MANATEE -- Sometimes collection plates aren't enough to fund a church mission or outreach.
Thrift stores have become a key fundraiser for Manatee County faith-based institutions while providing second-hand goods to for low-income families and bargain hunters who want something other than the big three: Goodwill, Habitat For Humanity ReStore and Salvation Army.
About 16 percent to 18 percent of Americans shop at a thrift store in a given year, according to America's Research Group, a research firm cited by the National Association of Resale Professionals.
At St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, 719 Manatee Ave., E., manager Linda Steeves said
the warmth of volunteers and surprise donations keep the small shop thriving to help those in need.
"There isn't enough people to pay people to do what they do here," Steeves said. "We have people that have a real heart for coming in volunteering. That's easily what makes this one successful."
The store has a network of more than 80 volunteers, some snowbirds, who all pitch in.
Each faith-based thrift store directs its revenues toward its own mission.
With St. Vincent, the structure is a bit different. The store is a standalone operation affiliated with the Manasota District Council, which interviews those in need and sends them to the store. Some of those in need are also volunteers.
"A lot of times they send them to the store with vouchers for recommendation for clothing, furniture or household items," Steeves said.
For cases involving financial need with bills, St. Vincent's thrift shop directs profits to help families, she said, and those people are often also volunteers.
Other thrift stores direct profits for outreach and mission programs such as the Christ Episcopal Church Thrift Shop at 401 42nd St. W., where the shop feels more like a fine retailer inside a small home.
"I guess we're like a boutique atmosphere with thrift-store prices," said manager Lolly Weaver, who runs the shop with her husband, Jim Weaver.
Some supplies go to the church food pantry store, which also handles requests for families who might need clothing and furniture, she said.
Thrift stores are always places for unusual finds. St. Vincent's thrift store has found diamond rings that they sell to jewelers, cash in pockets (employees try to hunt down the donor) and the occasional expensive bottle of perfume.
Some real deals
Some finds could be joyous to some, but are sad they end up at the shops, Weaver said.
"With Florida, where people go to end their days, generally what's happened is their kids come from out of state, and they have days and not months to settle their estate and stuff their boxes," she said.
One of the most surprising calls for donations came for St. Vincent when a businessman decided to retire. Giannini Designer Fashions in Sarasota's Gulf Gate neighborhood called St. Vincent in February wanting the thrift shop to take everything.
"Our driver got there and called back and said: 'Did you realize it was going to be everything in the store?'" Steeves said.
Two-piece suits with tags still on the sleeves, dress pants and more filled the store and warehouse.
It's now July, and the store is still working through all the suits, dress pants and jackets, mainly in larger sizes with some hanging in the rafters in the back room.
"They're just gorgeous," Steeves said.
A healthy supply of Christmas decorations and trees are also in storage at St. Vincent's store and will be brought out for a Christmas in July sale this month.
Sometimes items simply can't be sold because heavy winter coats, snow shovels and skis don't have a market in Florida. That's when St. Vincent calls a Sarasota company, Symphony Salvage, which acquires donated goods from thrift stores and Goodwill and distributes those to nonprofits around the globe.
Weaver knows there is also a limit to what people will pay at a thrift store. High-end jewelry is safely secured offsite and brought out during the church's annual silent auction. She's also headed to eBay to help raise funds for the church and shop.
The shop had three, new shortwave radios in boxes donated and knew they wouldn't move at the store.
"They price out at well over $300 apiece, and nobody pays over $100 here," she said. "We listed them on eBay and made over $900 for the three radios."
Then there's times when trash turns out to be treasure. One Christmas, a man spooked Weaver's husband as he popped up out of a Dumpster rummaging through broken Christmas decorations. The man's house had burned down and he was looking for any semblance of a Christmas.
"I started to cry," she said.
The Weavers sprung into action going through the remnants themselves and boxing it up for the man.
"We like to see things have a new home instead of thrown away if at all possible," Weaver said.
And that's what church thrift stores are all about -- helping those in need, Steeves said.
"It's about helping people in need the way God would want us to," she said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.