On the surface it looks like an ordinary thrift store. But the gently used clothes, secondhand books and household doodads for sale at Dollars for Scholars Thrift Store are serving another purpose: higher education.
Since opening in June in a cinder block building owned by St. Petersburg College, the bargain store has counted profits of about $30,000. Of that, $25,000 will soon be distributed to needy students, said Michelle Piccione, a college alumni association board member who founded the store.
As a nonprofit organization tied to the national organization Scholarship America, the thrift store has little overhead. The building is provided by the college. Piccione and other staff take no salaries.
They do pay several students about $9 an hour to operate the business as part of their degree training. One of them is Leja Apple, a 19-year-old senior who manages the store, which is adjacent to the Caruth Health Education Center. Several high school students also work there as volunteers.
Piccione, a former president of the alumni association, said the idea for the store came about after college president Carl M. Kuttler Jr. challenged the board to come up with ways to raise money.
A retired businesswoman, Piccione had already been studying the thrift store model. She was amazed that other nonprofit thrift stores were bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
In three months, the thrift store model has provided more money for scholarships than the alumni association has ever raised, Piccione said. Scholarship America, which has 1,200 charter clubs around the country, some operating thrift stores, provided support.
"The hope and dream is to make this a really wonderful foundation for education," she said.
There are other bargain stores in the area, Piccione noted, including the Salvation Army and the PARC Senior Center. But the Dollars for Scholars store is unique.
Among the bargain hunters, students can be found perusing the used textbooks donated by professors. On a recent Wednesday, a speech instructor with two master's degrees, Rebecca Strongbow, was volunteering behind the cash register.
"For $10 you can get a suit to wear to a job interview, and I can give you advice about how to put your best foot forward," Strongbow said.
Through its vast alumni network, the store has received donations from unexpected quarters. A theater group that was retiring dropped off several boxes of costumes, some of which were placed on a Halloween rack. A local Harley-Davidson dealer recently dropped off leather jackets, helmets, chaps and other motorcycle gear (it's all gone now).
Applications for the scholarships, which can be used for textbooks, tuition and other costs, will be available through the store, the college and the alumni association later this month.
Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2271.