In Thursday, December 14, the Scrap Exchange opened a new conventional thrift store at its Lakewood headquarters. Occupying eighteen thousand square feet in a space across the parking lot from the main building—a spot formerly occupied by Thrift World and the Durham Economic Resource Center's secondhand store—Scrap Thrift sells clothing, housewares, furniture, and everything else you'd expect. As of January, it will also have a full bookstore, thanks to the inventory left over from the closure of Durham's Nice Price Books last year.
Even though Durham already has a surfeit of secondhand stores—TROSA, the Durham Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army—the place was packed for the opening. Shoppers clustered around cash registers in lines of ten or more while others squeezed down crowded aisles holding cooking utensils and knickknacks. Perhaps this was because of the community respect the creative reuse center has built in Durham since 1991.
"I'm a huge supporter of the Scrap Exchange," said Durham resident Margo Scott, adding that she'd hoped to arrive at the store just as it opened. Its hours are eleven a.m. to seven p.m. Sundays through Fridays; it opens an hour earlier on Saturdays.
Scrap Thrift was the result of a recommendation from the Cascade Alliance, a group that helps nonprofits turn discarded items into income and jobs. The alliance suggested that, as a way of increasing its revenue, the Scrap Exchange could add traditional thrift items to its offerings of reusable materials like scientific glassware, fabric scraps, and leftover paper products. For an organization already devoted to collecting and repurposing refuse, it's a no-brainer. Thrift stores are almost always profitable, according to NARTS: The Association of Resale Professionals.
According to Diana Shark, the Scrap Exchange's marketing and special events coordinator, the center has more than doubled its sales since adding traditional thrift items to its main store two years ago.
But it's not just a money issue. Thrift stores tend to be very environmentally friendly, which aligns with a major part of the Scrap Exchange's mission: to promote sustainable economic development. After all, the inventory is all local. No CO2-belching tractor trailer is delivering giant shipments on a regular basis. Donations come from Triangle residents, and there's a constant flow of stuff.
"If you were to visit the processing area, they're hopping," says Shark. It's a win-win: the store is making money off our castoffs and, in return, it's providing us with a cheap, sustainable alternative to new clothes. It's also good for the local economy.
"This is a labor-intense industry," says Adele Meyer, executive director of NARTS. All those discarded items have to be sorted and tagged by humans. Even before it expanded, the Scrap Exchange had eight to ten people working in the processing room at any given time. That number will increase by several factors with the new store.
There's just one problem when it comes to retailing secondhand goods: What to do with the excess? Our society is drowning in a surplus of low-quality crap, and most thrift businesses can't sell everything they collect. Many, including Goodwill and the Salvation Army, sell the leftovers overseas, where the ocean of cheap clothing winds up destabilizing local textile industries. That's definitely not a victory in the "sustainable" column. The other main alternative is sending it to landfills—another unsavory option.
Some businesses find another way. TROSA, for example, is able to get rid of all of its inventory locally, starting with markdowns, moving to lower markdowns, and ending with a giant giveaway in the store parking lot.
"The last time we did that, everything there got taken," says Jeff Stern, TROSA's director of business operations.
Maybe the Scrap Exchange, with its broad customer base and network of likeminded companies, will be able to do something similar; it has so far. But the company says it may decide to sell leftover goods to offshore brokers in the future, rather than sending the excess to landfills.
The thrift store is the first step in an ambitious plan to develop the rest of the shopping center, which it bought last year, into a "reuse arts district." That will include maker spaces, a bigger community garden, bicycle repair and rebuilding shops, a black box theater, and much more. It will be the first complex of its kind in the country, working entirely with secondhand, reusable items and designed to create local jobs, act as a community hub, and spur creativity and entrepreneurship.
Those plans will be subsidized, in part, by the thrift store's almost certain profits, making Scrap Thrift not too different from Durham's other nonprofit thrift stores. Those help people with substance abuse and support homeless folks. But this one is set to do good, too, just in a different way.