Spotlight on Los Alamos: Second-hand but first-rate

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By Kelly LeVan

They sort through bags of towels, dishes, sweaters and shoes, sometimes finding one boot in one bag and the other boot in another. They hang the dress slacks, organize the books, move the noisiest toys to the upper shelves, and rearrange the vases, glasses, lamps and tea sets to make room for the newcomers. All said, it takes Casa Mesita Thrift Shop’s 14 volunteers anywhere from 50-60 hours to get ready to open on a sale day.

The thrift shop, which moved from its former location on Nectar Street to the Mari-Mac Shopping Center about two-and-a-half years ago, is packed – but it’s hardly junk. In fact, the quality of the items for sale at Casa Mesita Thrift Shop might surprise you. Designer labels, working zippers, unstained blouses and unripped jeans line the aisles of clothes, and the housewares and kids’ items have all been checked to make sure they’re in solid, working order.

“We get a lot of brand new things with price tags still on,” said volunteer Norma Oona. “This is a very generous community.”

As is the thrift shop itself. It donates any items that don’t sell quickly to Save the Children, Salvation Army and Mexico. It also financed the purchase of Casa Mesita Group Home’s new building on Sycamore Street and donates $6,000 of the store’s profits every month to the therapeutic residential program for girls who have been abused or neglected. Even when the home is closed, the thrift shop continues to send in $6,000 every month to cover utilities, salaries and other fixed costs.

Any extra money the store earns goes into a certificate of deposit that holds enough funds to maintain the thrift shop and group home for a minimum of six months.

“We want the community to know we never stopped supporting the group home,” Oona said.

However, both Oona and volunteer Roy Hopwood gave Los Alamos County Councilor Nona Bowman credit for making the new group home a reality.

“Bowman helped for months and months,” Hopwood said, explaining that the county had to purchase the land and make it available for the thrift shop to secure a mortgage on the home.

“It was quite a battle going through HUD,” he said. “We wouldn’t have that house if it weren’t for her.”

However, many individuals have offered their personal time and energy to maintaining the thrift shop and, in effect, the group home – some for quite a long time.

Hopwood has given about 12 years and Oona, 15. Juanita Lopez, currently president of the Casa Mesita board, has volunteered for 20 years. Loring Cox, now in his 80s, has contributed 25 years.

Cox said while he’s proud to support the girls’ home, he also gets “enjoyment helping people who need things.”

He mentioned international visitors who often only have what they can fit in a suitcase, young children whose parents count on the thrift shop to sell kid-sized clothes, shoes and toys at prices they can afford and many community members who came in after the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, bereft of, in some cases, nearly everything they owned.

Oona said “Mr. Cox,” as she calls him, used to sit outside in the 90-degree heat and desert rain showers, talking to passersby and attracting customers to the store – and raising more than $1 million in sales over the years.

As they have since Cox’s sidewalk-selling days, Los Alamos residents continue to generously donate their clothes, toys, kitchenware, small furniture and small appliances. Because of space, Oona said, the store cannot take larger items, like refrigerators, washers or dryers. She also advised that those who wish to drop off desks, TVs, microwaves and other such valuables do so during open hours when staff members are available to bring them inside – unless they get purchased first.

“Sometimes, we sell items right off the back of a truck,” said Una Smith, who has been volunteering for the past four years, often with the help of 4-year-old William Szinger, who loves to come in and help his mother organize the shelves.

Right now, though, even more than donations, “we need more shoppers to come and clear the racks so we can put more stuff up,” Smith said.

The Casa Mesita Thrift Shop is open from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. The staff is considering staying open more hours or even move to a larger location, but to do so requires many man-hours.

In addition to praising the many people who have helped at the store for many years, Oona complimented the occasional volunteers, who stop in once or just a few times to help out, and those who choose to work their community service hours at the thrift shop.

“The community service helpers are wonderful,” she said.

Nevertheless, before any big plans can be made, Oona said she would like to double the current number of volunteers from 14 to 28.

To help, call the thrift shop at 662-7235 or drop in on a workday – any time Tuesday through Saturday “if the lights are on,” Oona said. “Please come in even if you can only help two to four hours a week, or even just once.”