Shoppers carry their new-found treasures in bundles, some filled with clothing, one tote stuffed with jigsaw puzzles. They exchange stories.
“I once got a book marked $75 for $2,” says one man.
They bring craft supplies and pillow cases and dishes and watches and toys and electronics to the volunteers in each of 16 organized rooms to pay for their finds on this first sale of the season on Sept. 6.
It’s a special day because it marks the start of the Economy Shop’s 100th Anniversary Celebration.
The Economy Shop was started in April 1919 by women who saw a need for items no longer needed to be sold at a discount to others. They also wanted the proceeds to go to the five Oak Park charities at the time – Infant Welfare, Associated Charities (now Thrive Counseling Center), the Day Nursery, West Suburban Hospital Auxiliary and Hephzibah Home.
“I just love the history of it, that these wise women came up with this idea a hundred years ago and it’s still working the same way,” said Economy Shop President Nancy Hines, 64, of Oak Park.
The shop’s founding president, Caroline “Kay” McCready, and its first general manager, Mrs. Clarence Funk, along with women from each of the charities, laid the groundwork for the Economy Shop, renting the Packard House at Lake and Kenilworth (now the location of the main Oak Park Post Office), for $45 per month.
Within three months, they were contributing “$800 split five ways for charity” after overhead charges were paid for the year, according to a July 1919, Oak Leaves article. That’s $11,952.68 in today’s money.
At its founding, the shop was open daily, year-round, and staffed by volunteers. According to Hines, there were six departments – adult clothing, children’s, books, gifts, utilities/household goods and millinery to fulfill the fashion for hats.
By 1924, the shop was so successful, they purchased the current location at Grove and South Boulevard in Oak Park. They briefly considered closing in 1929, due to changes in the retail industry and “difficulty procuring enough volunteers,” according to a newspaper article at the time.
However, the shop remained open and distributed $100,000 among the charities within its first 10 years. The slogan, “It sells what you give, so that village charities may live,” was adopted and used in the 1930s.
The Economy Shop reduced their hours to remain viable, but the women’s mission to support the charities and their customers continued.
“What the customers did not see, they asked for and usually got,” wrote Nora Worthington Richardson in a Feb. 8, 1930 article in the Oak Leaves, “even a bath, which one man desired. He had bought an entire new outfit and wanted to discard his rags … The heater was lighted, he was given soap and shown the bathroom, from which he emerged a clean and satisfied customer.”
Today, front desk volunteer and former Economy Shop president Cathy Lund greets customers and effortlessly directs treasure hunters to their finds, or to umbrellas — “in the warehouse; I would go quick” — on this rainy day, in the three-story house as she processes credit card charges. Lund, 61, began serving at the shop in 1993 when she was on the board of the Day Nursery and served as their liaison.
“Stuff gets recycled so it doesn’t go to waste,” Lund, of River Forest, said. “When people get new jobs they may get steel-toed boots or clothes for a job interview.”
Lund also recalled providing clothing for Hurricane Katrina refugees who came to the area in 2005.
The Economy Shop is open three to four days per month, selling an estimated 10,000 items. It’s closed to customers during the hot summer months. The shop is open to volunteers other days for sorting and price marking of donations.
One long-time volunteer, Penny Egerter, 84, has been giving her time to the Economy Shop since the mid-1970s. Her husband convinced her to come to shop and she was soon hooked.
The 67-year Oak Park resident now heads up the Gift Room and is the liaison for the Infant Welfare Society (IWS) Children’s Clinic.
“I am totally in love with the place; it means so much to me,” Egerter said. “I’ve been with Infant Welfare since 1965. After many years, I was put in charge of this room. I’m the jewelry lady.”
Egerter prices jewelry that comes in and can be found behind the jewelry counter during the early shift on sales days.
Egerter works with Janet Debits, 71, of Oak Park, an interior designer, in the Gift Room. Debits has been bringing her talents to spruce up the room since 1984 to sell cards, watches, home decor and holiday items.
Although some of the charities have changed over the years, three are the same since 1919 – the Day Nursery, Thrive and IWS. Other organizations that benefit are Animal Care League, Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry and Senior Citizens’ Center of Oak Park and River Forest.
The Economy Shop budgets $1,250 per month for the calendar year to distribute to each of these nonprofits.
Each charity associated with the shop staffs a room with volunteers. There are also volunteers not associated with an organization. There are more than 100 volunteers and six part-time employees at the shop. Although most are women, men are welcome. Many volunteers are retired and have found friends through the shop.
For Hines and Lund, having a place for the volunteers to come together is one of the great things about the Economy Shop.
“It becomes your family,” Lund said.
For the 100th anniversary the Economy Shop has several things planned from monthly contests to a documentary. There will be an exhibit at the Oak Park River Forest Historical Museum starting in March.
And the last sale of the season, June 8, 2019, will be a big event, with a silent auction of items that represent the best things that come into each room, such as a handmade quilt from the 1930s, which will be on display at the museum exhibit.
“I feel honored to be continuing this tradition,” said Hines. “It is such a valuable resource for our community.”
The next Economy Shop sale is Sept. 22, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Donations accepted Mondays through Saturdays, 8 a.m. to noon, except on shopping dates. More: economyshop.org. 103 S. Grove, Oak Park.