thrift shopping
Taggart Young and Joan Eville strike a bargain
at Vineyard Haven Thrift Shop. — Peter Simon

Retail sales may be slumping around the country and on the Island, but the thrift stores and consignment shops of the Vineyard are thriving hubs of business these days.

“We have been incredibly busy,” said Sandy Pratt, comanager of the Vineyard Haven Thrift Shop.

“I could literally stay open 24 hours a day sometimes,” echoed Deborah Alpert-Sylvia, manager of the Edgartown Second Hand Store.

“We are up just under 20 per cent this September from last September,” said Janice Gulland of Martha’s Closet, a consignment shop in the Tisbury Market Place.

The trend is not unique to the Island. Of 204 stores polled by the National Association of Resale and Thrift Stores in August, nearly two-thirds reported an increase in sales.

On Wednesday this week, the Thrift Shop was proof positive that people are still spending, but shopping wisely. The parking lot was full; cars lined Lagoon Pond Road. Inside aisles were packed as people scoured shelves crammed with used books and dented kitchenware, and poked through racks full of fall clothes. In a back room a young woman surveyed chairs, dressers and tables. “Fourteen ninety-five for all that,” comanager Dolly Campbell told a customer. “You can’t beat that bargain.”

In fact business began picking up at the thrift shop about three years ago, Mrs. Pratt said. Two years ago, the store expanded its hours. And this year set new records. “We have had a fabulous last four months. We are really busy with lots of drop-offs and a huge amount of traffic in the store,” Mrs. Pratt said.

Profits from both thrift stores go to a good cause: the Thrift Shop operates for the benefit of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, while the Second Hand Store operates for the benefit of the Martha’s Vineyard Boys’ and Girls’ Club.

Mrs. Pratt said fall is a traditionally busy time for Island secondhand stores. Summer residents clean out their closets before leaving for the season and Islanders doing the winter home shuffle come in hunting for appliances, silverware and furniture.

But she agreed the slow economy has boosted business further. “Probably because of the economy, people are thinking of coming here more than they are going off-Island to go to the Wal-Mart. Now, maybe they’re stopping here before they go there,” she said.

She also said sales picked up this summer after two Island businesses — the Bunch of Grapes and the Second Hand Store in Edgartown — temporarily shut their doors. “There are anywhere from 15 to 20 people in here from the time we open to the time we close. Other than the Stop & Shop, nobody’s got that kind of traffic,” Mrs. Pratt said.

Like the owner of Martha’s Closet, she said retail sales at the Thrift Shop are up 20 per cent over the past four months.

“This is a good business to be in considering the economy,” Ms. Gulland said. She and Margaret Milko opened the consignment shop two and a half years ago. In May, they opened Martha’s Closet 2, a consignment store for children. Both stores accept donations of second-hand, good-quality and high-end fashion items. The store owners and the donors split sales 60/40. “I don’t know if [people are] thinking, What do I have to sell?” Ms. Gulland asked. “If they sell their stuff here, then they can get new things,” she added.

“I anticipate that as the economy stays as it is or keeps going down, whether out of necessity of whether people are just being frugal and getting prepared, they will frequent the second hand store more,” said Peter Lambos, executive director of the boys’ and girls’ club, which uses sale profits from the store to keep the club running. “Revenues have been up for a couple of months now,” he reported — good news both for the boys’ and girls’ club and for the many Islanders who use their affordable services and programs. He added: “The store funds the center, which is good, because people turn to us out of necessity for child care. If the store keeps making money, it takes the burden off parents.”

Not all Island business owners are faring as well, although nobody appears to be panicking. “I am not wildly nervous,” said Claudia Canerdy, owner of Claudia’s, a jewelry store with locations in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven. “I’m cautious. I am watchfully cautious.”

She said summer and September sales were on par with last year. “With all the noise and everything about the economy, I thought I would be down. I have a big mix of jewelry and other things from low to high-end and I think that that helps me in this instance because I try to cover the bases,” she said.

Helen Koch, furniture manager at Vineyard Decorators, said business is up four per cent over last year, but she reported low September sales and deliveries and increased expenses. Two years ago, the company began charging a delivery fee to offset rising fuel costs. At one time, the store included a free bed frame with all mattress purchases. They have since stopped the practice; the price for steel bed frames at the store has gone up 60 per cent since last January. With an eye to the future, Mrs. Koch too expressed cautious optimism. “Sure, everyone will be scaling back at some point. Maybe they won’t buy the higher-end furniture. And if there aren’t new homes being built, we certainly won’t be able to fill them. Maybe people won’t replace things just because of the style. But we are still selling a lot of lower-end furniture and we have quite a bit of [custom] work through the winter doing big jobs. We can hardly keep up with it,” she said.

To guard against what is expected to be a hard winter, Island retailers are getting creative. Ms. Canerdy plans to scale back ordering and will rely more on jewelry made in the store. “It’s just prudent to be cautious,” she said. “I can fill in the gaps with our handmade jewelry. We can be somewhat self-reliant in our production.”

Mrs. Koch said Vineyard Decorators would probably hold weekly promotional sales to bring customers into the store.

Tom McCurdy of McCurdy Motorcars in Vineyard Haven has begun looking beyond the used car business to make ends meet. “The car business is down nationwide,” he said. “Any high-ticket item in this economy, people are hesitant to part with their hard-earned cash at this point.” So the car dealer, who used to stock between 15 and 20 cars in his lot, has reduced his inventory to five cars. He still does custom orders and has expanded his sign making business. He is also helping his in-laws with their Vineyard Haven store, Wind’s Up. And still he said the future of car sales on the Vineyard is not bleak.

“It’s still a viable business because I am certainly filling a need on the Island. So many people, especially my female customers who make up about 70 per cent of my business, are intimidated by the off-Island shopping experience,” he said. “Although business is slower, I feel that it will get better.”

He concluded: “Because of what’s going on in the economics of the country, people are waiting to see if things get worse. Once it becomes known that this is where the economy is, then people can make adjustments in their budgets, their lifestyles and go forward with any purchasing decisions they may have been postponing. And that’s what business people have to do — sit back and wait until the potential customers are comfortable with their future.”