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Cancer Connection gears up to open new thrift store in Northampton



Last modified: Monday, November 04, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — The Cancer Connection will mark a new chapter next month when it opens a thrift store to support its work — and Northampton will host another secondhand store, joining Goodwill, the Hospice Shop, and numerous other church-based or for-profit used clothing stores in a growing re-use movement.

The Cancer Connection’s store is expected to open next month at the former Cahillane dealership on Route 10, where the agency has a verbal agreement to lease a 3,000-square-foot space that includes 1,500 square feet for retail and the remainder for storage, according to Cancer Connection Executive Director Betsy Neisner.

“When a community service agency reaches its adolescence, it needs to focus on very long-range planning, and this is a part of that,” Neisner said.

“The Cancer Connection needs a solid income that doesn’t depend on them spending all their time looking for grants,” said volunteer Robin Stolk of Holyoke, who heads up the Thrift Shop Committee that has been meeting since last spring.

Stolk said once the lease agreement was reached to start Nov. 1, plans for the new shop really kicked into high gear.

Neisner said a thrift store manager was hired this week when Nancy Charbonneau was chosen from a field of 50 applicants for the full-time, $36,000-a-year job. Other than that paid position, the shop will be staffed entirely with volunteers.

Neisner said the goal is to open the store Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving, to take advantage of the holiday shopping season, although she acknowledged that will be a tall order given all the tasks they must complete first.

“We need all sorts of things — we need furnishings and racks and display cases,” she said. Not to mention all the merchandise the store will sell, collection of which is just getting started, she said.

“What we’re hoping for is to have an upscale feel to it by getting gently used goods, clothing, household items, furniture,” she said.

Neisner said she reached out last week to the Hospice Shop of the VNA & Hospice of Cooley Dickinson, at 18 Bridge St. in Northampton, and the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst to tell staff there of the Cancer Connection’s plans.

She said when someone first raised the idea of opening a thrift store, she was opposed because she didn’t want to compete with those nonprofits’ income streams.

“What I have learned is that it’s not a competition, it simply adds to the mix,” Neisner said. “Our idea is to do it collaboratively and promote the other businesses.”

Stolk, who calls herself an “avid thrift store shopper,” agreed that the business is not competitive.

“There’s a group of people who go thrift shopping and we hope to get on their route,” she said.

Neisner, executive director at Cancer Connection since 2008 and a participant in its programs for 11 years, said the goal of the store is to solidify the organization’s financial resources. Since it opened in 2000, it has grown tremendously in the programs it offers and the people it serves.

Now located at 41 Locust St., Cancer Connection offers support groups, classes, programs and integrated health services to people with cancer and their families and caregivers. All services are free. It started with no paid employees and has grown to a staff of two full-time and two part-time people, and a host of volunteers, working with 1,100 “active participants,” Neisner said.

“We were trying to find a steady source of income so we could spend less time fundraising and this seemed like a way to do it in a green business, a place for our volunteers to get together, and a community service,” Neisner said.

She said joining up with the growing and enthusiastic re-use movement seemed like the right direction.

In addition, Neisner said, the Cancer Connection has a large support base of people who want to help, and she sees the new thrift store as an outlet for all that energy.

“This seemed like an excellent way to give jobs to volunteers,” Neisner said. “There’s an incredible esprit de corps in the VNA Hospice Shop and the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, and we wanted to replicate that.”

Charbonneau, 47, of Greenfield, graduated from Smith College’s Ada Comstock program in 2011, and since then she’s been working as a freelance editor.

“I came to realize that I’m not a sit-at-your-desk kind of person,” she said. “I’m a vintage clothes collector and an avid thrift shopper,” so the job seemed a perfect fit.

She said she is excited about the location and the kind of store it aims to be.

“The space is beautiful, bright and sunny, with high ceilings. It’s going to be not your average thrift store,” she said. “Thrift stores are more popular than ever and it’s the environmentally and socially responsible thing to do.”

Neisner said Charbonneau was hired because of her varied work experience that includes editing, clothing retail and running a vintage clothing business.

“She knows thrift stores very well,” Neisner said. “She has excellent managerial skills, interpersonal skills and she is very familiar with social media and online marketing.”

Charbonneau said she plans to have an active online presence for the store, with a monthly newsletter, a Facebook page and, down the road, possibly online sales.

Both Neisner and Stolk said they are excited at the hiring of Charbonneau, who begins her new post Nov. 1, and they know getting the store open by the day after Thanksgiving is an ambitious goal.

“But if anyone can get it open, it’s her,” Stolk said.

The store is expected to be open five or six days a week, said Neisner, and the name, though not finalized, will likely be Cancer Connection Thrift Store, Stolk said.