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Today’s thrift stores offer more than bargains

Fashion shows at the thrift store and local nursing homes generate money to support transitional housing for the area's homeless. "It's a hoot," says Warner. "We have our volunteers modeling merchandise, as the announcer says, 'Can you believe this entire outfit — with accessories — can be yours for only $8?' "

In Orland, Calif., a town of 7,000 north of Sacramento, proceeds from the Twice Is Nice Senior Thrift — manned by 30 older volunteers — go to the local senior center, which hosts classes, card games and weekday lunches.

"It's $2.50 per meal. But most seniors come — some in shuttle buses from local care facilities — because it's something to do, a chance to socialize," says Darlene Friesen, president of the board that oversees the senior center.

The popularity of thrifts among retirees is driving changes in the industry. New stores are bigger and handicapped-friendly, located in upscale communities, with ample parking, brighter lighting and wider aisles. Many thrifts give special treatment to older donors, such as off-site estate sales, auctions and free packing and pickup.

"A large store used to be about 6,000 square feet," says Don Roberts, who oversees 150 stores and 500 donation centers as chair of the Florida Goodwills Association. "Today, anything new is 30,000 to 40,000 square feet." Retirees may come in several times a week, or even every day, he says. "They mingle and, for about $10, get merchandise that they usually bring back a year later for a donation taken off their taxes. It's a great cycle."

In Venice, Dick and Madie Oehlerts started their relationship with the Elephant's Trunk as loyal customers. Now they're among its 72 regular volunteers, all retirees. Dick, 71, a former construction engineer, works in the repair shop, ensuring that donated merchandise is fit for sale. Madie, 73, works the sales floor — where stories about grandkids are shared over background tunes by Tony Bennett.

"We got involved because we wanted to do something for the community, but also to be around other people our age," she says. "And this is the place for both."

Also of interest: Ways others give back — and how you can, too. >>

Sid Kirchheimer writes about scams and consumer affairs.

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