Donors ignore drop-off rules

Thrift Shop overwhelmed

By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

The day after New Year’s, the Mercer Island Thrift Shop entryway looked like a garbage dump: soggy boxes of rain-drenched clothes, abandoned Christmas decorations, furniture and unwanted toys. Heaps and heaps of it. Sitting, molding beneath the January rain.

“Isn’t it terrible?” asked Thrift Shop Coordinator Suzanne Philen. “We had to call in extra volunteers early this morning to come help clean it all up.”

Throughout the year, the Mercer Island Thrift Shop collects, prices and sells a material zoo of donations from Island residents and visitors. Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thrift Shop employees look over each piece of merchandise, determining which items are profitable, what can be passed on to charity and what must simply be dumped.

The mostly volunteer team runs a busy schedule. Hardly a day goes by without steady business. It’s when the volunteers go home that the mess starts to accumulate. Despite polite signs asking donators to return during business hours, many people still leave their unwanted goods — a habit that turns Philen’s smile into a frown of dismay.

“We’ve tried to do everything to keep our property clean,” she said. “Mostly it’s out of respect for our neighbors. We want to be a good steward to the community and keep [our storefront] from looking like a garbage dump.”

Although Philen admitted that previous holidays have been worse, the amount of pile-up after last week’s New Year was an undeniable eyesore.

“It takes us hours to clean this up and recuperate, to get our store open and running again,” Philen said.

On Dec. 30, the Thrift Shop closed for three days. Within that time, its front patio accumulated a mountain of stuff.

A sign taped to the store wall that read “Closed, Do Not Leave Donations” was almost invisible, lost in a growing shadow of boxes and bags.

Another sandwich board, placed conspicuously, dead-center, in the drop-off area, announced, “We do not accept the following:” with a list that includes “furniture that is pet-stained, broken or in disrepair, recycling materials, computer equipment, televisions, shelving units.” Directly behind the sign stood a trio of half-broken lanterns, supporting a dirty, rolled up stretch of foam padding.

A television set and computer keyboard lay abandoned in the opposite corner, right next to a tangled pile of holiday tinsel and rusty Christmas-tree stand.

By opening time on Wednesday morning, four volunteers still worked doggedly at the pile: clearing a path for customers, organizing the merchandise into cohesive piles, throwing much of it — rain-stained and soggy — away.

“A lot of this stuff we can’t sell anymore, books, furniture, clothing; it’s all moldy from the rain,” said merchandising coordinator Jennifer Wilson, who was called in early to help with the mess.

Anything that cannot be sold is either set aside for the Thrift Shop’s two non-profit charities — Big Brother/Big Sister and Akwasi, an organization from Uganda that collects clothing for African families — or dumped into landfill. Sometimes, people leave chemicals and toxic products that must be specially disposed of at an additional price.

Although unable to provide the Thrift Shop’s exact disposal fee expenditure, Philen said the 16,000-pound dumpster gets emptied once a week. According to Allied Waste, which oversees Mercer Island disposal, the standard dumping cost is $100 per ton. By Philen’s estimate, this equates to a monthly disposal fee of approximately $3,200.

Thrift Shop employees take great effort to kindly dissuade clients from leaving merchandise in front of the store. “We have signs that say ‘please don’t drop items’ and we usually block the parking lot,” Wilson said. “But people drop their stuff off anyway. They just want to get rid of it.”

If a resident cannot make it to the store during donation hours, the Thrift Shop offers evening appointments. All a person has to do is call and schedule a time to stop by. If these rules are followed, Thrift Shop employees reimburse every donator with a tax-deductible receipt.

Resisting the temptation to drop off merchandise is not only a respect paid to Thrift Shop neighbors and those who frequent the nearby Mercerdale park, but to the organization itself, Philen said, which is there to raise money for Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The Thrift Store began 32 years ago as a rummage sale to raise money for the MIYFS. Its charitable purpose still serves today.

“Every item that gets rained on is a loss for us. It’s one more thing we can’t sell,” Philen said. “There are so many negatives in not dropping off during business hours. When people don’t honor our work, it really costs us.”

Last week, the Thrift Shop lost approximately one-third of its dropped off merchandise, Philen estimated, simply because people could not wait for operating hours. Not only are items ruined due to the adverse January weather, but many are stolen.

“Theft happens as often as things are left,” the coordinator said. “Sometimes people come by and load up their cars with the stuff — people that don’t know the definition of honesty.”

The situation became such a concern that the Thrift Shop has added 24-hour cameras to its storefront. If an employee is able to identify the person stealing merchandise, a report is made to the police, who follow up with a criminal investigation.

Although the Thrift Shop cannot always monitor honesty, it does ask the public to respect donation rules and hours. This, Philen pointed out, will keep merchandise from sitting unwatched and subject to thievery. In the end, the responsibility falls upon each citizen.

For more information on Thrift Shop donations, go to

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