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My first two days as a volunteer in a New York thrift store


I’ll be doing this five days a week, here’s my story after the first two.


“Can you look through your database and tell me which one of your stores has a secondhand glasses case?” – Some middle-aged guy who reeked of booze and claims to have helped create the original punch-card system for databases, who was also under the impression that thrift stores inventory every item that comes in.

On Monday I began volunteering at the Housing Works thrift store on E 23rd St. It’s a great store, I’m usually in there once or twice a week just browsing and there is always incredible stock there every time I enter. I’ve bought books, records, a speaker, t-shirts, tons of stuff from this store. I’ve always loved secondhand stores, so I figured why not do something productive with my time and volunteer there? A little background info about Housing Works, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Housing Works is a New York City based non-profit fighting the twin crises of AIDS and homelessness. The charity is well-known for its operations, which have recently included outreach to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
In 1990, five members of the famous AIDS activist group ACT UP—Keith Cylar, Charles King, Gerri Wells, Eric Sawyer and Virginia Shubert—decided to dedicate themselves to serving one of New York City’s most neglected populations: the tens of thousands of homeless men, women, and children in New York City living with HIV and AIDS. The activists called their new group Housing Works because they believed that stable housing was the key to helping HIV-positive people live healthy and fulfilling lives and to prevent the further spread of the virus.
The organization runs a chain of twelve thrift shops, a bookstore, a catering company and a screen printing business as social enterprises to support their work and lower their dependence on grants and donations. They also provide health care and legal aid services. The group has satellite offices in Albany, New York and Brooklyn, New York.

Initially, I wasn’t aware of the status that the Housing Works thrift stores have, I never noticed the bowl of free condoms at the front, I just thought it was the one near our house that had the best stuff. I thought about volunteering a while ago as a way to productively pass my time while I was waiting for my employment pass, so a few weeks ago, on September 11, I went to a few stores and offered to volunteer. The people at Housing Works liked me, were impressed with the reasons we were in New York as well as what we intend to do while we’re here and seemed keen to have me on board. I was told I would hear from them in the next week, but by Friday evening I had still heard nothing. I went back in on Monday and there was a sign out the front asking for volunteers. Hmmmm, a little strange, so I went in and asked again. It turned out they were extremely busy due to stock rotation for the beginning of Autumn/Fall and could I start on Monday at midday? Of course I could and if you want a little extra background about the thrift store, how about this little nugget:

Housing Works is well-known in New York City for its chain of upscale thrift shops. The New York Times frequently mentions the shops in its neighbourhood reviews. Housing Works Thrift Shop is featured in Seinfeld episode 173, “The Bookstore”. George is forced to buy a book from Brentano’s Bookstore because he took it in the restroom. He then tries to donate it to Housing Works Thrift Shop and claim a $200 tax write off but the clerk at the thrift shop used to work for Brentano’s so she recognises the book has been flagged that it has been in the restroom and runs him out of the store.

This store also does things like give students and senior citizens a 20% discount on Tuesdays, they have memberships that are rewarded with special deals including a discount on Sundays and anything that is a particularly unique piece that is displayed in the windows goes on auction.

Day 1
Each day my shifts are 12:00pm – 4:00pm. When I arrived I introduced myself to some of the people there, most of whom commented that I may have rearranged some of the bones in their hands when we shook. I guess firm handshakes are somewhat of a faux pas here. I was taken into the back of the shop and downstairs where the “behind the scenes” action happens. I had worn a jacket, but it happened to be a little warmer than expected so I was advised to put my jacket in a locker as, with my fashion sense, it could be mistaken for a donation. Apparently it has happened before.
There are several duties you can be delegated as a ‘Retail Activist’ (yes, that’s the real term) and my day was going to be quite simple. For the first two hours I was a ‘Greeter’, opening the door and welcoming people into the store. This is quite a busy thrift store and my guess would be that approximately 10% of the people who entered the store pointed out in some way that my size makes me the right person for the job, because my long arms make opening the doors outwards easier, I guess.
The second half of my shift was working at the change-rooms, making sure that people only take in their limit of six items, collecting the clothes they don’t want, that type of thing. When clothes aren’t wanted it is my job to put them back on the rack. I’ve mentioned before how it annoys me when secondhand stores arrange clothes by colour, as opposed to size, and now I’m required to be a cog in that wheel of indignation, enforcing the rule I hate so much. I now hold the key to this spectrum of nightmares and the colour order is as follows:

  •  Purple
  • Magenta
  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Grey
  • Brown
  • Tan
  • White (obviously I can’t do a white font or you won’t see it)
  • Black
Rarely do I find pants that are too long, especially with a waist that small!

Rarely do I find pants that are too long, especially with a waist that small!

The change rooms are located next to the men’s wear section, allowing me to explore their wears and find something I have never encountered before. I came across a pair of old golf pants that were, not only too long for me, but also had a waist far smaller than my own (right). That picture is not some weird angle, the perspective is fine, these things come up to my nipples and have about a 24″ waist. I’ve got extremely long legs, but the crotch of this pair is above my waist, these pants may have at one stage belonged to one of my heroes, Manute Bol!
Furniture here is incredible, too. Among the many items, there is currently a dining table that looks like it belonged to The Jetsons, a room divider that could be seen in the background of pretty much every smutty film from the ’70s and even a stuffed zebra! Not only is the stuff in here great, but it’s also affordable.

Day 2
Today I must have looked like an idiot while walking to work, as I was listening to a podcast of Trailer park Boys interviewing The Mighty Boosh and was trying to stifle my laughter, making me look like a complete moron. Seriously, The Mighty Boosh is one of the funniest things in the world, Anna thinks it messes with my head, I just love it. Anyway, today’s game plan was a little different to yesterday’s. Today I was to start out on ‘maintenance’, essentially walking around, making sure that things are put back where they need to be, maintaining the rainbow of discontent and putting the colours back in order. One thing that I had to put back on the rack was a hideous, striped shirt with an octopus on it. This shirt was ugly.
After about half an hour it had become apparent that one of the other volunteers wasn’t coming in, so I was moved on to the change room, just like yesterday. Most of my time was spent trying to help a man in early 20s, shopping with his mother, trying to find a suit that would fit correctly for his father’s funeral, and he was a pretty big guy.
At 2:00pm it was time for me to move on to my next task, helping out at the jewellery counter. A reasonably simple task, just showing people the pieces that they wanted to see. I found an old dragonfly hat-pin and Anna loves dragonflies, so I decided that if it was there when I finished I would buy it for her.
While working there I noticed a really ugly shirt on a man that was lined up to buy some stuff, a striped shirt with an octopus on it. I told the guy at the register that I think I saw it earlier, despite the fact the man was wearing it with the sleeves rolled up. It turned out the man had tried it on and “forgot” he was wearing it. A likely story, but he ended up buying it and the people in the store were happy I spotted it and prevented a potential theft.

Anyhow, at the end of the day Anna’s hat-pin was still there so I bought it for her and it turns out I get a staff discount. Bonus.
Some other events from the past couple of days:

  • I was wearing a Frank Zappa t-shirt today, I’ve been a fan for years, and a middle-aged guy spotted it and came over and started chatting to me about music, gigs back in the day, that type of thing. He was quite interesting, had great taste in music, but had possibly the worst breath I’ve ever encountered. I think I could almost taste it. Each time I backed away, he took a few steps forward, there was no escaping the halitosis.
  • I was given a Snickers bar by some little, old lady because I’m a “Nice, young man”, apparently.
  • Had a woman who works as a jewellery seller buy what I thought were shark’s teeth that had been used in jewellery before. “Oh, no, these are dog teeth, probably from where you’re from or maybe Papua New Guinea.”
  • When a woman found out I was Australian, she asked me, “Guess what my favourite city in Australia is?” I just guessed it was Sydney. Her response? “Broome.”
  • Had a customer blame me for putting holes in the sweaters.
  • I asked a man who was looking at some clothes if he needed any help, to which he responded, “Oh, with that accent you could sell me anything!”
  • Encountered the alcoholic responsible for the quote at the beginning of this post who claimed that he is responsible with helping to come up with the original idea for databases and creating the first punch-card system. “Ain’t nothin’ but ones and zeroes.”

Anyway, Housing Works always has great stuff and it’s for a good cause, so if you’re ever on E 23rd St, between 3rd and Lexington Avenue, come on in!

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About Dr. Tan's Travels (96 Articles)
My name's Tim. I'm a freelance writer and former ESL teacher from Melbourne, Australia, who taught in Daejeon, Korea for six months in 2007 and, until February 2015, had taught in Singapore for seven years. My wife, Anna, is an ophthalmologist. Between March 2015 and July 2016 we spent a month in Pondicherry, India, three months in Bonn, Germany, and 12 months in New York before returning to Singapore, all for training and work placements for her. The reason I wanted to keep this blog is because I suffer from epilepsy and have a terrible memory, therefore this would be a great way to help me remember our travels. I will do my best to keep it updated and even continue writing now that we're back in Singapore, but there is one problem; I have a pretty severe phobia of anything medical.

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