Thrifty gifting

Customers shop in the home goods area of the Rivers Avenue Goodwill.

On a recent day, Barbara Calaman stood peering into the branches of a fake Christmas tree laden with vintage balls and pendants, miniature angels and wreaths. She was hunting for ornaments to gift her children and grandchildren at Christmas, a tradition she established a few holidays ago.

But, she said searchingly, they have to be just right — something individual. Special. Unique.

No better place to come than the ReTail Store on Savannah Highway, a thrift shop whose very purpose is to cull the best from the discarded and donated, the old and the gently used, and return it to the world to be enjoyed by someone else, perhaps somewhere new.

Visiting from Pennsylvania, Calaman asked relatives to show her around Charleston’s best thrift shops. It seemed she was striking gold. She had bought clothes in one, she said, and now in her hands she held three or four intricately beaded ornaments with hanging birds, beautiful and unusual, and two more, egg-shaped, hand-painted and equally lovely.

“I am finding some that are unique, very nice,” Calaman said, a smile twinkling in her blue eyes. “I love to shop for used. I like the history of things, and if they are old, often the quality is much better, too.”

It’s no wonder that the appeal of nonprofit thrift stores jam-packed with mysterious donated goods is on a steady rise, not only among the financially challenged or budget shoppers searching for a bargain, but people who appreciate the environmental value of reusing goods and who care about contributing to a greater cause while indulging in the purchase of stuff.

Those are three dignified reasons to go shopping, whether for a holiday gift for someone or a gift for one’s own home.

“We are the place to find things that are good value, that help someone else, and that are good for the environment by repurposing and reusing,” said Caroline Johnson, visual merchandising manager for Palmetto Goodwill, which encompasses 30 stores in lower South Carolina. “It really is a big thing — reusing, repurposing and recycling — and for a good cause.”

Consider this: The ReTail Store on Savannah Highway donates upward of $50,000 a year each to Pet Helpers and the Charleston Animal Society, said manager Lori Browne. The Thrift Store on Savannah Highway donates between $60,000 and $100,000 a year to the National Children’s Cancer Society to aid in transportation, housing and other expenses related to the care of local children with cancer, said store director Conrad Tuza.

And Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore store on Maybank Highway on Johns Island puts more than $500,000 back into Habitat each year, said store manager Chad Stone.

And then there is Goodwill, the Goliath of charity stores. Nationally, Goodwill stores rack up close to $4 billion in retail sales, which help put hundreds of thousands of people back to work through job training and other work-focused services. Goodwill also is a potent advocate for legislation to facilitate job training, and the proper treatment of e-waste, which Goodwill itself recycles down to the last part.

The Palmetto Goodwill store group donates 90 cents of every dollar spent there to fund employment training, job-placement services, financial education, youth mentoring and more. Last year, it had $1 million in sales revenue from the holiday season alone; it provided some kind of employment service to nearly 58,000 people and placed nearly 1,600 into new jobs, according to public relations officer Kaley Briesmaster.

In addition, this year, for the ninth year, customers at Palmetto Goodwill stores can donate to the Golden Angel program to help disadvantaged seniors. Last year, the stores raised enough money to provide holiday gift bags to nearly 1,300 seniors who were referred through various agencies and institutions. This year, the stores plan to give the same number of seniors vouchers for three complete sets of clothing, a coat and pair of shoes, Briesmaster said. In addition, Palmetto Goodwill will sponsor holiday lunches at various senior centers and will donate each senior there a blanket.

But don’t think that earnest purchases cannot be dazzling, or worth your gratitude or money. Though the quality of charity store donations fluctuates and goods can vanish before your eyes, for the resolute and the well-practiced the bounty is nothing short of enormous.

While clothes remain the top seller at thrift shops, housewares and furniture are close behind, and judging from the goods on the shelves, one could easily furnish an entire house with fine-quality used goods ranging from linens to furniture and the candle to top it off — with a new CD playing in the background.

On a recent day, the ReTail Store, one of the smaller but best-appointed charity stores here, was packed with small gift-like items as well as large household goods: vintage china, Hungarian porcelain, collectible Santas, Christmas ornaments and decorations, both vintage and new and many still in boxes; lots of small appliances (there may be no good reason to ever buy a new blender again), arts and crafts materials, including tons of wool and fabrics. There were some pieces of framed art, including a large Rene Gruau lithograph priced at $1,500; candlesticks, crystal glasses, and some attractive flower vases; and piles of sheets and spreads and dishes. And two large lounging chairs with ottomans for the bargain price of $150.

“For people going off to college or with children in college, this is the place to come,” said volunteer Peggy Powell, pointing out that everything is sorted and cleaned with care. But she quickly added, “We get lots of ladies starting over, too.”

Down the street at the Thrift Store, Tuza showed off rows and rows of clothes, more entertainment centers than he can ever hope to sell, but also lots of small appliances. He said someone had brought in a new Cuisinart, boxed, with all the disks and pieces, and he sold it for the bargain price of $100. Against a wall stood a number of new mattresses donated by Morris Sokol Furniture after it closed shop, and enough golf clubs to make all golfers in the Lowcountry happy.

Amy Tilden was there shopping with her mother, looking for the odd gift and carrying a laundry basket she had picked up.

“I shop at thrift stores all the time,” she said. “You get things that other people don’t have and the obscure thing that meets the personality of the odd person in your life. You find gifts that are more personal.”

At Goodwill on Folly Road, Donna Welch from Kentucky shopped for gifts for her daughter to repurpose at her home in Virginia. She found a couple of baskets, a new-looking wooden collage picture frame, and a table with a lamp. “It’s tri-state repurposing,” she said, laughing.

As people try to stretch their budgets and lower their carbon footprint, that kind of shopping is more and more typical at Goodwill, said Palmetto Goodwill President and CEO Robert Smith.

“During the holiday season we see people looking to make the most of their budget by purchasing everyday items from Goodwill so they can put other funds toward purchasing gifts,” he said. “And because we often receive many unique, one-of-a-kind items in our stores, we also see people finding unexpected holiday gifts.”

Johnson is in charge of store layout and displays in the Palmetto Goodwill stores. She had done the same job for for-profit stores and never thought presentation and display could have a redeeming social value. At Goodwill she found that it does — in markedly increasing sales, whose revenues go to Goodwill’s mission.

This year, she implemented Christmas-themed displays at the front of the stores, containing all Christmas-themed items, and on a recent day James Island store manager Lori Jordan said she could not keep hers stocked fast enough.

“It is selling like hotcakes,” she said, pointing to the display containing everything from Christmas candles to holiday platters and glasses.

“We get amazing donations, it is really incredible,” Johnson said.

Store employees proudly show off boxes of items still with tags on — mostly gifts never opened, and many items donated by other stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond, brand new. They tell stories of garbage bags full of high-end clothes, still with tags, dropped off at the Johns Island Goodwill.

Some of the higher-end items stay in store, where they are sacked by shoppers at first sight, but many more go to the online auction store, where they can raise more money for the cause.

“The more money we can bring in, the more people we can employ and the more services we can offer,” said Johnson.

ReStore on Johns Island carries no clothes, but on a recent day the store was abundantly stocked with sofas and tables, big kitchen appliances, a rich selection of toilets, and nice stemware and dishes, too. One woman found some Waterford crystal goblets.

“They didn’t even know what they were,” she said, walking out with a grin.