Pennies from heaven: Silver Spring thrift shop faces trying times


[Washington Window] The door of the Pennyworth Thrift Shop in Silver Spring jingles as the afternoon’s first customer, an old lady in a leopard print coat, enters and makes a beeline for the blouses.

“White tags are half price today!” volunteer Tony Caracci calls from behind the counter.

I don’t find the ones with the white tag – I find the ones without the white tag,” she mutters as she flips through a rack of shirts, pulling out a ruffled top and inspecting the label. “It’s the right size, but it’s the wrong tag.”

She puts it back, selects another: “22 wide? That’s a big one. I like that, though. Don’t see no tags on this one – that means it’s free, right?”

She raises an eyebrow to Tony’s wife, Dale, a tall Midwesterner with a white bob, who breaks into a warm, throaty laugh before turning away to attend to another customer.

It’s a familiar scene at the Pennyworth Shop, which Grace Episcopal Church, Silver Spring, has operated at various downtown locations since the 1950s.

The shop, recently re-decorated in a funky 50s color scheme – turquoise, lilac, fuchsia and chartreuse – does a swinging trade in all things second hand. But with aging volunteers and rising rents, Lisa Summers, a longtime volunteer and five-year board member, is worried that the shop’s days might be numbered.

And that, she says, would be a crying shame.

“More and more families coming into the shop are homeless, or on the edge of homelessness,” she says, and the shop provides an important service in this regard.

For example, she says, a 10-year-old boy recently came into the shop with his parents, who clearly had very little money and even less English.

“He was looking for dark pants and a white shirt,” Summers says. “It became clear he had a school thing to go to – a concert, perhaps. I remember thinking, please, please, let us have a pair of pants and a white shirt.”

Fortunately, a suitable outfit was found – for about $3 – and the boy’s family left the shop with the dress clothes, a small toy for their daughter, and their dignity.

“I walked out of there thinking, we’ve got to keep this place alive,” Summers says. “We’ve got to do what it takes to keep this place alive.”

While the arrival of Discovery Communications and rising property values has led to a welcome downtown revitalization, there are still plenty of people in Silver Spring “who can’t afford a $12 martini,” she says.

It is these people – nail salon technicians and day laborers, restaurant workers and cab drivers – who would lose out if the shop were to shut its doors.

“For a long time the shop paid minimal rent,” says treasurer Gib Bailey, a Grace parishioner whose grandmother used to volunteer at Pennyworth. “Then about five years ago, when Silver Spring began its development, the owner raised the rent.”

In 2007, the shop paid just under $33,000 in rent, Bailey said – by far the lion’s share of its $39,000 operating expenses. The net profit for the year was $17,000 – about $65 for each day the shop was open.

“It’s a whole lot harder to make a profit than it used to be,” he said. “We have sort of said that as long as we can make $1,000 a month, we will keep the shop open. After that, we’ll reconsider. I would hate to see us close.”

The current economic climate has already shuttered several area shops, Summers says – pointing out that until recently there were three thrift shops in downtown Silver Spring.

“We’re the only one left,” she says.

Shrinking profits have led to a shift in the shop’s philosophy, Bailey says.

“I think the Pennyworth Shop has changed its mission,” he claims, pointing out that 10 years ago, the shop’s main goal was to raise money to support the church and its work. (The shop still supports the Central Union Mission, Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County, Heifer Project International, Ministries of Silver Spring and Takoma Park, Montgomery Hospice, Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department, Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad, Shepherd’s Table and the American Rescue Workers.)

“I think now if you ask people what their primary ministry is, they would say it’s to serve the people of Silver Spring,” he said – both the shop’s customers and its volunteers – by providing them with low cost goods and meaningful, companionable work.

It takes a lot of labor to keep the shop open, Summers says. Pairs of volunteers work in shifts – from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Others sort and price donations at sorting parties held on the third Thursday of each month.

“I bring coffee and dessert and we actually have a great time,” she says. “We all sit around and sort and complain about our husbands.”

But the volunteer base is getting older, and this poses significant challenges: Some find it hard to keep up with the physical work involved in keeping shop and others are reluctant to consider extended hours – something Summers feels would bring in new business.

“It’s a problem,” she says. “It’s really a problem.”

That said, the husband and wife team of Tony and Dale Caracci are holding their own.

The couple retired to the area nine years ago from Illinois and say that most of the people they know locally they have met through their involvement with the Pennyworth Shop.

This afternoon they are crazy busy, with a shop full of customers and the door jingling at regular intervals as more come in to peruse the shop’s offerings.

In addition to clothing and shoes (best sellers are jeans, blouses and children’s clothes), the shop sells silverware, glassware, greeting cards (the best bargain at 25 cents), candlesticks, cushions, coasters, coats and hats, teacups, toys and books, bags, baby gear, yarn and knitting patterns and a selection of jewelry, artwork and assorted trinkets.

The customers are just as varied.

“We get a very eclectic mix of people,” Tony Caracci says.

A Latino teenager sporting a ponytail comes in to find his father, who is looking at sweaters. The father asks if he can have two knitted hats for $1, and Dale agrees. His son asks if she has any bandanas – she does – and the lady in the leopard print coat contemplates a glass dish shaped like a leaf.

“I could use that to put on my TV table for snacks, eh?” she says, piling her selections onto the counter. “See, I only dropped by to see what you had, and I had to buy.”

A donor drops off a box of books (among them, “Following the Yellow Brick Road: An Adult Child’s Personal Journey Through Oz”) and a local actor arrives in search of a wig (no luck, but check back). A Chinese mother and daughter haggle for a white ceramic dog (Dale eventually settles for $1.50), while in the back of the shop an Indian man quietly thumbs through books. A mother and her four children check out the toys, eventually departing with a Fisher Price castle (missing some figures), a pair of princess shoes, still in the box, a baby monitor and a set of crib sheets. And a Latino woman looking for a telephone checks back for the third time.

“It’s a fascinating mix,” Summers says. There are people looking for basic household goods and clothes, collectors, cash-strapped students and well-paid professionals hoping for a “find,” all bumping elbows in the retro little shop.

It’s one of the few places left in downtown Silver Spring where all strata of society can happily mingle, she says. And she doesn’t want to see it go away.

But what can be done to keep the Pennyworth shop and others like it alive and thriving?

It’s time, Summers believes, for a new generation of volunteers to step up, and for local government officials to recognize the value of thrift shops to the community by providing tax breaks and other incentives to landlords.

It’s time to consider some new ideas, she says, such as leveraging the growing awareness about environmental issues to grow business and partnering with other thrift shops in the diocese to coordinate promotions for events such as Earth Day.

It’s time to reconnect with the region’s thrift shops.

“I think what I really want is for people to think about and support thrift shops,” she says.

Because, she says, despite its vintage décor, the Pennyworth Thrift Shop is every bit as vital today as it was when it first opened its doors half a century ago.

First appeared in Washington Window Vol. 77 No. 5, May 2008 as

Pennies from heaven

Faced with rising rent, the Pennyworth Thrift Shop is finding it
harder to turn a profit these days. But in the current economic
climate, many feel the 54-year-old shop is needed more than ever.