‘Everyone and everything has a second chance’ at this Philly thrift store

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The Wardrobe, located at 413 N. 4th St., is a nonprofit thrift store dedicated to ending clothing insecurity. (Bradley Taylor)

The Wardrobe, located at 413 N. 4th St., is a nonprofit thrift store dedicated to ending clothing insecurity. (Bradley Taylor)

The Wardrobe isn’t your typical thrift store.

Located on 4th Street between Callowhill and Willow Streets, the shop offers secondhand items for sale to the public and also provides clothing at no charge to those who need it the most.

“We see clothing as an essential need,” said Sheri Cole, The Wardrobe’s executive director. “If you look at the hierarchy of needs, it’s food, clothing, and shelter. We have government support for food and for housing, but we don’t really have anything that covers people’s clothing needs.”

The nonprofit shop aims to fill that void, all while delivering a welcoming experience.

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The shop is set up like a boutique. There are racks full of beautiful, colorful clothing, organized by style and size; fitting rooms where people can try on items — and personal shoppers to advise you on outfits and support your shopping process.

Some people come in to donate clothes or buy secondhand items. Others have been referred to the shop from other organizations in order to access a wardrobe they might not otherwise be able to purchase themselves. Whether a customer or a referred client, everyone walks in through the same door and has access to all of the inventory.

“Everyone gets the same respect and dignity,” said Al Sharrock, the nonprofit’s program director. “Whether they’re paying [for] something or whether they’re not, they still get the same friendly faces asking them if they need anything else.”

Clothing for all

The Wardrobe, formerly known as Career Wardrobe, works with various organizations from Nationalities Services Center (NSC) to Hopeworks to Women Against Abuse, to ensure that all kinds of communities are able to get the clothing that they need.

Shopping for clothing can be expensive, said Cole, who has worked at the nonprofit for over 20 years.

“If we can take that stress out of the family’s budget by allowing them to come here and get the adult clothing they need for free, then they can spend that on things that will move their family forward,” said Cole.

Last year, the shop received a state grant from Rep. Jordan A. Harris that funds Returning Wardrobe, a program that supplies returning citizens who are leaving prison with casual clothing. Community members on probation or parole can also get clothes to help them find a job.

The shop has hosted events where returning citizens can come into the shop — and also get a haircut from a barber and talk to lawyers about expungement.

The Wardrobe is a nonprofit thrift store in Philadelphia that provides different communities with clothing for free. (WHYY/Bradley Taylor)

Their new initiative, Open Wardrobe, allows the organization to expand its outreach to a different community every month. Then, the thrift store will open up its doors on a designated day so that particular community can come in and shop for free. In February, The Wardrobe worked with NSC to serve Afghan refugees who have been resettling in Philadelphia these past few months. In April, they will host a prom event for young people, since dresses and suits that are occasion-specific can often be difficult for families to invest in.

For May, The Wardrobe is working on an LGBTQ+ event, that specifically focuses on trans and nonbinary people so they can find gender-affirming clothing and receive other services. The shop already has men’s wear and women’s wear interspersed throughout the store to make shopping comfortable for people of all genders.

“We allow people and encourage people to shop in whatever section they want,” said Sharrock.

In addition to their new initiative, an ongoing focus for the nonprofit has been providing people with the professional clothing they need for work and interviews. Clients are referred to The Wardrobe from different community partners and can set up an appointment for a wardrobe consultation. Clients who have difficulty keeping a scheduled appointment because of transportation or childcare issues can use the organization’s Wardrobe Pass to come in anytime they want and spend up to $50 on clothing.

Andrew Chen is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and was recommended to the shop by his school’s career services office.

The Wardrobe Box is a seasonable subscription box — for every box purchase, a free box is then made available for someone who needs it. (WHYY/Bradley Taylor)

“I’m here at The Wardrobe because I have some interviews coming up and I need some professional clothing,” said the 21-year-old. As a senior, he’s getting ready to graduate and enter the workforce and he appreciates the services offered by the shop. “I think it’s great,” he said while perusing through button-up shirts.

Everyday customers and clients also have the option to shop online and sign up for The Wardrobe Box — a seasonal subscription service that started over the pandemic. The shop was closed but clients still needed clothing, so they began to pack up items and ship them out.

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Every box is curated to the specific sizes and styles of the recipient. Additionally, for every box purchased by a customer who can afford to pay for it, a free box is then made available for someone who needs it.

‘Everyone and everything has a second chance’

The staff at The Wardrobe, including Sheri Cole (second from the left in the first row) and Al Sharrock (second from the right in the first row). (WHYY/Bradley Taylor)

The Wardrobe receives around $2 million dollars worth of clothing donations each year, but only about a quarter of inventory ends up on the floor. For those that don’t make it to the sales floor, there’s a plan to ensure it doesn’t end up in a landfill.

“It’s called a circular economy — you’ll buy something, you’ll wear it, you’ll donate it to us. We then work with recyclers,’ said Cole.

The Wardrobe works with Helpsy, a recycler who buys surplus merchandise from retail stores and from non-profits. The purchases help support places like The Wardrobe and the planet too. The purchased materials are then recycled and reused to the end of ‘its usable life,’ Cole described. If it can’t be reused, it becomes recycled filler for pillows or other items. Or, alternatively, it gets sold to other sellers who have a dedicated secondhand market on apps like Poshmark or Etsy.

Because there’s a constant stream of freshly donated items at the shop, there are always new treasures to be found.

“It’s a place where everyone and everything has a second chance,” said Cole.

The Wardrobe is open to everyone. Money spent within the shop supports services to ensure that those who need clothing without charge are able to access it.

The nonprofit also accepts volunteers and donations.

“The more volunteers we have, the more clothing donors we have, the more choice everybody has,” said Cole.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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