Thrift stores in Colorado thrive during pandemic, deluged with donations, then shoppers after shutdown

When the pandemic stopped cars from coming to the tour parking lot at the Coors Brewery in Golden, thrift store operator Kelly Ivan sensed the impact on her shop would be heavy.

For more than two decades, the modest-sized Christian Action Guild thrift store and food pantry at the corner of Ford and 14th streets on the city’s east side has relied on the people flocking to tour one of America’s oldest breweries just across the street. Waiting to enter the brewery, or just leaving, people would wander into the shop.

The business closures and home-confinement that came with the pandemic crisis put an immediate strain on the shop’s operations, though its pantry remained opened.

“A lot of our business is generated from those tours,” said Ivan, CAG’s executive director. “After we lost that exposure and the customers, it was hard, but things have picked up.”

But if customers weren’t pouring in, donations were.

“We simply couldn’t handle what was coming in for us. Carloads had to be turned away,” Ivan said. “Our space is so limited, we just couldn’t put it anywhere.”

Stay-at-home orders in the first months of the pandemic gave people something that wasn’t in great supply while at work: time.

“People were cleaning out their closets and attics, and once they were done with theirs, they’d go over to their Mom’s and do it there,” Ivan mused.

Up and down the Front Range, thrift shops that were closed to bargain shoppers continued to accept donations. The pile-up of clothing, housewares, and furniture was unlike anything most had seen before.

“Instead of people showing up in their car with a bag clothing, they were coming in with their 3-ton pickup truck and dropping off in massive volumes,” said Bradd Hafer, marketing manager for Goodwill of Colorado. “We had to reduce our hours at the donation centers just to catch up.”

“The biggest standout was the furniture,” Hafer said. “People were homebound, looking at the same four walls and figured they were tired of it.”

At the Assistance League of Denver on the city’s east side, the stream of donations forced the staff to rent a PODS storage container.

“We didn’t want to turn anyone away, but we were getting more donations than we ever have before and were having a problem keeping up,” thrift chairperson Vada Robinson said. “We didn’t re-open until June 1, and oh my gosh, they just kept coming in.”

But the pandemic also brought additional challenges. Wall-to-wall racks of clothing and housewares with small, often cramped aisles that are common in many thrift shops were suddenly unacceptable under the new rules to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

Shop volunteers are frequently older people, deemed the most at-risk to the impacts of the virus, forcing some shops to reduce staffing even further.

“With all the restrictions and the capacity and rules that Denver required, it was a great challenge look at opening again,” Robinson said. “Then there were all the new rules on how to handle the donations, the quarantining for processing, and other safety precautions. It was a whole laundry list of things that no one had ever dealt with before.”

At Goodwill, for instance, there were protective shields at the cash register, changing rooms were closed, courtesy coffee centers were removed and aisles were restricted to a single direction.

And still, the donations kept coming. And then the shoppers.

“It’s shown how critical we all are in providing essential services and relief,” Lewis said. “The public has been very generous about that. When the economy is stressed and there’s more unemployment, our importance is emphasized.”


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