Barnard College Thrift Shop

If only that Vivienne Westwood corset top you shelled out a hundred bucks for at Beacon’s Closet last weekend had gone to a good cause—say, a scholarship for your fellow Barnard sisters, so that they too could afford to splurge the meager earnings from their library work studies on looking like a Kate Bush music video extra!  Unfortunately, the Barnard College Thrift Store has been out of business since 1998.

Margot Lyons, BC '58, tries on a pair of silk dancing slippers during Barnard's shift at the Everybody's Thrift Shop, c. 1950s. Courtesy of Barnard College Archives.

The Barnard College Thrift Store was not a thrift store in the way that second hand shops and vintage stores are often called “thrift stores”—it was a little grimy, a little disorganized, and filled with lots of junk.  There were no “designer racks” or dresses with price tags still on, sold for 10% off department store prices.  However, there was always someone willing to buy that forlorn sock with the hole in its toe for a cent.

Barnard began its foray into the world of rummage stores as an Alumnae project for Barnard graduates looking for a way to contribute.  The founding members of the Thrift Store Committee didn’t know much about running a business, but they persevered.  In 1938, after trying on a few other co-operatives for size, Barnard joined the Everybody’s Thrift Shop, which was composed of a group of charities that participated for their individual benefit.  Barnard had six to eight workers in once a week to collect, sort, and price their own rummage.  Small overhead percents went to the management of the thrift shop, and the rest was taken in for an unrestricted, need-based scholarship for Barnard students.

Barnard’s part in the Everybody’s Thrift Shop was decidedly marked by turbulence and instability.  During World War II, no building would give air-raid shelter to the workers at the thrift shop because there were so many customers, and the building on 59th street was flimsy and unsafe.  The manager took charge, keeping a first aid kit near the counter and rushing everyone under a desk when the sirens went off.  But difficulties in the thrift store extended beyond those caused by America’s involvement abroad.  While pieces were easy to sell, especially during World War II and the series of 20th century recessions in which people were searching for affordable clothing, “rummage” (donation material) was more difficult to come by.  In 1984, the shop relocated to lower Park Avenue.  The college held teas, luncheons, and produced shows (fashion shows, operas, etc) to raise awareness and donation levels for the thrift store.  Ads were taken out in the Barnard Bulletin begging students to send in their castoffs.  Eventually, Barnard was forced to pull out of the resilient little store when insurance and payroll expenses rose and volunteers were hard to find.

When Barnard finally slipped out of the Everybody’s Thrift Shop in 1998, volunteers had raised over one million dollars in scholarships for students.  Aside from the treasure that benefitted the school, real treasure was found between grubby scarves and cardboard boxes:  a Cartier clock, bejeweled and in perfect condition, and a diamond ring sewn into the seam of a sleeve of a summer dress.

Patrons of the Everybody's Thrift Shop browse the jewelry section as Barnard Alumnae volunteers man the counter, c. 1950s. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

–Johana Godfrey, BC ’13

This posting was inspired by the article “A Farewell to Charms” in the Barnard Magazine, Fall 1998, Vol. LXXXVII, No.4; additional thrift store records can be found in the Centennial Office files, Development Office files, and Public Relation files; additional articles on the thrift store can be found in the Barnard Bulletin.

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