Business plan is to help others

05/27/2010 12:00 AM |

Renee Phelps at her new Southold Outreach Thrift Store, where she’s working to earn a living, raise money for various community causes and make useful items available to the needy at low cost.

Renee Phelps of Southold is trying to do good by doing well. On what she expected would be a “dead” Monday, customers and donors kept her hopping at her new Southold Outreach Thrift Store on Route 48, just east of Youngs Avenue. That means her dream just might be coming true.

“I wish it were a big fancy story, but it’s not,” she said of the store she opened in March, practically on a whim. It’s not a nonprofit operation; she hopes it makes some money. But first and foremost, the idea is for the thrift store to let Ms. Phelps raise money for worthy causes.

Some of her stock is sold for profit. Some is intended to provide people on the North Fork with things they need at little cost, with no profit margin for the store. And some of the profits that are raised from specific items are dedicated completely to benefiting charities of Ms. Phelps’ choice, she said.

She searched for another word for “outreach” to avoid any confusion with North Fork Parish Outreach, with which her shop has no connection. She settled on the name for her business because she could find no other appropriate word for what she does.

She is raising money to buy cat food for the North Fork Animal Welfare League. Some of her profits go to people to help with their medical bills. And she’s thinking of setting aside a day in the late fall when patrons of Maureen’s Haven, which serves East End homeless people during late fall and winter months, could come in and pick up some winter clothes for free. If she does, she’ll close the store to the public that day to enable homeless patrons to get outfitted in privacy, she said.

Of her leap into the thrift shop business, she said, “I’m not so sure it was really a decision. It was in my heart.”

Ms. Phelps has run thrift shops before, but for the last five years she managed a bookstore on the Riverhead campus of Suffolk County Community College. Late last year, she said, she decided it was time to stop working for the corporation that had the franchise for the college bookstore and do something that had personal meaning.

The idea of a thrift shop came to her as she was sitting in a restaurant on Route 48 last November and looked across the street at a “For Rent” sign at the 1747 Lt. Moses Case House on the south side of the highway. She called the number on the sign and began renting the space as of December.

“I jumped into this like jumping into a pit of fire,” Ms. Phelps said. “I left a secure job with great benefits.”

It took her a few months to gather contributions to stock the store. Ms. Phelps’ daughter, Danielle Carragher of Southold, worked with her to spackle walls and decorate the shop, while son Don Laskey helped provide the brawn to carry in stock. With clothing for people of all ages, dishes, appliances, furniture, books, puzzles and games and knickknacks on hand, she was ready to open.

“I haven’t even given myself a paycheck yet,” said Ms. Phelps. Right now, she’s working just to pay the rent and the Long Island Power Authority bill and provide needed goods to families who can’t afford to shop in pricey retail stores.

She’s also collecting gowns that she’ll donate to Southold High School so girls can go to proms, she said. “There are moms who have to choose between buying a gown and paying LIPA and they shouldn’t have to do that,” she explained.

As a single mother of three children, now grown, Ms. Phelps knows the struggles she had trying to pay the bills and find money for those extras that crop up regularly.

“This community has helped me so much,” she said, explaining why she wants to try to give something back. Besides welcoming her and her family when she came to Southold, residents have been generous about donating items to be sold at the thrift store, she said. And daily, she experiences their generosity. There is, for example, the customer who brings her coffee whenever she stops in to shop, and the man who bought her chocolates when he learned she was celebrating her birthday by working at the store.

Customers who come in to buy blouses priced at $2 sometimes beg her to lower the price and, without fail, she does. But she admitted that once in a while, she gets a customer of obvious means and she balks, figuring they can afford her already sharply lowered price. A woman walked out with a pair of barely worn Prada shoes Monday morning for $5.

“That’s as close as I’ll ever get to Prada,” Ms. Phelps said.

The woman also bought a $4 pants suit she said would fit her mother who was coming to visit this weekend. And on the way out, the woman promised to go home and scour her closets to see if she had any items she could donate to the shop.

Still another woman arrived with a vacuum cleaner in working condition that Ms. Phelps knows will find a good home with one of her customers.

When Ms. Phelps first moved from Riverhead to Southold, she had a hard time adjusting. The pace was slower and stores weren’t open as late, she said.

“It was just a matter of getting used to it,” she said. “I would not move from here now; I love it.” She chose Southold because one of her sons was still in school and she thought he would benefit from the school system. The whole family has thrived here, she said.

“It was a good choice.”

So how’s business?

“It’s picking up; it’s getting there. Today, I’m OK,” she said. “You have to do what makes your heart sing. I pray to God to give me the strength to make the right decisions every day.”

The Southold Outreach Thrift Store opens about 9:30 a.m. seven days a week and closes when there are no customers left. Sometimes that’s about 5 p.m. and on one recent night, it was 7:40 p.m.

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