Friends and Family

T he word “thrift” gets a bad rap, according to sisters-in-law Sue Kuselias and Jodee Webb. People told them not to use it in the name of their new Hamden shop, Modern Thrift. “Thrift means that you’re wise with your money,” Kuselias says. “We think the savvy shopper today has that. That’s why we’re glad we used the word.”

If the idea of a thrift store conjures up a musty space with sparse treasures hidden among junk, think again. Modern Thrift is “the thrift store reimagined,” Kuselias says. “We use classic pieces and we mix them with modern and they become fresh again,” Webb explains. Driven by the casual-chic design instincts of its owners, Modern Thrift’s elegant inventory includes housewares, linens, dishes, jewelry, books, finds for men and more, curated using Kuselias and Webb’s four shopping principles: Each piece must be beautiful, or something they can make beautiful; in excellent condition or with “charming” wear; affordable (they compare their price points to T.J. Maxx and Pier 1); and something they would put in their own homes.

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“We’re thinking about this every time we see a piece,” Kuselias says. Some items are vintage, like a cut glass lamp that Webb repurposed with a new cloth-wrapped cord and a modern shade. Others date back only to last season.

Modern Thrift is not a consignment shop. Webb and Kuselias do most of the shopping themselves at flea markets, estate sales, antique shows, yard sales and wherever else they might find their next prize. Webb’s husband, who works in New York City, often shops for them there. He finds “unusual things sometimes that we, maybe, wouldn’t have looked at, and people love them,” Webb says. “He’s probably the best [shopper] of the three of us,” Kuselias agrees.

The sisters-in-law will look for particular pieces by request as well. For example, one customer wanted the sheet music for the song “You Are My Sunshine.” Kuselias found it in a 1941 piano book, and the customer purchased it to frame. Now, she says, they have a book full of requests ranging from the popular—quilts—to the unusual—poodles on glasses.

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The care that goes into choosing the right items seems to be one secret to Modern Thrift’s early success; Kuselias says they’ve served more than 1,000 customers in just eight weeks. Another is the connection Webb and Kuselias make with their customers. Everyone gets a personal greeting when they walk in the door and a tour if they haven’t been there before. Cafe tables outside invite shoppers to stick around. Soon coffee and tea will be available for purchase, along with pastries from local cafe Bread & Chocolate. Adding to the welcoming ethos, the shop is truly a family affair. Kuselias and Webb’s six kids—two girls and a boy each—pitched in to get things set up, and now the girls, along with Webb’s mother, take their turns behind the counter.

Yet another key piece of Modern Thrift’s business model is the packaging—pretty, heavyweight bags and boxes tied with bows and labeled with tags: “This vintage gift was specially selected for you.” People are even buying vintage gifts for bridal showers and weddings, Webb says. “They’re proud to give them because the packaging is beautiful, the experience was lovely.”

But perhaps more than anything, the store’s success seems to ride on the stories behind its merchandise. Vintage items all have history, though most of it remains unknown. “We often imagine, like if it’s a vase from the 1920s, how many women or families had this on their table for holidays? Or champagne glasses—who toasted with these?” Webb says.

Kuselias scrolls through the shop’s Instagram account to show how many Modern Thrifters have posted stories about the items they’ve purchased. “People are messaging us on Facebook nonstop to show us how they’re using a piece, or how they gave it to somebody… It’s just really special,” she says.

Kuselias and Webb’s own story goes like this: For 20 years, almost from the time that Kuselias married Webb’s brother, they’ve dreamed of owning a shop together just like this one—a shop that looked like their homes. The dream was vivid for both of them, Kuselias says. “We knew every last little pixel of it.”

Then one day last winter, Kuselias drove by the former Karma clothing consignment shop, a memorable pink landmark in Hamden’s Mount Carmel neighborhood, and saw the building was for sale. “I was in the car over there,” she says, gesturing out the door, “and I called [Webb] and I said, ‘Jode, it’s now or never’… And she said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

The brand new business owners attended to every little design detail in their planning, right down to the horticulturally correct arrangement of roses on the arbor over the front door and the cloth straps on the shopping baskets (because wire is uncomfortable when you hang it over your arm). But they admit there was one detail they neglected: a cash register. “It didn’t even cross our minds,” Kuselias says. They had to have one shipped overnight for their opening.

For shoppers who love the Modern Thrift look but aren’t confident about bringing it home with them, Kuselias has a few words of advice: Don’t feel you need to decorate all at once. Start with something—a rug, a table—“and then start working off of that… Take your time.” Also, think about what will make your home welcoming and comfortable for guests, such as personal framed photographs and artwork or “big plumped pillows.”

Finally, Kuselias says, “Pick only what you love”—advice that’s serving these two old friends well.

Modern Thrift
3565 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5:30pm
(203) 821-7376
Website | Instagram

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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