STONINGTON — All kinds of items can be found at the COMO Thrift Store — including a special kind of magic.
It all begins in the back room of the store’s home at 45 Cutler St. in Stonington Borough, where donations of clothing, household wares, furniture, books and toys enter through the side door and are sorted by a team of volunteers.
“The magic starts at this door, but it continues out onto the floor because you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for or needed, based on the quality of the items and the competitive pricing,” said Beth Ann Stewart, executive director of the Stonington Community Center, known as the COMO, as she surveyed stacks of donations in the thrift store’s back room.
With the tagline “Reuse-Repurpose-Rejoice,” the store averages more than 20,000 sales transactions annually and is a fundraising arm for the COMO and its programs.
"Our tagline summarizes the scope of the thrift shop’s reach, beginning with the donor-to-customer experience, the economic and environmental impact and the subsequent investment back into the COMO to further serve the community,” Stewart said.
But the store is more than a place to shop, it’s a social space to unplug, said Liz Theodore, store operations manager, who added that the merchandise turns over quickly.
“You never know what is going to appear and while people are finding what they need, they’re getting refreshed and renewed and rejuvenated,” Theodore said. “There are people who come in and say, ‘This was just the best time of my day, my week.’”
The thrift shop was founded at the end of World War II by Mrs. A. H. Gildersleeve, “who determined the British War relief efforts should now be directed locally, specifically to benefit the Stonington Community Center,” Stewart said in an email.
The shop was originally housed in the Potter Block on the corner of Water Street and Wall Street in 1947. From there it moved to the basement at 22 Pearl St., the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Carlson, before then traveling to the home of Robert S. Jones at 152 Water St., and eventually to 161 Water St.
On May 1, 1975, the shop was established in its present location, the Seaport Ford building, a 6,600-square-foot building that was originally constructed in 1946. The building resides on a 1.8-acre parcel that includes the COMO Paddle Facilities & Children's Garden.
Standing behind the counter, store manager Cindy Berg said the store has expanded its hours during her tenure. Berg has been the manager since 1996.
“When I first started, the hours were 12 to 4 p.m. And then, in 2002, I asked the board if the hours could expand to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” she said. “We were doing something right because someone was always here at noon waiting to get in.”
Since then the store has expanded its weekday hours, operating from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
“We’re open seven days a week — we’re not yet 24 hours-per-day,” Berg laughed.
Not only do locals visit on a regular basis, summer visitors make it a point to come in every year, she said.
“There are regulars I could set my schedule on. A lot of them come in just for conversation, chit chat,” Berg said. ““It’s just been like a big, big family.”
The store is a favorite of customer Jackie Burns, of Groton, who said she comes in about twice a week. On Wednesday, she had found a large ceramic cat that was going home with her.
“I have to have it because it’s a big kitty cat,” she said. “And this one is really easy to take care of.”
Not only is the store full of unusual finds, the magic is in how it connects the community together, she said.
“It really is a great place and you just never know what you’re going to find and there’s something for everybody, for all tastes,” she said. “It’s actually a little social center for people that come in here and meet up and catch up, which is really nice, too. It’s more than just a little thrift shop, there’s a lot more going on here.”