Finding Community in a Small Town Thrift Store

Essayist Kate Krautkramer talks about how the thrift store in her small Colorado community has become an unlikely gathering place for the town's citizens — and a caretaker of its history.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Sometimes it takes a grand bridge to bring distant communities together. In other places, more humble structures can serve the same purpose. Writer Kate Krautkramer offers this tribute to her friendly neighborhood thrift shop.

KATE KRAUTKRAMER:

In south Routt County, Colorado, we don't just walk a mile in another man's shoes; we do our chores in other people's pants, play ball in our neighbors' shirts and go to school in secondhand dresses. The clothes come from the Phippsburg Community Club store, where all the merchandise is donated and all the workers volunteer.

The town of Phippsburg is home for about a hundred people, but the community spreads well beyond into the outlying land. Most of it is ranch property. Six hundred square miles of sagebrush hills and hay meadow flats flank the Gore Range and flat-topped mountains where aspen trees and lodgepole pine make their stands.

The thrift store is a gathering spot. On Thursdays, when it's open, people come in to catch up with their neighbors, get rid of their own junk and to browse. On the store shelves, open packages of greeting cards chum up with after-shave bottles shaped like race cars. A few pink and baby blue rosaries dangle from a bare nail. The rooms are filled with stacks of dishes and fabrics, books, toys and clothes.

Twenty-four years ago, I paid a quarter for a purple satin dress I wore to the junior prom. Now I buy most of my son's clothes at the Community Club. Prices haven't changed over the years. All adult clothing is 25 cents and kids' clothes are a dime. Whatever profits the store earns support the town. Proceeds pay for the operation of Phippsburg's 10 streetlights and maintenance of the city park.

The store volunteers work hard stacking, folding and tearing damaged clothes into rags they sell to the coal mine up valley, but the workers are always happy to stop and offer a bit of information. They can usually tell me whose hay is down, whose is still standing and whose sheep have been moved to high pasture.

In the store aisles, community chatter gets tossed around and compared along with the clothes from when someone used to be thin, the Halloween costumes from when someone else's kids were little, the wedding presents someone never used. The exchange of clothes, objects and stories builds continuity. At the store, little pieces of history are passed down like a well-made hand-me-down dress. There's a kind of community spirit in recognizing that what you don't want or need could be perfect for someone else.

Last spring at the school art show, children and parents were roaming the cafeteria admiring paintings and sculpture when a friend sidled up to me wanting to know who that man in the purple shirt was. The man in question had one foot up on a bench and an elbow rested on his knee. `That's Belinda's(ph) husband, Philip(ph),' I told her. `Don't you know him?' My friend shook her head no. Although Philip was 20 feet away and couldn't hear our conversation, he indulged us by turning his body. We had a perfect view. The shirt was Western cut and fit around his lean shoulders and chest like it had been tailored.

My friend took another look across the room at Philip. He stood up and dropped one shoulder back in a rawboned cowboy kind of pose that he pulled off naturally. She clicked her tongue once in approval. `That shirt looked terrible on my husband, but I'll be danged,' she said, `it looks all right on him.'

CHADWICK: Kate Krautkramer is a writer living in Yampa, Colorado. That's about 180 miles west of Denver in the Rockies.

I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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