Jennifer Hackett

Jennifer Hackett
St. Vincent de Paul Store
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 6 August 2008
Temperature: 76 F
Ceiling: blazing sun
Ground: concrete sidewalk
Wind: W at 7 mph

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TT with HD: Jennifer Hackett

Ann Arbor Buhr Park Teeter Totter
Totter 2.0 on location:
St. Vincent de Paul Store on Broadway St.

[Ed. note: To visit one of the best thrift stores in Ann Arbor head west over the the Broadway St. Bridge and you'll see it on your left. There's parking right in front of the building along Broadway, plus more behind Northside Cafe.]

HD: Welcome to the teeter totter!

JH: Well, thank you very much! What fun!

HD: Is this going to work for you?

JH: I think so. I think I'm good. You?

HD: I'm fine.

JH: Okay, alright.

HD: So, you guys open at 10 o'clock, which was just now. This was the opening routine? You just bring all the stuff out and set it out on the sidewalk?

JH: This is the routine. At 10 o'clock when NPR comes on and says, It's 10 o'clock, we start opening everything up. And depending on what size items we have, and how much room is allotted inside, that kind of calls for what goes outside. So these desks that we are dealing with, we can't maneuver around them inside. Not only that, but we want to bring them out, and get a little attention on them. So we bring them out. If it's raining, we get a little tight here, while we figure out what to do.

HD: So, do you have tarps that you can bring out, or?

JH: No.

HD: So it's just a matter of getting everything back inside?

JH: And we have a little slogan, We can make anything work. So it all works. You know, sometimes you just kind of have to go around something or maneuver. It works.

HD: So, these desks, the one set there--it's the one I'm looking at behind you--is five drawers. These are the new desks?

JH: Those are the dressers.

HD: Yeah, the dressers.

JH: We made the investment for the four-, the five-, and six-drawer dressers, in the beginning of April. Making that target audience of people who would go to Targets, and Kmarts, IKEAs, and buy something about this kind of quality for more money. So we were able to work with a company out of Wisconsin--who our friends in Jackson at St. Vincent de Paul work with--and we bought the dressers to see how they would work. And they are moving.

HD: So basically, to sell on the standard retail model, where you buy the desks, ...

JH: ... the dressers, yeah.

HD: I keep saying 'desks'!!

JH: I did, too! The whole time that we were arranging to pick up 'the desks' I was calling the dressers 'the desks'. Everything became a desk.

HD: I'm glad it's not just me. I don't know what it is, because I'm staring right at it and it's clearly not a desk.

JH: Exactly. Clearly.

HD: You know, when we were inside talking earlier, you were describing a lot of the various initiatives that you have, and the strategies that you have for dealing with the stuff that comes in, funneling it off ino different directions, or directly serving your mission--it sounds to me like a large part of what you do is coordinate with other non-profits?

JH: That's true. But what we do before we do that is we balance. It's a balancing game in there. It's less than 1000 square feet in there--for the office, for the collection bins, for the processing part, for the register ...

HD: ... so you just have the bottom floor?

JH: We just have the bottom floor. "What you see is what I've got," I like to tell people all the time. So it has to come in and be managed as fast as it goes out. So you have to try to sell it as fast as it comes in. And we are small enough, that I don't have a warehouse to call up and say, Hey, we got a lot of donations, come pick these up until I can deal with them. We are also small enough that it is August 1st, nobody is buying your winter coats right now. I have nowhere to store them.

HD: So it's not like you can just say, Okay, let's put out just summer-only clothing on display.

JH: Right. And another reason we can't do that is because our mission--the reason we are open--is to give to people who are in need. So, I have to be careful with what and how I put things on sale. Because I have to be sure that when somebody walks in to my store, I can help them.

Most of the people who shop in the store come in because they're in need. There are people who are regulars, and they know how to get a referral, and they maintain their wardrobe, and they do things like that. But there are people who come in merely carrying one bag because that's all they've got, and the weather turned. And those are the people who I have to be sure that it is on the rack for them, seasonally appropriate.

The guy who is sleeping out under the bridge does not want a down jacket right now. It's getting cold, but he can manage. So we have to be very careful. So we ask ...

HD: ... so you want to make sure that in December, when we get record-setting cold, that there is a down jacket for that guy.

JH: Yes, and that's the balance. That's why we are always putting out a call. The clothing comes in all the time. But it comes in from women. Women donate, women shop, women are that 'fun' turnover. They're in finding that new thing to wear to the party, or to change that outfit up. The majority of the men who come in, will come in because they have to. And the majority of the men come in with the referral, are just out of prison, they're sleeping under the bridge, they just got out of the hospital, some guy stole their bag from Delonis. Those are the guys who come in here.

HD: So when you say 'sleeping under the bridge', do you mean that as a figure of speech, or do you mean that literally under this bridge right down here.

JH: I mean that as a reality. Sure. Right under the bridge. And then they go farther up into the park. There's camps all over town. There's camps all over, they're out on the other side of I-94. They'll come in and they'll always say something like, Hey, we got wet last night, do you have of this or that?

HD: Do you ever visit the actual camps?

JH: You know, I have been in areas where I knew that there was a camp, and I back away. Because I don't want to disrespect it. You know, that's their home. Now we have a lot of regulars in here, and I if I was out and I saw one of my regulars--I mean that as somebody who is a routine shopper, and I know their name--I would walk right up and say, Hey! I would not have a problem with that. But I don't want to just walk in there--like I wouldn't want anybody walking into my house, you know--knock on the door!

HD: Before I forget, tell me about the Bag Sale.

JH: The Bag Sale!

HD: It starts tomorrow, right?

JH: It starts Friday and Saturday [8-9 August 2008].

HD: Oh, so not tomorrow.

JH: This is our fourth one. And what we did was, everybody has these big, end-of-season sales. Well, I don't have that kind of stuff. I don't have a back room waiting for fall stuff to come out. I have three Rubbermaid totes full of stuff and that's all I can store! So we wanted to do something for ourselves and draw attention to ourselves and remind people that we are here. Because when the Broadway Bridge went down for 18 months [for the reconstruction] ...

HD: ... did that really hurt ...?

JH: ... oh, it killed us. And it has not come back up. It just hasn't come back up. We said, Hey, August is our anniversary, August the students come back ...

HD: ... so what year anniversary is it?

JH: It's our 40th anniversary. The store has been open for 40 years.

HD: Wow. Happy anniversary!

JH: Thank you! And it was developed under the mission of St. Vincent: Give to the poor, they will always be there. And there is a line in the Bible that says, Whatever you do for the least of men, you have done for me. And that was Christ talking to his disciples, he said, When you clothe the naked man, you clothe me, when you feed the hungry man, you have fed me. [Ed. note: Matthew 25:31-46] That's why St. Vincent's came about. We have been here 40 years, so to celebrate--we did it in August, that's when our papers came through--we have a Bag Sale. We kind of took it from other people who use kind of the same idea. You get a brown paper bag on Friday for five dollars ...

HD: ... so you buy a bag here?

JH: We give you the bag, you go shop. And then you check out.

HD: So it's whatever will fit in the bag?

JH: Whatever will fit in the bag. And as long as the handles come together. So if your handles don't come together, you either need to re-pack your bags, or make some decisions ...

HD: ... [laugh] ....

JH: ... don't laugh, it happens. It's an experience. Or you buy another bag.

HD: Statistically speaking, how many people go for the let-me-pack-this-bag-tighter strategy?

JH: Most.

HD: Really?

JH: Oh yeah.

HD: Really, that's like the first-line strategy?

JH: And we have even gotten to the point where somebody will shop, they really don't need or want anything else, the handles won't close, we've been really good about, Let's see if we can help you out! And we have repacked bags. It's like, Get it out of here.

HD: But you would never just say, Let's bend the rule? You would never just say, Aw, it doesn't really matter if the handle come together. That's something you really stick to?

JH: You know what, we do. Because the bags are five bucks. And the money that goes into that register lets me give out grocery coupons. So the grocery coupons, come out of the bag sale. The electrical shut off notice, that comes out of the bag sale. The guy who needs boots, that comes out of the bag sale. So you know, we have been here 40 years, we are a charity, people know what we do, and we don't think it's unreasonable to say, You know what, we have rules, too!

HD: So the handles just gotta get together.

JH: Yeah, it's all for charity, it's not so that I can go on vacation.

HD: These grocery bags, my experience with the paper kind, is that typically the handles sometimes tear off. So do you ever have people who try to force it that extra bit and they end up tearing the handle?

JH: Nope.

HD: So you guys are the ones who apply the handle test?

JH: Right. I don't think I have ever had anybody hands-on-hips challenge me. They know what it's about, it's a fun thing. If you don't think there's five dollars worth of stuff in that brown paper bag, then I've got a lesson for you with a calculator! I mean they fold it, and they roll it, and tuck it, and oh, it's packed, yeah.

HD: So, you mentioned the Broadway Bridge [reconstruction] as something that decreased your traffic here. Did it decrease your donations, or decrease the shopping, or ...?

JH: ... no. Donations do not stop. Donations, for us personally in this store, they don't stop. Now, not only do we have a very devoted donation community, we have the Church. So in the winter ...

HD: ... and this is the St. Thomas the Apostle ...

JH: ... St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church. When I don't have winter boots for men, I put a note in the bulletin and I say, Hey, maybe we need to get into our closets, because I've got guys walking out of here who don't have boots. And they come in. And the Church is very generous to us. But that's the spirit of our mission. I tell people this all the time: I work for God. He is my co-pilot, He tells me what I can do and who I serve, and everybody is the same, and it's been a good lesson.

HD: So in the last two weeks, I have read about a jazz and blues festival being canceled for lack of funding, Peter Sparling's Dance Gallery Foundation not being able continue in their space, Michigan Theater--the venerable Michigan Theater--having problems with revenues being down. Have you experiencing any of that kind of impact at all?

JH: Well, yes in the way of monies. Monies are down.

HD: [Ed. note: A woman emerges from the store with a camera.] Should we smile for the camera?

JH: This is a fabulous volunteer, Annie Capps ! Who volunteers every Wednesday ...

HD: ... Annie Capps?! You were just at the Old Town! [Ed. note: The Old Town offers free live music every Sunday night and Annie played that venue.]

AC: Not too long ago!

JH: Yeah, she was! Annie has volunteered here since before I started here. And God bless her heart, not only does she volunteer once a week faithfully, she does all of our graphics for us, she developed our website for us--at a ridiculously undercut price. The one bead of sweat she drew cost more than what she charged us for the website. It's beautiful, I can't say enough about my volunteers! We should talk about the volunteers.

But you asked about the money. When the Bridge came in, the money went down. And when the thrift store across the way, Ann Arbor Thrift, when they moved up to Washtenaw, that hurt us.

HD: Really?

JH: You make a loop if you're a regular 'thrifter', you make a loop.

HD: So they weren't so much competition, they meant increased traffic?

JH: Right, right. I'd love to see six more. I'd love to see Thrift Store Row out on South Industrial come to Broadway, that's what I'd like to see.

HD: So if Kiwanis brought the Rummage Sale out here, you wouldn't mind?

JH: I wouldn't mind a bit. They could only increase my business. And on Saturdays I get that. We get because this is a big walking area right here. There's a lot of foot traffic, people going into Kerrytown to the market, they're going next door to Northside Grill for breakfast. So we get their Saturday traffic, we sure do.

HD: There's been a couple of occasions where I have wound up going into the store basically because I was killing time waiting for a table at the Northside Grill.

JH: Right, there you go, thank you very much! And usually you can find something here that you can't live without. There's got to be something in there that you just can't live without.

HD: So is there anything in there right now where you think, Man, if nobody buys that I'm just going to buy that for myself!

JH: You know, I have really worked through that very well.

HD: Oh, yeah?

JH: In that I work for one of the best thrift stores in town, and it comes in. There's nothing that comes in any day that I can't live without. But you have to be careful, otherwise you become a pack rat.

HD: So your house is full, is that it?

JH: No, it's not! I'm really good about that. And I'm really good about--this is a theory that a lot of people have, who are regular customers at the store--they bring a bag in to take something out. You bring one and you take one out.

HD: You have to maintain the balance.

JH: Yeah, it is. Otherwise, you know, it can be--you know pack rats.

HD: I do know them. I know one quite well, in fact.

JH: Is that right? It's got a purpose for everyone. For someone who can't afford to buy it on their own, or someone who it would really hurt that budget if they had to buy those clothes this month or this week. If somebody wants to trade in or trade out. Everybody comes into this store. We get this a lot, too: Someone will come into the store and say, Do you ever get ____? Yes. We have we have been here 40 years, yes, we get it. If it's not here now, it will be here.

HD: So what's like the weirdest thing you've seen come in, in your four years here?

JH: We have a chest x-ray hanging in the back.

HD: I saw that!

JH: Yeah, we don't know who it belongs to, we don't know anything about it.

HD: Is there a price tag on it?

JH: No, it's not for sale. We get a lot of conversation about it, but it's not for sale.

HD: [laugh]

JH: Jesse and I like to laugh, we got a little bag full of--we call them 'dead Barbie parts'. It was quite literally little Barbies, and little plastic dolls, heads and legs, and you open it up, and you say, Well, okay.

HD: Just out of curiosity, back to the chest x-ray, have you had like a physician come in--what do they call the kind of physician who specializes in reading x-rays?

JH: Like a thoracic guy?

HD: Yeah, like to look at it, and say, Can you tell us anything about this patient?

JH: No, and of the few physicians who have been through, we have never thought to ask.

HD: That's something that needs to be followed up on! Well, listen, is there anything you wanted to make sure you mentioned before we hop off? The Bag Sale goes on for a second day, right?

JH: Friday and Saturday 10:00-5:00, 10:00-3:00. Five dollars Friday, three dollars Saturday.

We have a benefit coming up, Sunday, September 14 at the Firefly Club. Susan Chastain has donated the Firefly Club, and she'll be making our appetizers and finger foods. Music will be by Susan Chastain, Glenn Tucker, and our own Annie Capps.

HD: Oh, wow!

JH: It's a benefit for us ...

HD: ... and what's the date on that, again?

JH: September 14th, it's a Sunday. It's at the Firefly Club from 12:00 to 3:00. Tickets are $35 and they are available at the church, at the store, and the Firefly Club.

HD: So you get good music, good food, and good company ...

JH: ... and for the right thing! We're going to have a gift basket raffle.

What I want people to know is that we are the little thrift store at the bottom of the bridge, that we sort of get forgotten, because Thrift Store Row is up there. But if you're doing the circuit, you know, you've been to six or seven stores, and then you say, Oh, that little St. Vincent's on the other side of the bridge, well, we won't go over there today--well, we need those people to come over here and to spend $1.50 or $15 or $25, so that the guy who is walking around in the wintertime with no socks on his feet, and holes in the soles of his shoes, that I can give him a pair of boots. Because it doesn't work like that everywhere. A guy can walk in here in the middle of winter in my store and say, I'm cold, and he walks out warm. And that doesn't happen everywhere. And we do it, because we are called to do it. And it's for the right thing.

HD: All right. Listen, thanks for riding out here in the hot sun.

JH: Hey, thank you for being here early, so that I could make it through.

HD: All right, let's hop off.