BRANFORD >> Come around to the back door of SARAH’s Cupboard Thrift Shop (SARAH’s) on Meadow Street in Branford. No need to knock. It’s open.
You might find 96-year-old Bill Brody telling war stories to store manager Joe Vidal over a cup of coffee in the organized chaos of the lively backroom. Or Mike Bruno who dropped off sushi for Vidal, co-manager Mary Lou Markham, and the rest of his crew. Someone else left a carton filled with ears of corn and peppers from her garden.
You might encounter Germain Maltais, a carpenter who’s on call to do whatever odd job Vidal needs. Or retired volunteer Gary McNeil; he stops by everyday to help with pickups or recycling or to transport re-donations to Goodwill, according to Vidal.
Or a client from SARAH, the Connecticut foundation that “provides programs and services for people with intellectual and other disabilities,” as its website reads, in search of a broom.
For some of us, secondhand stores may conjure up images of musty rooms with worn clothes stacked haphazardly in random piles. According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, though, the resale and thrift shop industry is thriving and continues to be one of the fastest growing segments of retail.
“This place is like a boutique,” said Guilford’s Martha Cavanaugh as she riffled through a rack of blouses in the well-lit room.
At least since 2005, when Vidal took over the shop, whose proceeds support activities and services for SARAH Foundation clients not otherwise covered by federal and state funds, according to executive director Denise Rose.
“I’m just a store manager,” said the perpetually amiable 61-year-old seated at a table outside the shop on a recent afternoon as an Acela train rattled past SARAH girl, the donated mannequin turned out in a stylish dress on the side of the tracks.
Not so, said longtime customer Roberta McColl of Branford, of the way Vidal has transformed the 2,400 square-foot space into eye-catching displays of housewares, accessories and dramatically discounted clothing and shoes.
And that’s not counting the low-cost furniture housed in the Sideboard Furniture Shop which opened in 2007.
“Joe got it on a more businesslike, more organized, footing and [co-manager] Mary Lou [Markham] has a real gift for putting things in the right space and making it look attractive,” McColl said. “Joe, he was made for this place.”
To think he almost didn’t take the job.
“In the beginning, I had my doubts,” said the former district manager for Stop & Shop and North Haven resident. His wife had been volunteering on Saturdays. Their son, Christian, 25, has special needs. “She told me there was an opening. She’s an avid tag sale person. I’m not. I’d never run a business. This wasn’t like anything I had ever done.
The director suggested he come in for a week “to just try it out,” he said. He watched former co-manager Darlene Gunn as she tirelessly sorted, price-marked, tagged and displayed. “What an inspiration,” he said. “And then I realized there were so many good things I could do to improve the store that it seemed like a win-win.”
Twelve years later, he hasn’t stopped.
One reason: long-time employees like Georgia Payne who “gave him an education,” he said. He learned, for example, that certain donations will never sell, like entertainment centers, hutches, and dining room sets, and to redonate them to Goodwill; that whenever there’s a surplus of, say, housewares, it’s time for a sale; and that kids generally prefer new, brand-name clothing.
Another reason: the part-time volunteers, now 25 in number, who act as cashiers or sort or tag or keep the place spic and span. “They want to help out with something that’s good and positive,” he said. “They want to be a part of this cause. It creates a great working environment.”
Not to mention the clients from the SARAH Foundation who, accompanied by a job coach, dust and organize and straighten for 45 minutes at a time. “They get cookies that [cashier] Alice [Beeman] bakes fresh everyday,” he said, “and they also get whatever they need, clothing, furniture, whatever, from the store, for free.”
Then there’s Vidal’s delight in opening boxes. “It’s like Christmas here everyday,” he said, as a customer came around the back to drop off a cooler. “You never know what you might find.” Once there was a set of false teeth. There was also the rare Oriental rug from Jordan that netted $1500. Whenever he unboxes a glass vase, he’ll keep them for the Branford Garden Club. “They do such great work,” he said.
Above all, though, it’s the customers. That’s why Vidal has made it a policy to offer freshly baked chocolate chip cookies everyday and on Saturdays to have a cookout.
“This is a community store,” he said. “Without the community’s donations, we wouldn’t be here, not for 42 years. I want people to feel as though it’s their store.”
So go ahead. Don’t be shy. Poke your head through the back door and say hi to Joe and his crew. Step inside. You might find the bargain of a lifetime. Like Joe says, it’s your store too.
SARAH Cupboard is located at 155 Meadow St. Branford. For more information, visit www.sarahfoundation.org/thrift-shop.html or call 203-481-