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Lean times at Stone Soup Thrift Shop in St. Paul Park

Stone Soup manager Becky Monson prepares to help customer David Thompson, of Cottage Grove, with his purchases. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler) 1 / 3
Mary Ann Brown, an employee at Stone Soup Thrift Store in St. Paul Park, helps David Thompson, 80, of Cottage Grove load up his purchases. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)2 / 3
Joe Biron, 64, of Cottage Grove says he always makes sure to scour the hardware section at Stone Soup Thrift Store in St. Paul Park. He says they even save on bedding for their hamster, Mrs. Butterworth, since the staff at Stone Soup saves shredded newspaper to give to his wife, Paulette. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)3 / 3

More than a few struggling families, wiped out by fire, flood or financial calamity, have been able to make a new start thanks to Stone Soup Thrift Shop.

Since it opened in 1997, the thrift store in St. Paul Park has given away virtually tons of gently used furniture, clothing and household items to the homeless and financially distressed. So far this year, they have assisted 334 children, 356 adults and 51 seniors, said Majel Carroll, board president of Stone Soup.

But this time it’s Stone Soup that needs help. Increased payroll costs and a decline in cash donations have contributed to a budget crunch. Having given away over $100,000 in free goods, the shop’s coffers are nearly bare.

“We’re not closing,” Carroll said. “We’re just short of money.”

Proceeds from the annual “Stone Soup-er Bowl” fundraiser fell $5,000 short of last year’s take, Carroll said. To keep going, she said they recently drained a $7,500 cash reserve that was kept in a CD. 

Stone Soup’s expenses are $19,000 per month, Carroll said, which includes $4,470 rent and $680 for utilities. Other expenses include a monthly payroll of $12,000 for four part-time and four full-time employees. Expenses are offset by $10,000 in sales from their retail store, leaving the shop with $9,000 each month to make up through grants and donations.

“Our expenses simply have caught up with us,” Carroll said. 

More donations, costs

It takes a lot to keep Stone Soup running. There is no shortage of donated goods, from old electronics, clothing, small appliances, books and stuffed toys. But the items that are left on the rear loading dock must be sorted. Trash must be separated from treasure. Carroll said folks often dump junk indiscriminately outside the facility. There’s been an increase in unusable items, resulting in higher trash bills, she said.

In one back room, trash bags full of clothing are piled high, waiting to be sorted by staff and volunteers. The latter group includes youth and adults who have been sentenced to perform community service, as well as people from Minnesota WorkForce, Senior Workers Program and Next Stop Program.

A pending $9,000 grant will help, Carroll said. The community, which includes local churches and civic groups, have been generous as well. Carroll said the landlord gave them free rent for November. They recently received a $450 donation from Wireless World in Cottage Grove. Store manager Jason Sachs said the money was raised from a text campaign.

“The reason I picked Stone Soup is because I know they help a lot of people in the local community and they’re a smaller charity,” he said. “They do quite a bit of stuff in the community and we like to do things in the community, so I thought it was a good fit.”

Stone Soup Thrift Shop is owned by Basic Needs Inc. of South Washington County,  a 501 c(3) nonprofit.

They cover costs partly by selling clothing, tools, toys, books, electronics  and furniture. Carroll said they anticipate sales for 2013 to total $130,000. That will cover roughly half of the $245,000 budget. They depend on foundation grants, corporate and private donations for the rest. They make a little money by recycling old leather and stripping old cables and wires for the copper.

In addition to financial challenges, they face potential competition from the Goodwill retail store set to open in Cottage Grove in the spring. However, Carroll said she is not concerned about Goodwill siphoning customers from Stone Soup.

The retail store is a valuable community resource, Carroll said, since buying a couch, cake bowl or linens at a greatly reduced cost leaves more money to pay other bills.

Stone Soup gets about 1,700 customers every month. They include regulars Joe and Paulette Biron of Cottage Grove. During a visit last week, Joe Biron bought a new Shur-Line cornering paint brush for $2.50. The same brush is listed for $4.45 on the Home Depot website. He also bought an old cellphone charger for his vehicle.

“It helps a lot,” he said of shopping at Stone Soup. He said they even save money on bedding for their hamster, Mrs. Butterworth, because the staff saves shredded newspaper to give to his wife.

Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Retail Professionals in Michigan, has spent most her adult life in the resale industry. She has not heard of Stone Soup, but she said thrift stores that give away large amounts of merchandise must make sure they raise enough through sales or donations to subsidize their charitable mission.

“There’s so many reasons a store doesn’t succeed,” she said. “There are probably too many to name. It could be that their expenses are too high. It could be that they’re not keeping up with the new way of marketing or the way their merchandise is displayed, how clean the store is. “

Carroll said Stone Soup will stage a fashion fundraiser Jan. 26, which will feature girls who were “Princess for a Day” at the Cottage Grove Strawberry Festival modeling some of their clothes.

Stone Soup is looking for volunteers and donations. Contributions can be sent or brought to 950 Third St., Suite 101, St. Paul Park, MN 55071. To volunteer, call 651-458-9786.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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