Business profile: Middlebury’s thrift shops

MIDDLEBURY — For residents of Middlebury retail options sometimes come in ones: the downtown features one movie theater, one stationery store — you get the idea.
Unless, that is, you’re looking to do some thrift shopping. With five not-for-profit consignment shops within the town limits, Middlebury residents are blessed with an embarrassment of riches, at discounted prices.
But according those who run Middlebury’s thrift shops — a list that includes Neat Repeats, Junebug, Buy Again Alley, Round Robin and the HOPE resale shop — the abundance of similarly situated stores hasn’t bred the slightest bit of competitiveness between them.
“This is unbelievable in Middlebury,” said Jutta Miska, the founder and director of Buy Again Alley at Frog Hollow. When Miska opened her shop in 2015 after years of volunteering at Neat Repeats, her fellow storeowners showed nothing but support, providing grants and clothing donations to help get the business off the ground. “We all worked together,” she said.
Each shop retains a distinct charitable mission, and they cater to somewhat differing clientele — a diversity that may have helped each of them stay in business through the years.
“We all have our little markets,” said Robin Huestis, the manager of Round Robin, located in the Marble Works. Round Robin’s customers tend to be on the older side, some coming over from EastView or The Lodge at Otter Creek. The store’s proceeds support Porter Medical Center, as they have been since the shop opened in 1975. 
Buy Again Alley, meanwhile, began with a focus on teenagers, catering to them as customers and offering them volunteer employment positions. Miska hopes that the local teens she brings on can gain valuable work skills and customer service experience.
“I have a cash register that doesn’t work,” Miska explained. “I want kids to learn the process of, ‘What does 7 percent out of $20 mean?’” 
Miska, though, has realized that serving only one demographic can be unsustainable. “I found out very quickly that I can’t pay my rent if I’m dependent on teenage shopping,” she said. “I’m walking a fine line where I have things for young people but also enough things for mature audience.” As a result, she’s revised her mission statement a bit: now, Buy Again Alley is “A store for young adults, and the young at heart.”
Neat Repeats, going strong in its 29th year, offers a general adult clothing selection, minus the furniture and large appliances sold at places like HOPE. Over the years, Neat Repeats has spread the proceeds from its clothing sales all around the area, providing over $2 million in grants to individuals and organizations in Addison County. Diane Howlett, the shop’s co-director, said its customer base is hard to generalize.
“It’s everybody — from college students to locals, some of whom are here every day to check in and see what’s new,” she said.
Thrift shopping is more than just a cash-saving choice, the proprietors say — it’s also a hobby that brings in customers from well outside the town.
“We have people that come over from New York state, and all over Addison County,” Huestis said. “Sometimes people in Burlington say, ‘Let’s go hit the thrift stores,’ and they’ll come down and hit them all.”
“There are people who love thrift stores,” Howlett agreed. “No matter where they are, they’ve got to check them out.”
Howlett said she encourages thrift-tourists to do the full Middlebury circuit. “We’re all very amicable — if we don’t have something, we say, ‘Try Round Robin.’ We don’t sell children’s clothes here, so we’ll send them to Buy Again, or Junebug,” she said. “We happily share customers. If they can’t find something here, we’ll send them elsewhere to look.”
And even for locals, doing the consignment tour has its benefits. To illustrate, Miska shared one of her favorite customer stories: a young man who came to Buy Again Alley last year, searching for an inexpensive outfit for prom.
“He found a pair of pants at my place and he found a jacket at Neat Repeats and shoes at Round Robin,” she said. “Between the three stores he found what he needed to go to prom, and he came back a week later and showed me the pictures. It’s amazing how we can all work together without being competitive.”

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