For more than 80 years, the New Canaan Thrift Shop has sat on the corner of Locust and Main streets. The building is a grey clapboard cottage with white trim, and, usually, numerous items on the porch. The shop is staffed by dedicated volunteers, some of whom have given their time for upwards of 20 years.
For the last 13 years, it had been managed by Delores Klein, who was considered by those at the shop the heart and soul of the place. She died on July 30, and management of the store has passed to one of the shop's volunteer's, Susanne Palmer.
"I started volunteering about 10 years ago," Palmer said. "My mother volunteered for years before that. When my kids got older I decided this would be a good opportunity to spend time with my mom. For nine years, I spent every Tuesday afternoon with her here."
The building is a gift from the nonprofit Visiting Nurse and Hospice of Fairfield County, to which all shop proceeds go. Palmer said the rent-free nature of the building has allowed the shop to remain open. The cause is especially important to Palmer, whose mother died two years ago and was able to stay in the house at the end of her life because of care provided by visiting nurses.
Palmer explained that the volunteers are passionate about the shop, in part, because they have a tight connection with one another, many of them describing their network as, "a family." Klein was a central member of that family, as Palmer explained it.
"Delores was amazing. She was a dynamo," said Palmer. "She had a personality larger than life and I still have people coming in being so upset that she passed. People absolutely loved her. She died on a Monday. Her last work day was Saturday. To me, this is a very bittersweet position because I'm here because Delores isn't."
Some of the thrift shop's 25 volunteers have worked there for a long time. One, George Mandler, has been there for more than 20 years. Mandler, a former pilot for FedEx, used to live here, but moved to Rowayton. He likes having a reason to come back every week and see New Canaan.
"I just really had formed a really nice friendship with Delores, and the years went by and it's a part of my life," he said. "It's a nice place and the money goes to a really nice charity."
When Klein died in July the shop pulled together to keep the place going. After 17 years with her as the manager, that was no small task.
"Literally every single volunteer went above and beyond call of duty to ensure that thrift store stayed open and Delores' legacy lived on," Palmer said. "She was the heart of this place, and she was the face of this place."
Demby Radtke is 93 years old and has been volunteering for 19 years. She has lived in New Canaan since 1958. She used to work four days a week, but since a stint in the hospital, she has cut back to two days per week.
"This summer and fall I was in the hospital and I really missed not being in the shop. I've done a lot of volunteer work in my life, and this group is the nicest I've ever worked with," she said.
Palmer said donations became harder to come by after the financial crisis in 2009, but that people have started giving clothes in high quantities more recently.
"I think when the recession first hit we did have fewer donations," she said. "Right now, it's absolutely incredible, people are so generous. Sometimes we receive brand-new items. Sometimes we receive high-end items, which is why we started a little designer section. Sometimes (donors) ask for a slip for taxes, other times they just drop the bags off and don't ask for anything."
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