Despite its reputation as a playground of the rich and famous, Martha’s Vineyard has a year-round population that is one of the poorest in the Commonwealth. With its seasonal economy and high cost of living, the Island can be a difficult place to live. Fortunately, there are people, and organizations, that have been helping Islanders get by for many years.

The Martha’s Vineyard Thrift Shop is one of those. It was started 50 years ago by a cousin of mine to help fund Community Services, an organization founded the year before to provide many needed services to the people of the Island. I have volunteered for more than 20 years at the Thrift Shop, dealing with a wide variety of customers, from the most affluent to the impoverished. I have seen how the shop makes life less difficult for many of my Island neighbors, offering them clothing, household goods, furniture, and collectibles, all at bargain prices,

Over the years, the thrift shop has touched many of us in so many ways.

The original shop was a small space on Main street, Vineyard Haven. The shop was much too small to handle furniture donations, so it was decided to borrow some space at the old Navy barracks at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. It was my job to go to the barracks each weekend and sell furniture. The minister of the West Tisbury Congregational Church had a pickup, and he and another man from town would collect any furniture that was available and deliver it to my furniture store.

One of my most interesting and challenging items at the airport store was not furniture, however. It was sneakers. A local store closed out a line of sneakers. “Would you take them,” they asked, “if we just dump them in the barracks?” Not understanding what they meant, I said, “Yes.” I knew that many of my customers needed new shoes.

The following weekend I arrived at my store to find a large room half full of sneakers with no matched pairs tied together. How do you sell those? I decided that for $1 you could go into the room and pick out a pair of sneakers that match. It took six months of weekends to sell a roomful of mismatched sneakers.

I continued to work weekends at the barracks. The roof leaked. Items got moldy. It was hot in summer and cold in winter. This continued for several years until the barracks were declared unsafe and were demolished.

The Thrift Shop outgrew its Main street store and moved to larger quarters in the area called Chicken Alley, so called because in the old days a number of families living there raised chickens. After the barracks went down I began to serve at the checkout counter at the new Chicken Alley store.

The Thrift Shop provides a significant amount of funding for Community Services, the largest human services provider on the Island. Despite the fact that our goods are priced so the neediest can afford them (and are free to those who can’t), there are always customers who try to get their purchases for less.

The conversation goes something like this:

Customer: Can you do better on this?

Me: If I did you couldn’t afford it.

They don’t understand what I mean.

On the other hand, we are always there for people who really are in need. On a recent occasion a man came in to get clothing for some children whose home had just burned to the ground. He had a full basket of kids’ jeans and shirts and we were very busy. I was not going to take the time to add up all those clothes so I told him, “Go man, this is what this place is for.” He refused and made me take $5. He came back later with the mother of the children to get some sweaters.

Community Services does have procedures to get letters from the main office for such situations, so people who need help don’t need to pay. But here were people out in the cold after a fire. What kind of a bureaucrat would make them get a letter? Not me. He did insist on paying for the sweaters, though I tried to convince him it was not at all necessary.

And what does the Thrift Shop do on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving? Everything is already supposed to be inexpensive so we say anything that is black is 50 per cent off.

This past year, Black Friday at the Thrift Shop was a mad house just like any of the big stores. All of our customers were there looking for black things. Of course all books had black ink so we unloaded a lot of books. One woman came with her maid to help her carry things and check for black clothes and other black items. She finally managed to spend $60. That is considerable in Thrift Shop dollars at 50 percent off.

The shop has a list of specials for certain days of the week when some categories are one-half off. The regulars know these days and will often try to hide some special piece of clothing or other items until the half-off day arrives. If they don’t, someone else will have bought it at the full 100 per cent price. If you want an item badly enough it is best to buy it when you see it. The rule is we don’t hold it unless it’s paid for.

One special is on Thursdays, when seniors (65 years or older) get 20 per cent off the stated price of any item. I always work on Fridays. Several seniors have asked me if they could have their senior discount on Friday. I have always told them, “Yes, you can, but only if you are senior to me.” I am 88 years old . The regular customers don’t try that because most know they are not senior to me. But this past summer one lady said, “Okay, I was 91 last month,” and she handed me her driver’s license to prove it. She got her discount.

My wife, Alvida, maintains the volunteer records for the shop. Ninety-one volunteers help perform the various tasks that keep the shop in operation, sorting and hanging clothes, pricing all sorts of items that have been donated (some of it junk) and finding a place to display them. The volunteers sign in and out on signup sheets. I bring the sign-up sheets home each Friday. We log them in on my computer and report back to Community Services each month. Volunteer hours are important and necessary data when applying for grant money.

In winter the shop is warm and people know they are always welcome. It is a retail store but also is a place where people come just to look around. I have seen people spend as many as two or three hours in the store and perhaps spend 50 cents or nothing.

Many people I see there don’t buy much but wander around and talk to each other. And that may be one of the most important community services of all.


Ralph J. Jones, 88, has volunteered at the Martha’s Vineyard Thrift Shop for more than 20 years.