CLEARWATER — The manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store wasn't sure how business would fare after the store moved from Cleveland Street downtown to a new location off U.S. 19.
Now he knows. Four months after the grand opening, people are driving from all over to donate items and shop.
"We thought we'd be closed for two weeks and were closed for six after the move," said Steve Girardi. "It was like starting from scratch. Every day people pop in and say they didn't know we were here. We're here, and whatever we make goes to charity."
Girardi talks about the diversity of the neighborhoods near the new store and how different that is than it was downtown. What isn't different is the average of 25 referrals a month the store gets from local churches asking for furniture. What people mostly need are beds, dinette sets and kitchen tables. Girardi said they don't get enough furniture donated to keep up with requests.
"We donate a lot through the churches," said Girardi. "We have St. Vincent de Paul conferences at seven different North Pinellas churches, and people go to them for clothing, furniture and help with utility bills. They send referrals to us for furniture. We don't sell used beds, but if they're in good shape, we donate them."
St. Vincent takes in and donates plenty of other items, like sofas and clothing. It seems that people find it easier to donate items to the thrift store in the new location.
"People weren't driving from Safety Harbor to downtown Clearwater to drop off a bag of clothes," said Girardi. "Now they drive by and drop stuff off."
The influx of items keeps the employees, who all made the move from the downtown location, busy. Volunteers, too. They come mostly from local churches and help bring in and sort donations.
"They're all great and take an active interest in the store," Girardi said. "Yesterday, I attended a funeral of a woman who volunteered with the thrift store for more than 20 years. We were here less than four months and she was back helping out until she got sick. She was in her 90s."
Perhaps because everyone knows that profits go to the needy, the store has a certain warmth. Customers walk in and are greeted by a friendly hello. Volunteers, employees and Girardi himself take extra care so items are clean, pleasingly displayed and presented as if shoppers had walked into any other retail store.
"We're getting newer stuff than we did, and this is a lot closer for us," said Mel Hartman of Clearwater, a volunteer and president of the St. Vincent de Paul Conference of St. Michael's Parish. The group brings in items from St. Vincent de Paul satellite offices, where hundreds of Catholic churches and other churches around town drop off items for them to sell, Hartman said. "The new store is nice, smaller and more compact."
The building used to be an ABC Liquor Store. Two rooms near the rear of the store, lined in cedar, were used to store wine and cigars. Now one is stocked with shoes. The other has cedar shelves filled with books and the ambience of a small library.
"We get quality donations," said Girardi. "We charge a fraction of what it originally costs — sport coats for $5 and pants for $3. We weed clothing out carefully and steam it all to get any wrinkles out. We do separate some of the stuff into a boutique area."
But generally, they keep clothing inexpensive.
"We want people to come buy it, and we need to move it. We don't have the storage space here that we had downtown."
Downtown, St. Vincent had about 10,000 more square feet of warehouse space for storage and sorting. Yet the new shopping space up front feels open and airy, with room to peruse the racks of clothing, shelves of dishes, children's toy area and housewares. Behind glass cases stand delicate religious statues and, in others, jewelry.
While the old building downtown needed repairs, that wasn't the main reason for the move. The store relocated because the city of Clearwater bought the downtown thrift store property to add to its large Prospect Lake development site.
"Moving to a new location was like starting a new business," Girardi said. "In terms of money and business, after four months we're doing incredibly close to what we'd done on Cleveland Street.
"But of course, we can always use more customers."
Correspondent Theodora Aggeles can be reached at [email protected]