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The World's Nicest Thrift Store, Only in Aspen

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

“Someone brought in a live bird’s nest,” says Christina Patterson, President of The Thrift Store of Aspen, recalling some of the more colorful items donated to what may well be the nation’s nicest thrift store. From Bogner, to Postcard, to Prada and Gucci with tags still on, the well-known excess of Aspen often finds its way through the Thrift Store’s back door.

“We wonder why people bring some of this stuff in,” continues Patterson; “we got a Ralph Lauren fur-lined coat, straight from the store and still wrapped, a set of Amen Wardy silver bowls…we once had a drop-off of this amazing outdoor gear, new skis, brand new Patagonia jacket, fishing gear; I mean, did the girl have a fight with her boyfriend?” she asks, with a chuckle.

In operation since 1947, The Thrift Store of Aspen just renewed a 45-year lease, at $1 a year, and got a new facelift for the occasion. As the old building was torn down, the non-profit raised the needed $2.2 million to build a new home. Donations poured in from all walks of community life; the Elk’s Club donated $100,000, while a private party donated $300,000, responding to the new slogan and call to action: “Imagine how far your gift will go!” All donations, big and small are tax-deductible and receipts are provided.

Proceeds from all sales - clothes, books, frying pans, picture frames, Bogner ski suits, even bird’s nests - benefit over 200 valley-wide organizations, with hundreds of thousands being donated to the environment, animal welfare, schools, seniors and always, to those who come to the back door.

The quality of the thrift aside, The Thrift Store of Aspen is unique for another impressive reason: it’s the only non-profit whose staff is entirely volunteer run and operated. Not one lady draws a salary. And indeed, it’s all about the ladies: “Men help from time to time but they aren’t actual members; the actual charter is for the Ladies of the Thrift Store,” explains Patterson.

While most of her fellow volunteers are long-time old-timers, Patterson herself is in her early 40s. She’s worked as House Manager at the Wheeler Opera House and the Aspen Music Festival and is now a massage therapist, as well as the new President of the Thrift Store of Aspen. “Years ago, I was having coffee at Zele with Sue Colby, the then President. She asked me if I wanted to volunteer and I started out two times a month, for three months, the volunteer trial period.”

After succeeding at her post and demonstrating her commitment to being a part of it all, the Ladies asked Patterson to become Vice President, in 2001: “I think it’s because I had a truck,” she recalls, with a laugh.

“I was VP for seven years and just grew to love what we do for the community. There’s not a bad thing about it! It’s just all positive, all giving from the heart; it’s kooky to see people around town in your clothes, and you in theirs, and there’s something captivating about the volunteers; there’s a sweetness, a poignancy, a real-ness of the women who work here. “

Truly, it’s this rich sense of heritage and history, which make the Thrift Store so special. “I’m captivated by the sense of old Aspen,” says Patterson, “the historic past that I didn’t have; older ladies who grew up on ranches and are part of the community. Where else could I find that? It’s the most concentrated amount of historical Aspenites in one place!”

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Nancy Gensch is another long-time local and lady of The Thrift Store. She fondly recalls the recent anniversary celebration, commemorating over 60 years of the Thrift Store with a luncheon and presentation at the Hotel Jerome. “We put together old scrapbooks with pictures and memories, and a slideshow of some of the more memorable moments, over the years…it’s a pivotal time for us now, this next 40 years; we can keep all this good energy and move it forward for the next generation.”

From retired schoolteachers, to full-time moms, those who don’t work and those who do, the volunteer staff comes together with a sense of communal pride, whose ripple effect extends well beyond the roundabout. The Ladies make 1000s of bags and donate them to “Downvalley”, meaning any place outside of Aspen. Beneficiaries include actual places of need along Highway 82, to out-of-state Indian Reservations and all the way to Africa.

“This organization touches more people in the valley than you can imagine,” continues Gensch. “And it’s more fun to volunteer here than any place you can imagine! Over 60 years, and no one’s taken a penny for her time. We’ve really learned how valued we are in the community, as well,” she continues.

The Thrift Store of Aspen’s new floor plan means new feng shui, allowing for more organization, wider aisles and less-cluttered browsing.

But like any treasure trove, there’s still the thrill of the hunt: sifting through shelves, drawers, around corners and against walls in search of a find. To leave it lying around means to find it on the racks - or out the door - minutes later.

An Australian woman, visiting her daughter, stopped by the store to browse. She came in with a very expensive $500 walker which she left unattended, by the front door. Minutes later, she came downstairs and went looking for it, only to discover it’d just been sold – for $3. “Luckily, we were able to track it down,” says Patterson, with a laugh; “Tax-deductible receipt and all!”