When it comes to eclectic shopping on the cheap, the biggest supply of bargains on Capitol Hill, day in and day out, is the Capitol Hill Value Village at 1525 11th Ave., between East Pike and East Pine streets.
At this time of year, the main floor closest to the doors is given over to Halloween costumes and accessories. Rack after rack of spooky, glamorous and just plain weird (okay, maybe even tacky) costume ideas compete for attention with barrels of grim-reaper scythes (safe plastic, of course) and other ghoulish tools for mayhem and candy distribution. Better grab one of those red plastic baskets, or one of the big cloth shopping bags; you're going to need it.
The Capitol Hill Value Village is just one of 200 stores in a nation-wide thrift chain, one of more than 20 in the Puget Sound area and one of just three inside the Seattle city limits. The for-profit, Bellevue-based company that owns the chain calls its stores "the ultimate treasure hunt." Whether or not it is "ultimate," the Value Village shopping experience is undeniably a treasure hunt.
Filling three floors in the main building of REI's former Capitol Hill location, the variety and quantity of merchandise is impressive. In fact Mark Adams, store manager, said more than 9,000 items are added to the sales floors each day, Monday through Friday. Although the bulk of the sales is in clothing, Adams said clothes are not the best part of Value Village.
"A guy came in looking for a 50-cent shirt and I sold him two hubcaps for a '57 Chevy truck," Adams said. He said it is the "missies," the miscellaneous merchandise, that really makes store visits a treasure hunt. He said it is not necessarily something of great value that people remember, but something that is valuable to them, like a pair of special hubcaps, or a vinyl music album, or even an eight-track tape. ("We have those, too.")
Merchandise carries colored tags that identify the week it was offered for sale. Each Thursday the oldest stock is sold half-price, and then on Monday everything left with that color tag is just 99 cents. That is a way of making sure the merchandise cycles quickly.
Furniture, electronics, bedding and fabrics are in the lower level. Seasonal items (like Halloween costumes) and women's clothing is on the ground floor. Men's clothing, books and miscellaneous is on the second floor, at the top of an amazingly long stairway. This was an industrial building and it takes a lot of stairs to get to the top of the 30-foot ceilings of the first floor.
According to Adams, about 40 people work at the Capitol Hill Value Village. Half of those work as cashiers, most of them part-time and the rest work in the production room on the lower level. The production room is where donated items are sorted, tagged, small items bagged and items not suitable for resale are prepared for the Renton warehouse. Bulk textiles and metals not suitable for the stores are shipped to buyers both in this country and overseas.
"Most of our cashiers are students," Adams said. "We have a lot of students from the local colleges." He said they also tend to live right in the neighborhood of the store. "Almost all of them walk here."
Although the cashiers seem to change frequently, Adams said the production workers tend to stay with the company a long time. The company offers vacation and medical benefits, and it is not unusual to run into employees who have been with the company more than 20 years. Another benefit is that employees get a 50 percent discount, but they have a waiting period, so the customers get first pick.
"It's a mom-and-pop kind of philosophy," Adams said. The parent company, he said, takes care of its employees and gives back to the community.
Each store has a charitable partnership, a non-profit organization, that provides the donated goods Value Village sells. The store pays the partner organization for the donations, even if items are donated directly to the store. The Capitol Hill store partners with the Northwest Centers, formerly Northwest Center for the Retarded, which sponsors education programs for the mentally disabled. Several Value Village stores are partnered with Northwest Center.
Savers, the parent company for Value Village, paid 120 non-profit partners more than $130 million and shipped 220 million pounds of reusable goods to developing countries in 2003, according to its Web site. It also claims to be the world's largest for-profit thrift store chain, with stores in the United States, Canada and Australia.
"We work really hard to make sure these relationships are worth it to the partners," Adams said. "We want to see them succeed in their programs."
The Capitol Hill store is one of the largest Value Villages in the Puget Sound area (Lacey's is larger), and has an estimated 17,000 customers per week. But even so, it does not have the top sales figures in Puget Sound. Adams explained that the highest sales numbers tend to be for stores that have little competition. As an example, he said the Value Village in Boise is the only thrift store in town and often pegs the chain's highest sales position. On the other hand, there are two small thrift stores across 11th Avenue from Value Village and another within a block and a half.
"This store has a character of its own, definitely because of the neighborhood," Adams said.
Freelance writer Korte Brueckmann lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached at editor@capitol hilltimes.com