When the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shelter-in-place orders hit San Benito County in mid-March, local secondhand stores had to close down. The managers of three stores—Worth Saving Mercantile and Thrift, Hazel’s Thrift Shop and Fool’s Gold—spoke to BenitoLink about the difficulties of running their businesses during shutdown.
“All of my volunteers at Worth Saving, except for one, are over the age of 65,” said Linda Lampe, CEO of Hollister Community Outreach. Worth Saving is Hollister Community Outreach’s only income stream, and its closure hindered the nonprofit’s main work, which is to provide for the county’s poor.
“So I made the heartbreaking decision a few days before the order to close, because I looked at the circumstances, the people that we serve, and the volunteers that serve, and realized that we hit every one of those categories that are at high risk.”
Halina Kleinsmith, owner of Fool’s Gold in San Juan Bautista, said the store lost a “vital connection with our regulars.”
“Beyond having our income affected, it [hurt] our psychic income as well,” she said. “There were five others that opened the same weekend I did. We all decided we would not open until after July 4. Many of us have special people in our lives that need protection.”
Hazel’s Thrift Shop, which supports Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital, adopted a strict regimen of sanitation, mask-wearing and social distancing during its one open week in early July. Soon after reopening, manager Karen Breen said the store closed again under orders from the hospital’s management, and it has not reopened since.
The three secondhand stores did not take up online sales during the shutdown, and none applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). In the first place, none of them really have employees. Hazel’s runs on the efforts of more than 20 volunteers; Worth Saving has a volunteer workforce and four workers on another agency’s payroll; and Kleinsmith and her husband Bruce are the sole workers at Fool’s Gold. The store managers were also intent on avoiding debt.
“When you do the math on the interest rates, it does not prove to be a viable option for me,” Kleinsmith said of the EIDL and other loans.
“I did not want to take on any new debt,” Lampe said. “We were close to losing our place there at My Father’s House, because we didn’t have the money to pay the overhead and utilities.”
Instead of loans, Worth Saving received two grants totalling $10,680 from the Community Foundation for San Benito County, thanks to a letter of recommendation from the Community Action Board. The grants are meant to fund their charitable activities, rather than pay rent on the Worth Saving building at 101 Fifth Street in Hollister.
A significant amount of San Juan Bautista’s commerce is transacted in “secondhand stores, antique stores, thrift stores,” Kleinsmith said. “Not all of those survived.” She said customers were glad to return to the shop when it reopened in late June, and since reopening the store has seen new clients.
Breen said that “the volunteers of Hazel’s Thrift Store are looking forward to reopening and serving the community as soon as possible.”
Even with Worth Saving shut down, Lampe said that “we’ve actually increased our services to the community.” Hollister Community Outreach has increased its mobile service to homeless and homebound beneficiaries, food distributions, and more.
However, the stress of providing for the community with insufficient staff has been hard on the Lampe family. “My husband and I are working seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I have not had one day off since March 17. My husband will be 74 next week and I am 73. I feel very energized and very thankful. I know it has to be God that’s giving us the strength to keep on doing this.”
Lampe said many of her volunteers would like to come back to work, “but their children or their grandchildren are concerned about their health because they are over 65. Who has time to volunteer except senior citizens?” she laughed. “But I was hoping that during COVID that maybe some of the folks that are home, that are not in school, college students or younger people could come and work at the store.”
She plans to hold a grand reopening on Oct. 18.
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