Inexpensive Taste

Inexpensive Taste

Inside the Thrift Shop at Yale New Haven Hospital, a customer emerges from the dressing room wearing a jacket and skirt of matching white leather. “Let me see that on you, honey,” says Josephine “Josie” Funaro, one of three staff members at the shop that day. She and her sister, Louise Manfreda, pause to admire the fit, while the customer does a turn. “That looks nice!” Funaro says. Manfreda thinks so too. “You know what, hon? That looks so much better than the other. I know you love the other.”

When the customer suggests she might buy both outfits—the one she has on and the one she’s already tried—the sisters are solicitously encouraging. “Buy them both then,” Funaro says. Manfreda agrees, with a caveat. “But we need to be truthful. That jacket over there is a little big for you. But if you put on some weight…” Funaro laughs and says, “But then that won’t fit her,” referring to the white leather ensemble, which may as well be bespoke.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven - Donor Advised Funds

The customer ultimately departs with three outfits, having paid $5 for each. The sisters have been side by side behind the counter throughout the exchange, which better serves their collaborative approach to fashion consultation. They work at the Thrift Shop every Thursday, as they’ve been doing for 23 years. “It’s very rewarding,” Funaro says. “It really is. We’ll meet people that we wouldn’t ordinarily contact. Wonderful people. We learn about their families.”

“And sometimes they come in for counseling,” Manfreda adds. “We don’t have a degree in it, but they come and they pour their troubles out to us, and we hope to give them good advice.”

“They call us the twins because we’ve been here for so long.”

“We would never do anything else on Thursdays. Except when we go to Florida.”

“But that’s it.”

Staffed by volunteers throughout its 35 years, the Thrift Shop, located at the hospital’s St. Raphael campus, is both a source of fundraising for the Yale New Haven Hospital Auxiliary and a community resource. Its two purposes are in gentle contradiction, as items are priced affordably for the economically distressed neighborhood. Improvisation sometimes occurs at the register, lowering prices even further.

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Hopkins School - Open House on October 20, 2019

Jane Snaider, who manages the Thrift Shop and also minds the store on Tuesdays, remembers at least once ignoring the cash register altogether. “This man walks in who lived in Section 8 housing. And he was going to a Christmas dinner—I think, at one of the churches. And he said, ‘I want to look nice.’ I found him a shirt. A jacket. A gorgeous wool blazer. He said, ‘I only have five dollars.’ And I said ‘Merry Christmas.’ I didn’t even take his five dollars.”

Snaider started at the Auxiliary seven years ago, after a lifetime of civic improvement efforts. “I’ve been volunteering in the city of New Haven for 50 years. I’ve done everything from ward committee… in Westville to volunteering for the Arts Council. the best place I’ve ever volunteered.” Her marketing background gave her the insight to run the thrift shop like a boutique, one that depends on a good inventory to attract customers. After she got the word out within the hospital system, doctors began coming in with JoS. A. Bank suits and crisp Ralph Lauren shirts. She also struck a deal with Enson’s, the men’s clothier several blocks east, whose customers could donate used suits for a discount on a new one. This opened up a donation pipeline to the broader sharp-dressing community.

As I was visiting, an end of summer sale was in full swing to make room for the fall and winter racks, already assembled and waiting in the back room. Evelyn Duffner, the window decorator, was dressing the mannequins in new colors and removing the old decorations, as she does almost monthly. “I used to be a schoolteacher so I did bulletin boards,” Duffner says. “I try to do a different theme in each of the windows. This one was all about beaches, but that one was all about birds and butterflies.”

The ensembles, as good as new after being washed and pressed in an on-site laundry room, are as display-worthy as anything in the city’s main shopping districts. “Sometimes we get things and we don’t even know how expensive they are,” Snaider says. “Somebody came in from the hospital, and one of the donations was an Italian jacket. And we knew it was a nice jacket. A customer came in here and said, ‘I’ll take that jacket for a hundred dollars.’ And that’s a lot of money for us. So I googled it. Moncler. It was a $1,500 jacket. One of the most expensive sold here in the US.”

The donations they get are inherently material and functional, and yet a mystique attends them. Snaider recalls opening bags in the home of a 92-year-old woman, containing outfits she had worn as a teacher at Southern Connecticut State University. “She had some things from old stores in New Haven, like the Virginia Shop, Susan Thomas, Alden Power on Chapel,” Snaider recalls. “We had this beautiful pink dress that she wore on her first cruise when she was 30. And a gorgeous fur coat.” There are other donations that merely suggest stories—a wedding dress donated by a dry cleaner, after months waiting in vain for the bride. Diane Stewart, who was working with Snaider on a recent Tuesday, showed me a cape of navy wool, worn by a nurse at St. Raphael’s at around the time the teacher was debuting her pink dress.

Thrift stores that attract good donations also attract more kinds of customers. Snaider made overtures to the wider Yale community and began seeing students. “Art students and architecture students… come in all the time. Tall, skinny architects, and they can buy anything from a size 2 to a 3X. They put it on, they take a belt, and put a belt around it… I think they look for funky. And they spot things. They have an eye for fashion.” The store also attracts treasure hunters and eBay resellers. Stewart says, “You get a lot of upstate people coming in now. And people from all over the world.” I ask how international customers find out about a thrift store in New Haven, and she replies, “They come from the hospital.”

As if on cue, a visiting doctor from Haiti approaches the register with a massive suitcase and a stack of men’s and women’s clothing. The clothes, he says, will go into the suitcase, and the suitcase will go to relief efforts in the Bahamas. (Snaider hastens to the back room, where she thinks she can find children’s clothing to add, free of charge.) The thrift shop is also connected to the hospital through hospital volunteers, who sometimes arrive after hours, escorting destitute patients in need of something decent to wear when they’ve been discharged.

But the Thrift Shop’s intimate connection with the hospital may also be its undoing. Last April, an expansion plan for St. Raphael’s was announced, one that eliminates the building currently housing the shop. The Auxiliary is looking into the possibility of opening it in another location, ideally in the same neighborhood, because, more than any constituency, the shop serves the people living near the hospital, who may simply need something nice to wear to church, a wedding (including their own) or an interview—and end up getting something very nice. If it closes or moves away, they will feel the loss the most.

For now, the shop is being what it’s always been. Shortly after ringing out the white leather ensemble, Josie Funaro spots a customer at the jewelry counter. “Find something?” The customer indicates a necklace the color of antique gold. “This is seven dollars,” Funaro says.

Manfreda holds it up for inspection. “I think it’s broken.”

“I do too,” Funaro says.

“I mean, it’s easy to do,” Manfreda says. “We’ll give it to you for less. Do you think you could fix that?” She indicates the necklace’s broken clasp. “All that needs to be done is to attach this to this. Okay? Get some pliers and you’re in business.”

“Give it to her for two dollars,” Funaro says softly to Manfreda.

Without missing a beat, Manfreda says to the customer, “Two dollars, how’s that?”

The Thrift Shop at Yale New Haven Hospital
1386 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-3pm
(203) 789-3312

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features Louise Manfreda and Josie Funaro. Image 3 features Jane Snaider.

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