Main Line thrift stores provide trendy alternatives



Meghan Ross

You really have to look. The dingy two-story building on County Line Road, known as the Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop, seems to run exactly like other thrift stores. It sells secondhand items—slightly out-of-style chaise lounges, cassette tapes from the ’80s, fur-lined coats and china.  But there’s something to this particular thrift store that makes it different from the others. The furniture, clothing and knick-knacks are given a second chance, but they’re not the only ones changing their environments. 

Many of the thrift store employees are women, the good-natured type who call you “honey.” Amusingly, three of the thrift store employees are named Joan.

“This job is great for the older married woman who wants to get out of the house,” one of the Joans says.

For a few of the 12 paid employees who work at the thrift store, this job gives them a second chance at earning their own keep.

However, “keeping” is not a term that the thrift store and its customers live by. The consignment building bustles with people looking to get rid of their old clothing and furniture. Others drop by the donation center and unload kids’ toys, frayed books or couches. Beyond this consignment building and donation building, there is another that acts as the main body of the thrift store. It contains the men’s, women’s and kids’ clothing along with kitchen utensils and furniture.

With cheerful music in the background, warm yellow lighting and one of the employees humming, the shop feels like a home.

Despite the pungent smell of mothballs, the store is packed with shoppers cooing over the plates and yellowed lamps. The abundance of junk turns aisles into dead ends.

“You never know what people are going to buy. You never know what they’re going to be interested in,” Danielle says, listlessly rearranging sweaters on a rack. Danielle is a friendly 20-something employee who has been working at the thrift store for five years.

“I love working here because of the customers,” she says.

Danielle says her job is to price items, manage heirlooms downstairs, handle phone calls and run the register. Watching her work, you see her job also incorporates a little bit of customer therapy, too.

“I keep prayin’, I do,” says a hunchbacked woman at the register. “I’m in therapy, but my hip isn’t responding. The pain keeps coming.”

“That must be really hard,” Danielle says, ringing up the woman’s coat. Her eyebrows rise in a worried, sympathetic way.

“It is! Getting dressed is hard. Showering is hard. But I do it.”

Danielle offers encouraging words, tells her she hopes therapy goes well and hands over the plastic bag containing the woman’s purchase.

The building itself has been recycled many times. A plaque on the outside wall of the building reads: “Whitehall Station 1860-1926.” Back in 1860, the space was used as a telegram and ticket office for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Abraham Lincoln’s train actually stopped at the station to pick up ice and water. In 1893, Bryn Mawr Hospital bought the building and turned it into an “isolation pavilion for contagious diseases.”

According to its records, the hospital took in a smallpox patient and quarantined him to Whitehall Station. In 1926, Mrs. George B. Evans from the local Women’s Board suggested starting a thrift store, first in one of the hospital’s storerooms. The thrift store was then transferred to Whitehall Station where it stands today.

The present still ties up with the past—there remains a relationship between the thrift store and the hospital. All income from sales is donated to the hospital for items like wigs for cancer patients and equipment for the anesthesia department.

This beneficial relationship may be what draws some people to the store in the first place.

 “It’s not necessarily just people trying to get rid of their stuff,” Joan, the operational manager, says. “They care about the environment. And they want to benefit the hospital.”

This Joan is a sophisticated, petite woman who has been working at the thrift store for 10 years.

“We do have regulars.” Are they eccentric? No, she says with emphasis. “They’re normal. They’re just like me and you…it’s the general public.”

In the basement sits Janet, an older woman with large, oval glasses that magnify her eyes. Like a grandmother, she’s full of stories. Janet’s been working at the thrift store for 20 years. She seems most proud of her anecdote about a woman who came into the store looking for a tuxedo for her son. The woman returned weeks later to tell Janet that her son wore the tuxedo when he met Prince Philip.

“These clothes really get around, you know,” she says.

Janet has the air of an older, sophisticated Edith Wharton character. She appreciates manners and has a special fondness for students from the University.

“Many ‘Nova kids come in here,” she says. “They’re very respectable. A lot of times, kids come in here and they see an old person like me, and they see through us. ‘Nova kids come in and they say, ‘How are you today?’ and when they leave, they say, ‘Have a good day.’ They’re very pleasant.”

 For years, University students have also been coming to the thrift store for St. Thomas of Villanova Day of Service.

Last year they painted the interior of the old Whitehall Station.

Doug Keith, a University alumnus, likes the thrift shop because he says there’s always a chance he’ll find something wonderful that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

 “You can find things that they’re selling for $5 that may be worth $1,000 if you know what to look for,” he says. “But I don’t know what to look for. I just hope for blind luck.”

And you really do have to look. Beyond the lamp with a stuffed raccoon wrapped around it, the plaque with donkey ears and antlers and even the dingy building itself, there are treasures. For these bizarre items and the employees, Bryn Mawr Hospital Thrift Shop is a home and a treasure chest of the past.