RetroWorks resale shop generates money for area poor

MIDDLEBURY — Many of those who visit the Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) Community Services Center on Boardman Street in Middlebury are looking for help in paying utility, heating, rent and medication bills. Others line up for free food and leads on jobs and affordable housing.
But an increasing number of folks are making a beeline to the HOPE headquarters in search of something else: Bargains, on a variety of items ranging from shoes to jewelry. 
They are turning out in droves at HOPE’s RetroWorks retail store, a growing enterprise that turns donated items into cash for poverty-fighting programs. It’s an initiative that’s also providing job training opportunities for struggling Vermonters while diverting many tons of material away from the waste stream.
“We’re always busy here,” HOPE executive director Jeanne Montross said last week as she walked through the bustling RetroWorks warehouse, laden with large containers of clothes, shoes and other items destined for sale or for shipping to all corners of the world. Forklifts stacked large bales of textiles. Furniture and appliances were unloaded for inspection by eager homeowners and tenants looking to fill rooms at low cost.
“We can see every day that this is making a difference,” Montross said.
It was former HOPE Director Tom Plumb who established RetroWorks in a warehouse off Exchange Street back in 1993, according to a narrative on the HOPE website. It was modeled after Recycle North, with the primary intent of training homeless men to repair discarded electronics and appliances. HOPE then consolidated RetroWorks and its free clothing room into the large Community Services Center it erected off Boardman Street in 1999.
Statistics provided by HOPE chief financial officer Cathy Eddy show how RetroWorks has evolved from a small, off-shoot program emphasizing job training and recycling, to a successful reclamation and retail enterprise that yields around $80,000 annually to supplement aid for local low-income families.
The figures show that RetroWorks:
• Grossed $472,803 in merchandise sales in 2015, up from the $453,361 it recorded in 2014. RetroWorks in 2015 also earned $16,595 through bulk retail sales and another $887 from metal recycling, producing a total 2015 income of $490,287.
RetroWorks logged $181,327 in sales a decade ago, in 2006.
• Recorded a total of 40,204 transactions in 2015, up from 39,266 during the previous year.
• Averaged $1,545 per day in sales last year, compared to an average of $1,496 during 2014.
RetroWorks manager Penny Thompson is credited with making the enterprise the current force that it is. She signed up almost 13 years ago, immediately turning her attention to organizing the operation and boosting its earning potential.
“When I arrived, there were gaylords (bins) stacked up to the ceiling, pieces of furniture all over the floor, and the warehouse was all open for people to roam wherever they wanted,” Thompson said. “The gaylords were full of textiles, computer parts and all kinds of appliances. People would try to pick through what they could.
“It didn’t function as a business,” she added. “In talking with (Montross), she figured it would take probably a year, or year and a half to clean up everything and get everything organized. They were running at a deficit.”
So Thompson and her staff created separate areas for retail, sorting, donation drop-offs, storage and offices. She recalled how, during four months in 2003, work crews and volunteers worked virtually around the clock to create the RetroWorks retail area. Under Thompson’s guidance, the RetroWorks makeover was completed in seven months. And the business began to turn a profit.
   PENNY THOMPSON, MANAGER of RetroWorks at Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects in Middlebury, uses a forklift to load a large bale of clothing onto a truck bound for Canada, where the clothes will be sorted and sent to low-income people around the world.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Instead of taking in donations in a haphazard fashion, it began doing so during specific hours and locations. RetroWorks gleans some of its inventory from transfer stations, and sources some of its used furniture from Best Western Motel in Burlington.
RetroWorks has 11 paid workers and a cadre of volunteers. Some of them are clients of Reach Up, the Parent-Child Center of Addison County and other social services programs. They learn job skills, including customer relations, to build a loyal clientele.
Letitia Hodgdon can regularly be seen at the controls of a two-ton forklift, zipping around the RetroWorks warehouse transferring enormous bales of clothing from one spot to another. She began working for RetroWorks eight years ago as a single mom and Reach Up client. She got her paid, full-time gig there four years ago.
“I enjoy everything I do here,” Hodgdon said of her assorted tasks, which include baling large quantities of shoes, hats, purses and even stuffed animals.
“I learn something new every single day,” Hodgdon said. “It’s fun working with all different kinds of people.”
Thompson was asked if she thought RetroWorks would become as successful as it has. Her response was emphatic.
“Absolutely. I knew it would.”
And it can get even bigger and more successful, Thompson believes.
She’s considering expanding RetroWorks’ business days by 30 minutes in both the morning and afternoon to make donation drop-offs and shopping more convenient. The current hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
RetroWorks currently takes in around six gaylords-full of clothes per day. A gaylord is a super-sized, heavy duty cardboard container than can hold around 30 large trash bags full of textiles.
Workers sort through the clothing and separate items good enough to sell in the RetroWorks retail shop. Those that don’t make the cut are baled for Bank & Vogue, an Ottawa, Canada-based company with which HOPE contracts to buy the material at a per-ton rate.
That rate can fluctuate wildly depending on market forces. It is currently at an all-time low of 4 cents per pound, down from a high of 18 cents per pound back in 2012, according to Montross. RetroWorks continues to experience demand for its textiles because they are well-inspected prior to baling.
The vast majority of clothing donated to HOPE and RetroWorks is reused — either locally or by underprivileged folks in Third World countries, according to Montross. But there is a certain percentage that can’t make the cut and has to be repurposed through recycling.
“Everything brought here is carefully evaluated for reuse,” Montross said.
She acknowledged that HOPE is periodically criticized for not giving away locally all of the donated clothing it receives. Montross argues that the revenue from the clothing sales gives HOPE a vital chunk of money to help clients on the verge of power shut-offs, empty fuel tanks and barren larders.
“There would be a whole lot more people who wouldn’t have medicine, would be homeless, living in leaky housing,” Montross said of the importance of the RetroWorks income. “We are the ones who fill in the gaps, which are significant … It’s a matter of balancing the different priorities and needs.”
Clothing continues to be the largest commodity handled at RetroWorks. The operation processed 121,303 pounds of textiles last year, and had handled 72,152 pounds of clothing in the first six months of 2016. But RetroWorks has greatly diversified its offerings through the years, giving shoppers a broader range of bargain options. The operation in 2015 handled 1,407 pounds of purses, 6,018 pounds of shoes and 483 pounds of stuffed toys. HOPE officials continue to be amazed at the donated furniture, appliances, jewelry, housewares, clocks, small electronics, appliances, collectibles, vintage records, books and other miscellaneous items that come in daily.
The general rule of thumb for donations — they have to be clean, dry and in working order.
“We are really careful about what we can accept,” Montross said.
And RetroWorks officials occasionally uncover some jewels hidden within the mountains of more mundane merchandise. A designer handbag or upscale pair of shoes will hit the shop floor and of course fly out in the blink of an eye. One donor dropped off an old ship’s clock valued at around $450. A pair of gray and white speckled (pottery) doves recently came in and has been valued at $400.
“Anything (special) goes into the store at 50 percent of its assessed value,” Thompson said.
The mostly valuable item sold thus far at RetroWorks was a $2,800 golf cart, according to Thompson.   HELPING OVERCOME POVERTY’S Effects RetroWorks Manager Penny Thompson loads a large bundle of stuffed animals onto a delivery truck belonging to a Canadian corporation that buys clothing, shoes and toys by the pound for distribution to low-income people around the world. RetroWorks has emerged as a significant revenue generator for HOPE’s programs.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Customers come from as far as Rutland and New York state to comb RetroWorks for bargains and diamonds in the rough, according to Montross. The store has added a second cash register to keep up with traffic. 
Marg Collins of Middlebury has been a faithful RetroWorks customer for a couple of years.
“My friends call me a ‘HOPE-aholic,” Collins said with a chuckle as she sorted through a colorful variety of women’s wear hanging on a display in the showroom this past Wednesday. “I find wonderful things here. And people are so lovely, I keep coming back.”
She said there’s really nothing local that compares to the business, in terms of variety and volume for bargain hunters.
“I shop for things for my family and friends, and I just have a wonderful time,” she said. “The employees are fabulous.”
Rebecca Popp was a volunteer worker at RetroWorks during much of 2011. On Wednesday, the Salisbury resident was a customer, keenly searching for clothing deals for her five young children.
“Shopping here is a Godsend,” said Popp, who steers clear of the name brands and can thus buy clothing for a fraction of the cost.
She continues to be happily amazed by the things that find their way onto the RetroWorks shelves.
“You see clothes in here that you’d think people wouldn’t be getting rid of,” Popp said, adding she has purchased a television, appliances and other items to go along with clothing.
“I never leave here empty handed,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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