The ladies of the Aspen Thrift Shop champion local philanthropy

Dec 6, 2017

The ladies of the thrift shop cash out customers.
Credit Claire Woodcock / Aspen Public Radio

For many years, the Aspen Thrift Shop has sold donated goods at affordable prices in order to distribute grants to other nonprofits in the valley. The women who run the organization demonstrate commitment to local philanthropy and towards each other.


The Aspen Thrift Shop is filled with reusable treasures like books, ski equipment, designer clothing and more. In the back sorting room, incoming goods add splashes of color to the walls.

“I am a sorter,” said volunteer Polly Whitcomb as she puts clothes she’s deemed resellable on plastic hangers. “I am very good at going through a lot of donations in a short time. That’s my strength, and I enjoy doing it, so that has really been the niche that I have created for myself.”


Whitcomb’s been a volunteer with the Aspen Thrift Shop for 35 years. She points to the designer rack just outside the sorting room, one of the town’s best kept secrets that has helped generate the thrift shop’s local philanthropic mission. The women who volunteer at the shop enjoy gushing over the stylish finds on the rack. Whitcomb works on Team Wednesday A with Patti Stranahan, a co-secretary of the Aspen Thrift Shop. She started volunteering there in 2006 and said it’s nice to see the impact of working for one organization spread throughout the valley.


“Selling things that people need and that other people can no longer use,” said Stranahan.


The Aspen Thrift Shop was formed in 1949 to help the old “citizens hospital” at the base of Red Mountain. From there, it’s evolved into a full-throttle philanthropic women's organization. In the years Stranahan has been there, she said donations have skyrocketed.


“Since I first came on here, I think we were at about $175,000 in 2006, and now we're giving away over $600,000 in grants and scholarships,” Stranahan said.


Diane Wallace is a co-president of the Aspen Thrift Shop. Wallace said last year the shop provided grants to nearly 200 arts, environmental and health nonprofits. In a shed connected to the sorting room, there are mountains of bags with discarded goods.


“So it stays dry in this sort of gated area and then we just go through it bag by bag,” said Wallace. “It's a lot of items to go through.”


Wallace estimates there are between 60 and 80 plastic garbage bags stacked.


“Maybe more,” she added.


Volunteer Polly Whitcomb sorts through clothes at the Aspen Thrift Shop.
Credit Claire Woodcock

Every day is a race to get the items indoors and sorted so they stay dry and don’t go bad. Last month, the thrift shop limited its drop off hours to help reduce theft and intake. Whitcomb said it can be discouraging when the donation piles never seem to shrink.

“About a year ago, we suddenly had to realize that that wasn't going to happen, we simply couldn't physically do it,” Whitcomb said.


But the hard work has brought these volunteers together over the years. These women describe the shop as fostering a tight-knit community. Stranahan said the women of shift Wednesday A are like her sisters.


“I’ve gotten a lot of self confidence out of being a part of this. When times are rough or you feel like you need a sister to lean on, these people have been those for me. And in times of joy, they're the first ones I'd call and it is a sisterhood in many ways and laughs,” she said, teary-eyed. “Anyways, I guess I didn't know I'd get weepy over it.”


There’s also a push for the next generation of women to get involved with the Aspen Thrift Shop. People like Heather Vicenzi, she’s running the top floor dedicated to women and children’s clothing. She said Whitcomb was once her teacher at the Aspen Community School.


“I just wanted to get involved with giving back to the community and this is my start,” said Vicenzi.


Whitcomb said it’s women like her who will continue to champion Aspen Thrift Shop’s legacy.


“Boy, women can get the job done,” Whitcomb said. “We really have a powerful organization here, run by women for the community, and it is empowering. I am very proud to be part of the thrift shop.”

A feeling that Whitcomb hopes the next generation of volunteers will also have.