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Four decades of unique retail
The Platteville Thrift Shop celebrates 40 years this year.
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Linda Gerhards (left) is the manager of the Platteville Thrift Shop. Jean Sanders is the last of the five women whose efforts started the Thrift Shop in April 1973.Photo by Steve Prestegard

In April 1973, members of Church Women United started a thrift shop in Platteville.

The results of their work are found 40 years later in the Platteville Thrift Shop at 950 Lancaster St., whose building is filled to near capacity with items someone else could not use. The store’s customers extend far beyond Platteville throughout the Tri-States.

The Thrift Shop’s Customer Appreciation Day will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The store will offer specials and coupons starting Friday, with food and drink and door prizes Sunday.

One reason for the Thrift Shop’s success is that Thrift Shop management doesn’t treat it like a stereotypical secondhand store. Stock is rotated on a regular basis. In the front of the store is a silent auction area for larger-price donated items.

“We listen very well to our customers,” said store manager Linda Gerhards. “If we see it and we know it’ll help them, we’ll get it out for them.”

Of the five women who started the Thrift Shop in 1973, only Jean Sanders is alive today. Sanders is the store’s financial secretary.

“If any of the other four were alive today, they’d go, Wow, can you believe what’s happened?” she said. “When we started, we were very careful about emphasizing that if somebody came in for help, it was to be very, very confidential.”

After discarding the first idea to place the store in someone’s garage — “we wanted to stay married,” Sanders joked — the store opened with a $200 loan from a member of First Congregational Church in the basement of Platteville’s Municipal Building April 27, 1973. Records show that the store’s proceeds that first day were $38.13.

The store moved to two buildings at the corner of East Main Street and Second Street before moving to the former Jerry’s Flowers building in 2000. The store purchased its building in 2007.

Today, the Thrift Shop has nine employees and 50 people volunteering every month, including members of seven Platteville churches. “We have employees who have been here 20 years plus, and I think that indicates that to our employees it’s more than just a job,” said Sanders.

“It’s a very good feeling to be able to help,” said Gerhards.

Gerhards said the clientele includes “a lot of return customers — we have people that come here not just daily, but twice a day. They love the fact that when they come here, it’s unique.”

Donations are sorted first to determine if they can be sold. Those that are saleable are either put in displays or into storage for future sale. Other donations aren’t sold, but are used as part of the store’s infrastructure — for instance, racks for sale items.

“By the time it’s done, it’s usually off the floor in two months,” said Gerhards. “If it can be used, it’s going to get used.”

“It’s recycling,” said Sanders. “You can reuse or recycle many of these items, clothing and otherwise.”

One of the more popular areas is the vintage clothing section, proof that all fashion eventually repeats itself. Halloween costumes and other holiday clothing are popular, particularly ugly sweaters for ugly Christmas sweater contests.

“College students love this store,” said Gerhards.

The most unusual discovery wasn’t a sale item. In a group of papers “donated” with other items was a woman’s $60,000 retirement fund. The store found the woman and returned the account information.

The store’s gross proceeds exceeded $250,000 for the fierst time in 2006.

Proceeds after paying employee salaries and utilities go to local causes, including Relay for Life and Wisconsin Badger Camp. The store also gives grants to people and families in financial need, referred to the store through area churches, social workers, such organizations as Family Advocates, and even police. The store donated $47,382.96 in 2012.

“When they buy something here, it’s going back to this community,” said Sanders.

Donations have increased over the past few years, Gerhards said. The economic slowdown decreased the average sale, but Gerhards said store traffic has remained stable.

The store has begun sales on eBay, and allowing electronic transactions is in the works.

At the store’s 25th anniversary in 1998, Sanders used the analogy of an acorn planted in 1973.

“Look at the mighty oak today,” she said. “When you’re finding things for yourself, you’re also helping someone else in the process.”