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Landmark thrift shop closing in face of growing competition

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 23. 2015 8:47PM
Customer Ashley DeJesus of Manchester, right, gets helped by Myriam Fonseca at St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — The St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, which has operated in Manchester for 55 years, will soon close, the victim of competition from larger, high-volume thrift stores such as Savers and Goodwill, its manager said this week.

Manager Ray Rioux said he has stopped accepting donations at the 175 Wilson St. thrift store and has scheduled April 30 as the closing date, although he may keep the store open for a few days longer.

Rioux said donations have remained strong. But sales have dropped in half over the last five years, as customers navigated to the larger thrift stores. Savers, a for-profit company, and Goodwill, have both opened large stores in locations close to South Willow Street in the last few years.

“The big box stores, they’ve done in a lot of other mom-and-pop stores around town,” Rioux said.

His Wilson Street store is about 3,000 square feet, according to city property records. Both Savers and Goodwill are more than five times that size.

On Wednesday, one customer looked through St. Vincent racks. Jeans sell for $5, blouses range from $2 to $8, and high-end dresses go for $20 and $25. Leather couches are $125. On Wednesdays and Fridays, everything in the store goes for half what’s on the price tag.

Myrian Fonseca, the sales manager, didn’t hide her displeasure.

“Nobody’s happy,” she said. Now 70, she said she will probably retire.

Fonseca moved to the United States from Uruguay in 1978. In those early years, she purchased clothes and furniture for her family from St. Vincent. Her two children have graduated from college and now have good jobs.

“I love the people, I love this place,” said Fonseca, who said part of her job was to help new arrivals struggling with a new language and customs. “I understand what it’s like to come to this country.”

Rioux said sales fell in spite of the recession, which usually provides a boom in the thrift store business.

Last year, sales amounted to $125,000, not enough to pay the mortgage, insurance and wages for him and four other workers.

His organization has also terminated an arrangement it had with refugee resettlement organizations. St. Vincent delivered new mattresses and furniture to newly arrived refugees, and it billed the resettlement organizations.

But Rioux said he didn’t have the cash flow to borrow money to acquire the mattresses.

St. Vincent is not the only local thrift shop to face challenges from the larger stores.

Families in Transition, which operates thrift stores in Manchester and Concord, took a hit the first year that Savers opened on South Maple Street, said Michele Talwani, vice president of economic development and marketing for Families in Transition.

She said the agency’s OutFITters stores lowered prices, brought in more volunteers, added more racks and started selling furniture. It devoted more space to its top three sales categories: women’s clothing, furniture and housewares.

Pickup and delivery of furniture “is really a hot item for us,” Talwani said.

And the stores devoted more effort to marketing. They send out direct mailers, advertise in weekly publications and flood social media.

Talwani said OutFITters also emphasizes its New Hampshire presence and the fact that any profits go to Families in Transition, in contrast to the for-profit Savers.

“All the proceeds we make stay hyper-local,” Talwani said.

Savers partners with non-profit groups and pays them for donations they or the public deliver to its stores.

Rioux said St. Vincent advertises, emphasizes higher-end clothing, and it picks up and delivers furniture. But he has been unable to keep its customers.

Despite the Roman Catholic roots of the St. Vincent store, Rioux said it is not owned by any church or the Diocese of Manchester. He said it is owned by a non-profit organization, the Salvage Bureau of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Ste. Marie’s Conference, which received permission from the St. Vincent de Paul Society to use its name.

He said the building is listed for $150,000, and any proceeds will be used to pay off the mortgage and outstanding bills.

“It’s disappointing to close,” Rioux said, “but it has to be done.”

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