Thrift Store at 201 22nd St. S may wonder how this business in a cavernous warehouse will survive. Owners Steve and Paula DuCharme say the month-old store is not trying hard to make money.
The reason is behind the double doors in the back of the former piano store, where workers are busily compacting used clothes into mammoth bales and packaging books and electronics by the shipping pallet at Suncoast Textile Recycling.
In a world increasingly focused on recycling, the DuCharmes have honed a niche. They buy surplus from thrift stores and charities in 13 Florida counties, then ship it to foreign countries for a tidy profit. They say they are driven as much by business sense as a desire to help the needy and keep stuff out of landfills.
Through distributors, they send shoes, clothes, belts and purses to Australia, Haiti, Honduras, the former Soviet Union, New Zealand, Pakistan and other nations.
"Haiti is very big on tennis shoes," said Steve DuCharme, 56, who worked as a retail warehouse supervisor for a national company until he was laid off several years ago.
Paula DuCharme, 57, worked as executive assistant to Pat Gerard, chief operating officer of Pinellas Park-based Family Resources Inc. Gerard is also the mayor of Largo.
The DuCharmes came here from Vermont 16 years ago and live in St. Petersburg. Their son, Eric, 31, is an officer in the company.
While they are not the only textile recycling business owners in Florida, the DuCharmes are turning out to be a local force. They have grown continuously since starting up in 2006, when they began with just one box truck and a few accounts. Today they have eight box trucks, 16 employees and about 150 partnerships with not-for-profit and for-profit agencies.
They pay by the pound. Clothing, for instance, is bought for 5 cents a pound and resold overseas, sometimes for up to twice that much. Some agencies give two big bags a week. Some fill up a truck every time. Not surprisingly, the loads increase right after the tourist season winds down.
From January through May, they took in nearly 2 million pounds of clothes, 140,000 pounds of shoes, 175,000 pounds of books, 33,000 pounds of electronics and 2,000 cell phones, paying out more than $200,000 to their partners, they said. Those numbers are nearly double from last year.
They send three truckloads of books a week to a Clearwater-based distribution firm that puts them on Amazon.com. They send electronics to a Tampa business that recycles them, and cell phones go to a Kentucky outfit to be refurbished.
The thrift store, which is advertised to local social service agencies and is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, is stocked by an employee who skims through the mounds of items.
"If I can sell a book for 10 cents that can let a child read, I'll do that first," Paula DuCharme said. "That and a stuffed animal."
The DuCharmes have also created a donation box program for agencies to begin receiving outdoor collection boxes and, later, a monthly check for whatever ends up in them.
George N. Bolden Jr., director of development for the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, said he chose to work with the DuCharmes because of their commitment to sharing profits.
"They are the only ones that form a partnership with nonprofits, so they can benefit from the collection of these items as well," Bolden said. "It's a win-win-win for everybody."
The DuCharmes are also tinkering with recycling plastics. They recently bought a $5,000 machine on eBay to get started.
"I think we're pretty lucky to be in the position that we are," said Steve DuCharme, "and I'm just happy to keep going."
Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2271.