Come Wednesday afternoons, the Fox Branch Library in Arlington, Mass., is the place to be. Mothers and children fill the lobby, but not for books or story hour—at 4 p.m., the basement door opens and it’s all about the PTO Thrift Shop.
“They come rushing down....It’s remarkable really to us, the popularity,” says Sara Billingsley, one of five women who founded the nonprofit shop to support Arlington’s nine PTOs. The rush for $2 bowls, $3 shirts, and other goods has led to $112,000 raised over the past four years, all of which has been distributed to the parent groups.
As former PTO members and officers, the store founders are thrilled to help the schools. But after years of friction over school building decisions, the women feel it’s just as important that their town of 43,000 has a steady fundraiser benefiting every school equally. “All the schools can come together, work together toward a goal,” says cofounder Mary Ellen De Natale.
Starting From Scratch
De Natale and Billingsley opened the thrift shop in the library basement in 2004 with fellow PTO volunteers Judy Hoer, Irena Rasin, and Toni Langerman. Rasin kicked the idea into motion when she met De Natale at a parent group meeting in summer 2000 and asked whether there was a local PTO thrift shop. Before her move to Arlington, Rasin had frequented the two PTA Thrift Shop stores supporting Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina and had been hoping to find similar bargains.
Arlington didn’t have one, but De Natale liked the idea and got solid backers in Hoer, Billingsley, and Langerman. It gained strength as the women realized they could aid their schools while also helping the community as a whole reduce waste and buy quality used goods at affordable prices. The group carefully studied the PTA Thrift Shop, which dates back to 1952, as well as several smaller stores, then presented their research to the various individual school PTOs and the superintendent.
The five founders knew the challenges. Many ambitious parent groups have considered the thrift shop idea after hearing members complain about how fast children outgrow clothing. But few PTOs succeed in opening stores, and many that do open don’t last long. Volunteer groups have a hard time finding affordable rents for spaces large enough to handle bulky items like sofas and multiple racks of clothing.
De Natale, Billingsley, and the others decided to test the idea first with a community yard sale in September 2003. By gathering donations from parents all over town, they made $4,500 with a three-hour sale on the high school lawn.
“We learned...this could be big,” De Natale says. “This could really work.”
The yard sale proved more than just a test; it also spread the word about the group’s plans beyond the school community. A town official stepped forward and offered them a basement meeting room at the Arlington Public Library branch location; the monthly $120 rent he set sweetened the deal.
They took the room, but they had doubts. The space was small and had no elevator access, meaning no large goods like couches or bookcases. Plus, it was hidden from street traffic.
“I thought people wouldn’t be able to find us,” De Natale remembers. “But it’s been great.”
‘A Gathering Place’
Despite its name, the PTO Thrift Shop is an independent tax-exempt organization not affiliated with the town’s school parent groups. The money it makes is divided equally among the PTOs at Arlington’s seven elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, and the groups decide individually how to spend it.
The shop reached a new high in 2007, making $50,000 in profit—about 45 percent of its overall four-year earnings. That amount is even more impressive considering the store’s business hours: about seven and a half hours a week and one Saturday afternoon a month. It’s also closed to customers 12 weeks a year.
Amy West, cotreasurer of the PTO at Thompson Elementary, says her school appreciates the extra $3,000 to $5,000 a year from the thrift shop. “That’s huge for us,” she says. “We do a lot, but the thrift shop money really helps us out a lot.” The sum pays for extracurricular activities like science and photography clubs for her school’s students, who come from some of Arlington’s most struggling and underprivileged families.
The store founders hope to post another strong year even though two of them have moved on. De Natale, Hoer, and Billingsley remain in charge with a steady roster of 12 volunteers; they say their work is too important to stop now.
“I’m 55, and it’s the first time I’ve done something I love doing so much,” Hoer says. “People like donating and people like buying. I like making people happy, and the money goes to the schools. Everybody wins.”
Others in Arlington say it’s now about more than enrichment programs and parents from different districts supporting education together, although those goals remain important. The town’s social services agency refers needy citizens to the store, sometimes saving them the trip to nearby Boston’s charitable agencies and thrift shops. Then there are the senior citizens and teens who join PTO members in volunteering and scouting out deals. “It’s a real kind of gathering place,” says Amy Cohen, president of Arlington’s townwide PTO. “We see some of the regular people who meet here and go out for dinner afterwards. It’s nice.”
The women believe they have proved the store’s value, but they face some questions going forward. The shop is at a crossroads. It outgrew its space long ago; clothing racks now occupy most the basement floor, and the crowds just keep getting larger.
They are also mindful of avoiding burnout. Business hours are limited, but even with 12 volunteers, the founders each spend 30 hours a week working the register and sorting donations. “For those of us who started this thing, it’s our baby,” De Natale says. “We work really long hours sometimes, and we want it to work. We want it to succeed.”
Still, with busy family lives of their own, they know the time will come when they’ll each need to cut back. Before that happens, they’d like to work out a system for volunteers to serve one-year terms managing the shop or decide whether the shop needs to hire paid help.
At least one thing is certain, however: They are determined to keep the store open, for the schools and the shoppers. “There are really some people who are struggling financially,” Billingsley says, “and we know they really appreciate being able to get good-quality clothing or a gift at Christmas.”
Thrift Shop Success Tips
Start small. The Arlington PTO Thrift Shop’s founders originally wanted to lease a large, highly visible streetfront location but ended up with a small library basement meeting room. They had low rent, which meant they began making a profit almost immediately.
Tap other community groups. Parents may get overwhelmed at the idea of volunteering on a weekly or biweekly basis. So partner with high school seniors who have community service requirements for graduation or retirees who want to stay active. This helps the store sustain volunteers, and parents can feel comfortable stepping back when family schedules change.
Try a yard sale. Not all PTOs can find the right rent or commit the time to running a full-scale thrift shop. But groups can still help their schools with yard sales or low-cost prom dress sales.
Limit donations. Groups that do start stores may want to limit donation drop-offs to times when they are on-site or open for business. Otherwise, the process may turn into sorting through trash and unwashed clothing. Be clear about what items your store will accept.
Stay visible. Even if the location is less than obvious, there are ways to keep the store visible to the greater community. In Arlington, the founders write weekly columns for a newspaper available free at local businesses. They also share information about new merchandise and donations to the schools.