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Jan17FriWhen a Salvation Army thrift store was threatened with closure, the community rallied to save it. January 17, 2020 by Ken Ramstead
The Salvation Army's thrift store in Hamilton, Ont., has been an integral part of the downtown core for almost two decades. More than a retail establishment, it had become a force for good in the community.
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Through The Salvation Army’s voucher program, more than $70,000 was given to those in need to shop free of cost. Countless items were shared with those needing immediate assistance. And additional funds were raised to support the fight against poverty, as well as other worthy causes.
“We’ve been in the downtown for so long that we can see our transformative effect,” says Craig Withers, the Hamilton downtown thrift store manager. “The Salvation Army shield means something down here.”
But in late 2017, the store received some devastating news that might have spelled the end of the Army’s beneficial presence in the area.
Craig was approached by the co-owners of the building and informed that they were planning to renovate and restore the heritage structure to its former glory.
That meant the thrift store would have to vacate the premises. But with a shortlist of viable retail locations in the area, available options were slim.
“The Salvation Army faced an uncertain future in the downtown,” says Craig.
It was at this point that The Salvation Army received unexpected help from an unlikely quarter—the landlords themselves.
“When we realized that The Salvation Army would have to move because of the renovations, we wanted to do the right thing and find a solution,” says Steve Kulakowsky of Core Urban Inc. developers.
“My partners and I are from Hamilton, and our business is in Hamilton,” Steve continues. “We care about the community; it’s more than just business for us.”
Steve approached The Salvation Army and assured them that there was no rush to move.
“They told us that they recognized how important the Army’s work in the downtown area was,” Craig says, “and that they were willing to accommodate us until suitable premises could be found.
“That was an amazing, unanticipated offer.”
Hammering Out a Plan
Even with these assurances, however, weeks turned into months, and more than a year went by without a suitable location being found, despite the best efforts of The Salvation Army’s National Recycling Operations (NRO).
And when the ideal spot was identified, the owners turned NRO down flat.
Once again, help arrived unexpectedly.
“When we explained our predicament to our landlords, Steve replied, ‘Just leave it to me,’ ” Craig smiles. “When we realized how perfect the location was for the Army, we approached the owners of the building ourselves with the sole intent of providing them with a new home,” says Steve. Between NRO, The Salvation Army’s territorial headquarters and Core Urban, a plan was hammered out with the owners.
Just two blocks from the old location, the new thrift store was ideally located between two central bus routes and accessible.
“We are still serving our core clientele, which is very important to us,” says Craig. “That’s why we put so much effort into keeping a location in the downtown.”
Over and above the fact that the new location is twice the size of the old store, the move came with other advantages.
“We now have a parking lot!” Craig says proudly. “Before, cars could not stop in front of the old store, which limited our donation base, and our NRO trucks had difficulty loading and unloading.” A large storeroom coupled with a bright and attractive décor make this an inviting and attractive shopping destination for the discerning bargain hunter.
More Than a Deal
Even before the doors opened last September, there was a long queue of people waiting to get in. Car horns honked joyfully as they passed the waiting throng.
Julie Alvey was one of those waiting patiently in line. A customer for more than a decade, she’d arranged a sitter to look after her children so she could be there for the 9 a.m. official opening.
Why is Julie a thrift-store shopper?
“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” she replies. “Finding that one item that’s just right. I love saving money and being frugal. But equally important, this store’s a way of keeping stuff out of the landfill.”
After the ceremonial ribbon-cutting, the doors officially opened to admit customers old and new. A celebratory cake was cut, and a Salvation Army band played joyful tunes. People thronged the aisles looking for great finds.
Jennifer Willis had been waiting for this day almost as soon as the old store had closed its doors this past summer to prepare for the move.
“I’ve always made it a point to stop at the thrift store,” she says. “I love the staff—they are so friendly and helpful—and I never walk out empty-handed.”
But it’s more than just the deals.
“This store has supported some wonderful causes that serve the Hamilton community, and they do a lot of beautiful work that I am proud to support,” Jennifer says. “On a personal level, I’ve witnessed numerous occasions where Craig has encountered people who are hungry or in want, and he has made sure that their needs were met. He exemplifies the good work that The Salvation Army does in Hamilton.”