The role thrift stores play in Germantown

For Suzanna Quinn, selling Banana Republic skirts for $4.50, prom dresses for under $15 and Gap Jeans for $3 has, quite literally, been a way of life.

Quinn is the co-owner and operator of the Bargain Thrift Center at 5261 Germantown Ave, a store that has operated in some capacity for the last 35 years and has grown to include clothing, furniture, housewares and other home items.

Since then, Quinn has worked every job at the center, built relationships with generations of patrons in town and continues to operate a successful family business that brings affordable fashion to the area.

 

 What customers want

“I definitely think it fills a need,” she said of her store. Many of her patrons work in the service industry, and to buy a full, designer pantsuit for $10 or a pair of Steve Madden heels for $5 is a deal not many can pass up.

“It’s fun, it’s like a treasure hunt everyday,” she said. Quinn thinks thrifting has always been a theme of the Germantown Ave business corridor. “I think its gained popularity, even in the last 10 years,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who choose to shop this way.”

“She makes it affordable for everyone,” said Pearline Lightsey of Quinn as she perused the racks in the thrift center. “The customers love it because she’s such a friendly person.” Lightsey has shopped here almost every day for the past 10 years, and almost always finds something to take home. “The stuff is nice,” she said. “That’s why I’ve been coming so long.”

If patrons time their shopping trip well, with a little luck, they will stumble across some of the name brands and designers from the original thrift store in the dollar discount section.

 

How it began

Quinn’s father, George Chase, was a former police officer in the 14th precinct who began supplementing his income by collecting recycling on his off hours. When the prices with that began to bottom out, a friend suggested he get involved in resale. Chase was hesitant at first, but began frequenting auctions and house clean outs to pick up furniture to sell.

After a few years in the furniture business, a board member of the American Cancer Society approached Chase about collecting clothing from groups and paying per pound to resell it. It’s a practice that remains the stores’ biggest collection method to this day. Quinn and company also scour auctions, cleans outs, direct buys and Craigslist postings for their merchandise. “The key is definitely to diversify,” she said.

Quinn got her undergraduate degree at Temple University for economics and international business, but she was always drawn back to the place she worked at through high school and college. She loves the work and the unique relationships it has afforded her with the generations of patrons she grew up with. 

The Thrift Bargain Center grew and evolved over the years, at one point having four stores in the area. Quinn and her brother took over the stores as co-owners in 1985 and settled into the main clothing store, the furniture warehouse and a recently opened dollar store for excess merchandise as the three current components of the center. “We are just constantly changing and adapting and trying to improve,” she said.

Despite the economy, patronage remains lean after the PennDOT construction on Germantown Ave landlocked the main store from patrons for much of last year. Quinn started the dollar store after watching the success of the “Dollar Sale Days” the original store would hold once a month. “Traditional dollar stores always seem to do well,” she said.

 

Germantown’s retail scene

As a business owner, Quinn struggles with the lack of retail stability along Germantown Ave.

“Our Identity as a business corridor is fragmented,” she said. The corridor construction was a step in the right direction, she said, but the Historic Germantown Business Association has been looking for more unifying themes to bring the Avenue together.

During the economic bubble 15 years ago, Quinn watched a lot of the neighborhood thrift stores close up because there was no longer a huge demand for them. But in the past five years smaller thrift and value stores have opened along the Avenue and throughout Germantown.

There are over a dozen stores within a mile of Chelten and Germantown avenues that tout themselves as dollar, thrift, value or discount stores and sell everything from groceries and toys to secondhand home items. But Quinn doesn’t see other stores as a threat. To her, thrift stores offer a mall concept – if someone stops in one, he or she will continue to stop in stores down the row.

“I think this type of business is all about the more, the merrier,” she said.

The center celebrated its official 25th anniversary this past July, and Quinn saw firsthand the impact the store has in the community as she commemorated the event with dozens of neighbors she has known her whole life. “I know, literally, generations of families,” she said

 

The Bargain Thrift Center operates three businesses on Germantown Ave.  

-5261 Germantown Avenue

-5245 Germantown Avenue

-4530 Germantown Avenue

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