In May 2013, Jonathan Devin of the Commercial Appeal wrote an article telling about our mission and our beginnings. We exist for others, our employees and our charities. Our mission is to use 100% of the profits from the sale of donated items to employ people and to support local, Memphis charities. Your shopping and donating make this possible.
Following is Jonathan’s article:
Store Deals up Quality, Serves up Philanthropy
In a city where incomes have fallen, Tom Frazier figures he has a retail solution for dollar-stretching Memphians — an upscale thrift shop.
Frazier directs Blues City Thrift, a five-month-old store that he says is on the edge of the new trend retailing better used merchandise.
“I think the old style of thrift store is waning,” Frazier said. “I believe we’re in a postrecession economy. I would say 70 to 80 percent of our customers are not struggling, but they’re wanting more at the end of the month than if they went to a higher-priced store.”
Despite the upscale approach, Blues City was blocked from a series of shopping centers by landlords wary of secondhand stores until it finally landed in East Memphis.
Frazier was hired in March 2012, just as officials at the nonprofit charity were ready to close a deal on a retail space at Quince and Kirby. The deal fell through because the shopping center is anchored by a major chain pharmacy whose contract barred secondhand stores.
It wasn’t the first or last time the thrift store would have trouble finding its home.
A site on Poplar Avenue in Midtown, where the nonprofit organization had planned to build a store, dragged on for months and was abandoned. A shopping center at Quince and Ridgeway asked the store to remove the word “thrift” from its name.
The stigma of thrift stores as junky, cluttered purveyors to the very needy complicated their search throughout the year.
“Too many (thrift stores) are a little bit like grandma’s attic,” Frazier said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I think people love to shop in thrift stores like that. For some people it’s the deal, for some people it’s the find.”
In the end, Blues City Thrift found its home in nine combined bays in the Kirby Gate East shopping center, on Quince, just east of Kirby. The shopping center was built in 1990 and has a collection of restaurants, medical services and staffing companies.
Walter Wills, managing member of Willow Grove LLC, which owns Kirby Gate East, volunteers for one of three charities that Blues City Thrift will support.
“I had concerns about a thrift store, but meeting the people behind it and hearing their concept, I knew it would be very nice and it would serve the unity of the neighborhood and be an asset to the location,” Wills said.
Supporters note a difference between Blues City and the typical thrift shops and dollar stores that have proliferated, particularly since the recession gutted jobs. Greater Memphis employers had nearly 40,000 fewer jobs filled in March compared to six years ago. As jobs vanished or work hours were cut, family incomes fell.
In the metro area, average household income dropped to $45,393 by 2010, or 12.5 percent below the 2000 average of $51,898, according to a Brookings Institution study. Tighter family incomes have fed demand for lower-priced merchandise, creating a steady trade for the nearly 120 dollar stores and rent-to-own shops in Memphis and Shelby County.
Wills, however, said he is excited by Blues City’s arrival at Kirby Gate East. The shop, which has a 501(c) 3 nonprofit designation, has gathered donated quality merchandise for three years. The goods can help draw in professionals working nearby at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis’ new site.
To help attract customers, Frazier maintains a boutique-like atmosphere. Aisles are uncluttered and no floor-to-ceiling shelves obstruct views.
Blues City officials also took the long view. The lease runs for three years. Once the store’s sales exceed operating costs, which Frazier estimated will take 12 to 24 months, it will contribute funds to Church Health Center, Youth Leadership Memphis and for tuition assistance at Westminster Academy, a classical education school in Memphis which spearheaded formation of the nonprofit store.
Westminster headmaster Peter Baur said his brother Paul started a similar mission-based thrift store in Pennsylvania which has blossomed into a chain of four stores with gross revenue of about $9 million annually, and distributing all the profits of around $25,000 a month in support of more than 20 charities.
Success, Baur said, will be based on sheer volume and reaching a donor base that contributes high-quality items.
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