Only suckers pay retail, or so the saying goes. Judging by the crowd at the Brown Elephant resale store on an August Saturday afternoon many Chicago shoppers are in the know. And it was coming in as fast as it was going out; in a one-hour period more than 20 bags and boxes were dropped off at the front counter. Employees and volunteers did their best to keep up with the rush, hurriedly twisting the dials on price guns as they prepped the castaways of American consumers for a second life in a new home.
"You never know what's coming," said assistant manager Vard Davey. "It's like Christmas every day. We get a bunch of cardboard boxes and you don't know what's inside."
Several employees behind the counter paused from sorting, stickering, and moving merchandise to admire a never-worn pair of brown suede size ten and a half Cole Haans. The price tag was still on the bottom, showing a markdown from $185 to $63.97. The worker captaining the salvage table took a good look at the shoes--"They're brand-new," he said--and slapped a $25 sticker on the heel before tossing them onto a rolling cart that already held ten other pairs.
Management is quick to define the store, at 3651 N. Halsted, as a resale shop, not a thrift store, and--given the high quality of many of the donations it receives--views its competitors more along the lines of retail outlets than the Salvation Army.
The store has pricing guidelines (standard shoes are $5; a normal belt is $4; T-shirts are $3), but with the quirkier items (space heaters, fondue sets, barbecue forks) it's a judgment call. Employees play Roman emperor, setting prices and occasionally giving the thumbs-down, relegating undesirables to the trash or to the recycling bin.
By mid-afternoon, a survey of the store revealed a $5 Dirt Devil Broom Vac, a $9 Danish Waffler, a beauty salon chair with attached bubble hair dryer for $55 ("It could make a cute lamp," cooed one customer), a half dozen Ab Rollers ($8), a Joseph Abboud charcoal pinstripe suit ($40), tuxedos priced up to $45, and thousands of books, CDs, and records.
"It makes us feel good that these things can have a second life, but we see how much people are throwing away, and that can be depressing," said Michael McGuire, who oversees store operations and has been an employee since 1986. "I remember when the first computer came in, and it was a very big deal. Now we get flooded with them. I have a guy who comes in one day a week just to test and price them."
Proceeds from the store (last year it grossed $1.6 million) go to the Howard Brown Health Center, which began as an STD testing center in 1974 and has blossomed into the largest private provider of HIV/AIDS services in the midwest. The Brown Elephant's mission--and no doubt its Boys Town location--has long made it the recipient of choice for the throwaways from much of Chicago's gay community.
"Ten years ago gay men made up 50 percent of our donations," said Mc-Guire. "Now that is probably 20 percent. But they still give us more of our snappy clothing." Perhaps he was referring to the Armani suits and Hilfiger pants stuffed in the racks, or the Dolce & Gabbana jacket hanging behind the counter. And there are only so many sources for a pair of size 12 heels.
The store has been part of the community for 20 years, moving to bigger spaces nearly every five years, and as it has expanded so has its donor and customer base, said McGuire. "People who shop and donate here cross a lot of boundaries, economic and cultural."
Sometimes the batty things people drop off boggle the minds of even experienced staffers. When 15 church pews arrived at the store, Davey, who claims he's seen it all, was concerned. "I thought we would never sell them."
Staff will make house calls to pick up items, particularly furniture. "We're often someone's last-ditch resort before they go out of town or if they can't sell it," said McGuire. "We're the last stop before the landfill."
"There was a long period when I never threw anything out," said Gary Cestaro, who was dropping off three white garbage bags full of clothes. "But in the last year I've started purging. They're mostly things I thought were nice, but I never wore them."
In the back storage room, McGuire pulled out a pile of movie-related newspaper clippings dating back to the 1950s, all mounted on loose-leaf paper. "See those over there?" he asked, pointing to six Kellogg's Corn Flakes boxes in a stack by the wall. "They're all filled with the same stuff. Now what do I do with this? Maybe I bind them and someone will buy it."
Occasionally donations lean toward the macabre, and since every sale at the Brown Elephant means more money for the clinic, McGuire occasionally faces a tough decision. "Look at this," he said with a frown, uncovering a folded square of worn red cloth he has stashed beside his desk. It was a gigantic World War II-era swastika flag. "I certainly do not feel comfortable putting this on the floor. And if I burn it, do I just make the others in existence more valuable? Maybe I'll contact someone in the community who deals with war memorabilia. I don't know." He leaned back in his office chair, putting his hands behind his head.
Mostly, though, the merchandise tends be mundane, with an occasional foray into the X-rated. "We do a brisk business in used pornography," said McGuire. "And we do a special sale during International Mr. Leather Week where we bring out all the chaps and harnesses we've saved all year."
Spending 16 years in close quarters with Chicago's hand-me-downs and jetsam has affected McGuire's personal philosophy. "Yes, I have bought used underwear and I have worn used shoes," he confessed. "I have gradually become a minimalist. The only area where I allow myself to be a retail consumer is with food. I just don't see the need to pay those prices."
Like a neighborhood bar, the Brown Elephant has its regulars, those who come in every day. Some even come in twice, once in the early afternoon and again at night, just in case they missed something. And there seems to be a buyer for everything, whether it's the Chanel bag dropped off with the $1,500 tag still on it (sold two weeks later for $400) or the 1950s Hoover floor buffer that sold for $35. Even the 15 church pews found new homes: although it took six weeks and the store had to drop the price from $125 to $75 to $35, one by one they went, mostly to bars, restaurants, or people living in lofts.
Out front, customer Dennis McGuire, wearing a "Nobody Knows I'm Elvis" T-shirt, showed off his purchase, a $4 CD sound track from Tucker: A Man and His Dream. "It goes for $80 on eBay," he said.
And Doug Spradlin, a store employee and frequent patron, said everything in his apartment is from the Brown Elephant. The item he cherishes most is a full-length beaver fur coat that he bought for $300. "Her name is Olivia," he said. "And she's beautiful."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.