Second Harvest thrift restores community cornerstone
It’s said that good things come in threes, and for this story that happens to be true, except for the first thing: the Sharpsburg St. Vincent de Paul thrift store closing in 2018.
When it shuttered, the lack of its presence created a ripple effect in the community.
“All of the organizations that I had been working with, like Roots of Faith Food Pantry and Youth Empowerment, they all said what a void was left when it closed,” said Bonnie DeMotte, executive director at Second Harvest.
DeMotte is a retired chemist who wanted to build more relationships in Sharpsburg, which became the key to her position with Second Harvest today. That, and a serendipitous conversation she had with Pastor Chris Taylor of Fox Chapel Presbyterian. The two had been talking about their dreams; she shared hers about Sharpsburg, and Pastor Taylor said he wanted to open a community thrift store.
“And that was kind of the beginning for me,” Demotte said.
Next, around the same time of DeMotte and Pastor Taylor’s conversation, a woman who attended Fox Chapel Presbyterian passed away and left $300,000 to the church to be used “for the care and support of the local indigents,” Demotte said.
As a church, they considered how they could use this generous gift to benefit their neighbors, and those conversations led back to the desire to open a thrift store. They knew that if done properly, it could be a community asset for decades by not only providing affordable necessities to the community, but also building relationships.
“All of the proceeds stay [in Sharpsburg], and over time, our generous benefactor’s gift will generate many times more than its $300,000 value as proceeds from operations are continuously reinvested.” Demotte said.
Once a consensus was reached around the need to replace and improve upon the important pillar that was the thrift store, DeMotte and her collaborators set about finding the right space. This is where the third good thing came in. Through the strong network of dedicated do-gooders in the Fox Chapel School District Area, and perhaps a little kismet, an excellent space was identified before it had ever even been listed. From there it was an easy decision to use the bequest as a down payment for this very appropriate structure.
It sits on the foundation of a home from the 1800s and was once the BGI Club where many local’s parents got married or where people had their first alcoholic drink. For the last 30 years it was Colortech Photographic Imaging, a printmaking company owned by Eric Palmer that started with 18 different rooms for processing and printing. When everything went digital, Palmer was down to one printer that occupied one small room and he was ready to downsize his location.
“The building was never on the market. We heard about it through channels that he might be interested in selling it and it was perfect for our purposes,” Demotte said. “The funny part is that we bought a building that wasn’t for sale and we didn’t have any money.”
In January 2020 the building was purchased, but Covid-19 halted and stunted demolition and construction. While initially frustrating, Demotte said the silver lining to the delays was the fundraising aspect, which gave them more time to reach their goal of $2 million. On March 16, Second Harvest opened its door debt free with a cushion for projected operating deficits over the first few years.
The store contains clothing, shoes, books, home furnishings, electronics, and more. DeMotte said she has seen some unbelievable treasures come through, like Versace pillows and a vintage Ferragamo bag.
“Someone dropped off these Native American kachina dolls that are hand signed, they’re just incredible. You never know what you’re going to find, and it’s just as exciting to see what comes through the door everyday,” she said.
Prices are 75 to 90 percent off of what an item would sell for in retail and nothing will be on the sales floor longer than five weeks. This system is maintained by color coding each item when it comes in. For the first two weeks of its life it’s full price, the second two weeks it’s half price, and the fifth week it’s 90 percent off. Second Harvest has created a good relationship with the St. Vincent de Paul locations that still exist around the area, and items that don’t sell at Second Harvest will be picked up by St. Vincent de Paul to be sold by them or recycled.
Jill Chiu is a Second Harvest board member and was the head of the operating committee, which created the pricing system and the structure of the store.
“We did some research and we knew that Bonnie had the vision of a community space, and that is unique in a thrift store,” Chiu said. “So in addition to the general layout and knowing we wanted to have a community space, we wanted to maximize how much we could fit on the sales floor and make it flow nicely and ADA compliant.”
Chiu and DeMotte said the store benefited greatly from the collapse of traditional retail and they were able to purchase fixtures, shelves, and shopping carts second hand from places like JCPenney and SteinMart.
In everything Second Harvest does, they try to live by their mission of reduce, reuse, recycle, and not buying new if they can help it. DeMotte said she meticulously referenced the Sharpsburg Community Vision Plan when creating the space to ensure Second Harvest was in alignment with what the community wanted to accomplish.
“The development of the property has been done exclusively with the six lenses [of the Triboro Ecodistrict] in mind,” DeMotte said. “There are some stormwater management and energy pieces, the green space, and kind of going along the lines of the living streets that were talked about in the vision plan.”
The building has solar panels on the roof that were installed by EIS Solar, and the Triboro Ecodistrict granted money to Second Harvest to insulate the walls. In the future, they will have a permeable paver system out front that will help with stormwater management but will “still be accessible on top so our neighbors who use walkers and wheelchairs, including some of our friends at the towers, are able to cross the surface safely,” she said.
Since day one, the mission for DeMotte has been to build relationships with the community, which is why she made sure to include a community space inside the store. She said it’s been “heart warming and gratifying” to see residents’ excitement about Second Harvest opening.
“I feel like the more you get to know your neighbors, the less divides there are, and you have that common human element to it,” DeMotte said.
Second Harvest serves the Fox Chapel Area School District and a truck is available to pick up donations within this area. Find more information about donating, store hours, and volunteering on Second Harvest’s website.