Volunteers earn PhDs in retail

By Joe Stumpe | November 1, 2023

ALW thrift shop volunteers include, left to right, Susan Ensz, Vicki Hye, Kay Saindon, Carla Cantrell, Connie Dietz, Mona Hobson and Susan Hussey.

Susan Hussey finished her career in education as principal at Chisholm Trail elementary school. Then, she says, she got “a PhD in retail.”

Hussey is chair of the Assistance League of Wichita’s thrift shop and one of about 50 volunteers who keep the store at 2431 E. Douglas running. At a time when some of the city’s thrift shops are closing or struggling, the league’s operation is busier than ever.

On a recent Thursday morning, a steady stream of people dropped off donated items at the store’s back rooms, where they’re sorted into labeled plastic bins for storage. 

“We’re getting a little overwhelmed because of the DAV (Disabled American Veterans thrift shops) closing,” said Mona Hobson, the league’s director of publicity. 

“We never know what we’re going to get” when the doorbell rings, Hussey added.

In addition to work tables, the back rooms hold a small kitchen and office, washing machine, steam press and numerous racks for women’s clothing, the store’s best-selling items.

“We take great pride in how our items are sent to the floor,” said Carla Cantrell, who’s the store’s clothing manager.

Up front, customers perused the clothes, housewares, purses, shoes, jewelry, furniture, linens, books, toys and other items that fill its aisles, all displayed in a fashion that would do a Bradley Fair boutique proud.

Susan Hussey displays a coat from the “glam” rack at the Assistance League of Wichita thrift store.

“I buy or drop off something here every week,” said Nancy Koontz-Schmidt, a recently retired teacher who says she shops for herself and several friends there.

Hussey said customers “like our stuff because it’s clean. They like our prices, they like our variety, and they like our mission. Everything is going back into the community.”

The league’s IRS tax form is available on its website and gives detailed information about its operations. Its mission is described simply: “To transform the lives of children and adults through community programs.” The league, part of national nonprofit, has no paid staff and all money raised stays in Wichita.

According to the league’s most recent annual report, for 2021-22, it helped 6,691 students in USD 259 through Operation School Bell, which allows students and their parents to shop for school clothes at the west-side JC Penney at a reduced cost to the league. The program also provides hygiene, literacy and school supplies. More than 100,000 kids have been served since 1985.

Its other efforts included providing 21 scholarships to students at WSU Tech and Butler Community College, 129 sexual assault survivor kits of clothing, footwear and other items, and 189 teddy bears to child victims of violence who’ve been brought to Ascension Via Christi or Wesley Medical Center.

The shop provides the bulk of the league’s budget, with donations and fundraisers such as the annual Gingerbread Village at Exploration Place providing the rest.

The shop opened in the 1980s and had one previous location, also on Douglas. The Bruce G. Cochener Foundation, Wallace Foundation, Women of Wichita and ALW members helped purchase the current location.

The store had been open Tuesday through Saturday prior to the pandemic. Hussey said that closing Wednesday and Friday hasn’t affected sales much.

Each Monday, about 25 volunteers show up to restock the store. “It’s organized chaos,” Hussey said. The store’s display windows facing Douglas are regularly updated with eye-catching displays. 

There’s usually a line of customers waiting to get in Tuesday because “they know the new stuff is out,” Hussey said.

Most of the store’s items are priced at $5 or $10, although children’s clothes go for $1. “We’re here to serve children,” Hussey said. There’s a “glam” rack for women’s clothing that carries higher prices.

The store doesn’t accept mattresses and electronic devices, although a like-new electric keyboard was on the floor the day Hussey led a tour. Hussey said the store “always needs men’s clothes.”

The store also carries many seasonal items that do well. Spotting an oversized jack-o-lantern pumpkin, Hussey said, “I’m going to put this in the window. So cute.”  The league donates items it can’t use to His Helping Hands, a community ministry of Central Christian Church.

The store posts “finds” and sales on Facebook and Instagram. EBay turned out to be more trouble than it was worth, but volunteers are now utilizing a trendy digital marketplace called Poshmark. 

“We’ve had success, but it has taken a lot of time and energy,” Hussey said.

She uses google to help price items like a cut glass claret jug ($125) and a vintage Le Creuset pot ($225) that were donated recently.
      “We got donated a vase that sold for $2,000,” Hussey said. “It’s not all $5 and $10″ items.

The store’s workforce is largely female, although Hussey said some spouses are “part-timers.” This month, volunteers will gear up for the Christmas season, it’s busiest of the year.
       “We’ve all had professional lives,”  Hussey said. “We’re retired and we want to give back to the community.”

ALW presents Gingerbread Village

Assistance League of Wichita will present the 28th annual Gingerbread Village at Exploration Place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Nov. 4 and 5. Tickets are available at htps://exploration.org/event/gingerbread-village/. Each ticket includes a gingerbread house kit, time to build the structure and museum admission to visit the exhibits.