October 23, 2020

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Pandemic inspires thrift shift

Second-hand shops adapt through more-than-bargained-for challenges

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Winnipeg and the city went into lockdown, the fate of second-hand stores seemed uncertain.

As restrictions began to ease, stores were able to open their doors again, refreshed with new plexiglass barriers, an abundance of hand sanitizer and strict limits on how many people are allowed in a store at one time — all precautions they will continue to follow during the current code orange designation, which ramped up public health orders and restrictions in Winnipeg on Monday, in response to a surge in local COVID-19 cases.

At Mission Thrift Store, at 701 Regent Ave. W., which reopened in May, there’s one place customers won’t see a change: inside the changing rooms.

"We had to close our change rooms because we would have had to sanitize them after every use," manager Jennifer Smith says. "We didn’t have the manpower for that."

Receiver Alison Seavers now loads all donations to the Mission Thrift Store into a shipping container, where they are quarantined. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Receiver Alison Seavers now loads all donations to the Mission Thrift Store into a shipping container, where they are quarantined. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Second-hand stores were affected by early restrictions and protocols, such as quarantining donated items — which was a challenge for stores in small spaces — and a shift in the hours stores are able to be open.

"We quarantined donations for a minimum of 72 hours," says Smith. "We take donations now only twice a week, rather than every day like we used to. That allows us to quarantine and get a rotation in because it all has to come in the store then and be processed."

"We had to quarantine all our donations for at least four days," says Karl Langelotz, manager of the MCC Furniture and Thrift Store at 511 Selkirk Ave. "That was a bit of a challenge for us as we don’t have a lot of space. That lasted about a month and then those restrictions eased."

With second-hand stores playing an important role in the communities in which they are located, many stores have worked hard to find ways to continue operating. For some, that means limiting the hours they are open to protect staff — many of whom are seniors and part of a high-risk group.

"The staff are all volunteers," says Smith, "and they are all in the higher-risk category. So what we did was we changed our hours from 10 to 5 to noon to 5. That allows them to still come in in the morning and work without customers around.

MCC Thrift Store manager Karl Langelotz says sales have been much the same at the Selkirk Avenue shop despite a reduction in operating hours. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

MCC Thrift Store manager Karl Langelotz says sales have been much the same at the Selkirk Avenue shop despite a reduction in operating hours. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"It makes them feel a little safer."

"We’re trying to keep our volunteers safe," Langelotz says. "We’re only open three days a week and used to be open six days a week. We have a number of volunteers over 70 and a few didn’t feel safe coming back to volunteer. For those reasons, we just didn’t have as many volunteers to be open more than that."

Despite the limited hours, Langelotz says sales have been about the same. The store implemented a mandatory mask policy a month ago and has also restricted the number of people who can be in the store at a time.

"We limited to six to eight customers, and that works fine," he says. "I think we have some nice weather to thank for that. There were very few days when it was raining outside or cold. Now that’s going to become a bit more of an issue."

As the weather turns colder and people are less inclined to wait in long lines outdoors, one option could be digital thrifting.

Receiver Alison Seavers (left) unloads donations from Monique Bessems' car at the Mission Thrift Store. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Receiver Alison Seavers (left) unloads donations from Monique Bessems' car at the Mission Thrift Store. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

At Plato’s Closet at 1119 St. James St., collections of select items are now available to purchase on the store’s website (platos-closet-winnipeg-st-james.myshopify.com). The store offers gently used brand-name clothing in styles geared towards teens and 20-somethings, and their online shopping has a curbside pickup option for people who aren’t comfortable entering the store.

There are also apps available, including Depop and Poshmark. Both act as a marketplace where people can directly list items they are selling. Both are very customizable and pieces can be sorted by type, size, colour and brand; they are an especially great way to find affordable, fashionable and well-made plus-size clothing. The app formats look and behave a lot like Instagram and the items available include not only clothing and shoes but jewelry, makeup and even electronics.

Even Instagram itself has emerged in the pandemic as a hub for second-hand, thrift and vintage shopping. Accounts such as @thriftandthrive_, @thriftyhippywpg, @addictedtothrift, @thriftnihilist all feature curated second-hand, thrift and vintage items on display and available for pickup (and sometimes delivery).

But no matter where you get your second-hand goods — or your reason for shopping second-hand — there are always considerations to keep in mind.

Plus-size clothing in general is difficult to come by even at full price, which means the options in second-hand stores are even more limited. While oversized clothing is a trendy look, it’s always thoughtful to remember that for plus-size people who rely on second-hand shopping, purchasing oversized items if you don’t genuinely need them is contributing to the limited options for others.

All donations to Mission Thrift Store are quarantined in this shipping container before going on the floor. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

All donations to Mission Thrift Store are quarantined in this shipping container before going on the floor. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

And, as winter approaches, many people will be turning to second-hand stores to find gear to keep them warm and safe until the spring. So while having multiple winter coats might be fun, always keep in mind the difference between a want and a need.

Whatever your reason to shop second-hand, the quick return of thrift stores during the pandemic is a sign that fast fashion is on its way out. Stores that focus on recycling, reusing and repurposing serve an increasingly important role, and the second-hand stores of Winnipeg are proving that not even a pandemic can stop them.

frances.koncan@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @franceskoncan

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