It seems nothing can stop the PTO Thrift Shop.
The 2006 fire that destroyed all the merchandise in its South State Street location didn't stop it: the board found a better location on South Industrial, along the booming "resale row" with Recycle Ann Arbor's ReUse Center, Top Drawer, and the nearby Salvation Army store. The discovery in 2010 of an IRS rule prohibiting parent volunteers from earning money for their kids' school trips didn't either. The shop saw its daily volunteer count drop from fifteen people to two. Yet it ended that year with $723,000 in income, a $140,000 increase over the year before, and sent $88,000 to the district's schools.
Forced to go pro, the shop thrived. Last year it sold almost $1 million worth of donated clothing, furniture, craft supplies and linen. Even after paying its now almost entirely professional staff, it was able to give $297,000 to the schools. "They are consistently one of our most generous outside funders," says schools spokesperson Liz Margolis.
The shop was launched twenty years ago at Tappan Middle School. "Ann Holz spearheaded fund-raising there, and one year she said at a meeting, 'I am so tired of selling candy and wrapping paper I could scream!'" board chair Janet Fritsch recalls. "Ann had visited her sister in Chapel Hill and found out about the thrift shop there. She brought the information back to Ann Arbor, and a group of us, maybe eight total, put together the first sale." It earned $5,000.
The shop passed through a series of small buildings, Fritsch says, until settling in the mid-1990s "in the building that the Salvation Army is in now, an old building that was so cold in the winter. But we stayed there until the landlord jacked up the rent. Then we went to South State Street."
Since moving to South Industrial after the fire, "we've tripled the amount of space and tripled or quadrupled our sales," Fritsch says. "The space is better organized, and the location is perfect. And we've been very
lucky with managers and staff."
They've been especially lucky with their executive director. "Ann Farnham started out as a volunteer," recalls Fritsch. "Then she became a board member. Then she became executive director. Ann has really done a phenomenal job and took it to the next level."
When Farnham joined the board in 2010, she recalls, "only sixteen out of thirty-three schools were involved with the shop, and I got all the schools signed on in two years." That raised awareness of the shop throughout the district-and helped many less-affluent schools raise money for enrichment activities. Since all the stock and most of the equipment are donated, nearly all the shop's profits go to the schools. Buoyed by the shop's continued success, last fall the board extended its lease for another ten years.
Margolis says the shop's donations "contributed to our field trip transportation fund, funded School Messenger, which is how we communicate with all our families, and maintained after-school middle school busing." Fritsch believes their work is so vital that "the thrift shop should exist forever and ever, or as long as there are schools.
"We're hoping for bigger and better things," the board chair adds. "We have a little over 50 percent of that building now, and we could double the size of the space."
"I see us in another location but keeping this location," says Farnham. "We're far from the west side, and a location there with just clothing could be great if the right opportunity came up."
The following Calls & letters item was published in the March 2014 Ann Arbor Observer:
Launching the PTO Thrift Shop
"I would never scream-that's not my personality," Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop founder Ann Holz said in a phone call. Our February Inside Ann Arbor on the shop quoted board chair Janet Frisch's recollection that Holz was so tired of traditional school fundraisers that "she could scream." We could and should have asked Holz herself.
We did quote Holz in a 1996 Marketplace Changes item on the shop-and if we'd reread that piece, Holz noted, we could have avoided another error: the relative she visited in Chapel Hill, where she got the idea, "wasn't my sister, it was my sister-in-law." Holz also stressed that though its first sale was held at Tappan Middle School, the PTO Thrift Shop was never a Tappan project-it was always intended to benefit the entire district.
[Originally published in February, 2014.]