I first heard about Treasure City Thrift from my homey Chris, who lives in Austin, TX. He told me about this anarcho-thrift store and by gum my interest was piqued! Wanna know more? I sure as shit did, so I (stinkbot) sent an email that had some questions attached. Cory, a coordinator at Treasure City was kind enough to wrangle two founding members of the collective and answer these questions. Read on brave and interested punk rocker!
What is Treasure City Thrift?
Simon: Friend, neighbor, thrift store, bazaar of the weird, junk/curio shop, reuse and waste stream diversion project, event and meeting space, infoshop, collectively-run business, non-profit, co-op incubator, really really free market sponsor, 25c sales, radical economic engine, mutual aid, solidarity not charity.
Cory: A collectively run radical non-profit thrift store in Austin TX.
Our mission: Treasure City Thrift supports local groups working for grassroots change using a sustainable and democratic economic model.
What does that mean exactly? We’re trying to build solid support systems for the organizations in our community that are working towards systematic, root level change. These groups need funding, space materials, We provide one time grants, ongoing financial support, materials, meeting and event space, free copies, and promotion to groups which have little or no funding, and are aligned with our principles.
How did the idea of starting a thrift store come about, as opposed to an info shop or a cafe?
Simon: We had a dozen co-founders – many of whom are still active in some capacity – so of course there are varying reasons why a thrift store was appealing.
At the core, I think we all wanted to create something that could financially sustain itself and other radical projects, and was simple and inexpensive to start. Of course, it never happened exactly as we envisioned it (except the inexpensive part!), but we kept at it and now we are closer to the original goal.
On a personal level, I like the idea of re-selling goods that already exist at very affordable prices (or free). This makes TCT relevant to a range of people beyond just radicals. Also, I’ve always loved and shopped at thrift stores – as do most of my friends – so creating an anarchist thrift store made a lot of sense economically. Why pay money to organizations or business you disagree with if you can start your own alternative?
James: Treasure City’s goal from the beginning was to be an economic engine for the Austin radical community. Many of us had been involved in projects where we spent more time fundraising than we spent actually doing the work that the project was intended to do. We wanted to start a project that would fund other projects, provide jobs with dignity, and otherwise be part of a larger infrastructure of resistance and liberation.
A thrift store had both political and pragmatic advantages over other types of businesses. Politically, it was a project that would relevant to a wide range of communities. By selling necessary things like clothing and household goods at affordable prices, it could meet the needs of radicals and non-radicals alike, much more than an infoshop. A lot of radical spaces seem to only serve a narrow demographic, and we envisioned a project that would transcend that limit.
Also, a thrift store appealed to our interest in anti-consumerism. It walks a tight line, because in one sense, it is entirely consumerist; a lot of the stuff treasure city sells is completely unnecessary and excessive. But it also runs on waste diversion. Much of what the store sells would have otherwise gone to the landfill―or one of those clothing donation boxes and then on to wreck the local economy in some third world country. Treasure City tries to keep it local.
On the pragmatic side, a thrift store requires far fewer resources to start (what an MBA would refer to as “start-up capital”) than most other types of businesses. There is no comprehensive regulatory framework for thrift stores (yet) the way there is for cafes. We didn’t need a commercial kitchen, health inspection, etc. Also, since the whole premise of the store is that we are selling donated goods, we didn’t need money or credit to pay for our initial inventory; just the good will of the folks in the neighborhood.
How many people are involved in the project?
Cory: A collective of 12 volunteers founded the store in 2006, and that number has fluctuated between 5 and 15 over the years. For the first several years, the collective was supported by 1 part time staff person, staff has gradually increased in size and responsibility.
Currently, weekday store operations as well as administration (bookkeeping, communications, promotion, etc) are the responsibility of 4 staff people. There are several regular volunteers who assist with store operations throughout the week, and there are 2 volunteers who are responsible for a 4-hour store shift on Saturday. On Sundays we have volunteers from the Inside Books Project working the register with support from our staff.
The Really Really Free Market is a connected but somewhat autonomous project run by 2 long-term volunteers with assistance from several others.
Simon: As with any collective, this fluctuates over time and is based on factors such as family, need for paid work, school, other projects commitments, or burnout.
We started with a volunteer collective of 12, running the store via consensus decision-making. We were all putting in a lot of time and it soon became apparent that a paid staff member would be essential to the smooth running, reliability and financial success of the project. Simply put, we are a retail business selling non-luxury items, we have to be open during the hours we state or we will lose credibility and customers. So we took a risk, hired one collective member and daily sales increased exponentially.
Since then we have hired more staff members as the store income has increased, and now have 4 paid staff (all female) plus some long-term volunteers involved in decision-making, some not. New volunteers come to an orientation every week to learn more about us and help sort the “donation mountains.” We also have volunteers who specialize in sorting particular items – books, music or electronics – which improves the quality, pricing, variety and organization in these sections.
Did you have any issues/hurdles starting up such a unique project? And how has the community response been?
James: We’ve had more hurdles than you can really shake a stick at. Some, like arson and homeless drug addicts shitting on out front step, are really case specific and you can’t do much to plan for. One big thing is for several years at least, we simply weren’t prepared to deal with the tremendous amount of stuff that would be donated. The capitalist machine produces an enormous excess, and most of it land here in the United States. The amount of good, usable stuff people are eager to give away is mind boggling. For a group of rag-tag radicals who live quite simply, dumpster dive, and use everything they own until it disintegrates, it was hard to learn what would sell and what wouldn’t. It was also difficult to realize that, despite all the 25-cent sales and the Really Really Free Markets, some stuff just had to be thrown away.
It also took an enormous amount of labor to sort, process, display, distribute, and dispose of all the stuff. We went through several cycles of burn-out in just a few years, which put a lot of strain on just a few people sometimes. The store now has 4 paid staff people. This has become part of Treasure City’s mission of being an economic engine for building a sustainable community. Our projects and our individual lives must be sustainable too. By providing jobs with dignity and a living wage, we help build a community where, for example, people with children don’t have to leave the community just to find work that will financially support their family.
Simon: “Start-up” or “venture capital” is key: we started with $10,000. This can be from donations, micro loans, community capital or personal loans. In our case, traditional grants and loans were not available, and because radical projects come and go, the only viable option that enabled us to be ready if we found a location, was personal loans. The collective was well aware of the potential negative power dynamics of this and made sure that the loan didn’t imply any executive decision-making by the lenders.
In an ideal (or future) world, start-up money would be provided by radical economic engines such as TCT, mutual aid networks or other collective/co-op incubators, using similar models to the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain, where members (co-ops and individuals) pay a percentage of earnings into a community development fund.
The second decision we made was deciding to collect inventory before we found and opened a space! We took donations from ourselves, friends, allies, family, from the curbside, slowly building up our donation network. We packed it all into a $40 a month storage locker. These were interesting times.
Despite all the challenges, we have adapted well to our environment and the level of donations has never stopped increasing. A lot of people are tired of donating to the big name thrift stores. They know these places are getting expensive, throw away too much or ship donated goods to third world countries where they undermine local economies, have high administrative costs, or simply don’t share the same values as they do. We saw this need and responded to it.
For me there are a couple of landmarks that define the success of Treasure City Thrift as both a business, and an anarchist organization that has maintained its core values:
25c Sale – from the beginning we realized we were getting more clothing and random crap than we could ever sort or sell. The first level of dealing with this is separating out the “25c” stuff. We need to do at least one 25c saturday a month to stay sane! There are usually lines in front of the store on those days and it never ceases to amaze me how much energy folks have for rummaging through bins of junk for a bargain. We sell at least 4000 items on those days. Anything left over goes to the RRFM.
Really Really Free Market (RRFM) – about a year in, a customer suggested the RRFM idea to us – once-a-month festival of free goods, services and education – though we later found out that a friend had organized the first RRFM during the Miami FTAA protests in 2003. The Austin RRFM happens at a local city park and is organized by an autonomous group of volunteers. TCT’s role is providing 50-60 boxes of donations a month. It has been happening regularly now since 2007. We love it.
Mutual Aid – initially, the best we could do was provide event and meeting space for groups we support (underfunded, local, non-profits), plus some material aid, which might be blank T-shirts for screen-printing and fundraising or clothing to support families in need. For 2 years, from 2007-2009, we provided space for the Yellow Bike Project whilst they were in transition to a more permanent home. They ran a community bike shop from a shed and shipping container in the parking lot. It wasn’t ideal but it enabled them to stay open 5 days a week.
Our current, and most successful, mutual aid strategy is shopping days/nights, where a local group we support staffs and runs the thrift store on a sunday or an evening when would be normally closed. That group gets to keep all the sales during that period. Inside Books Project, which has been sending books to texas prisoners since 1998, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, which organizes and improves conditions for maquiladora workers on the US-Mexico border, and Skillshare Austin, which puts on free skillsharing events around Austin are groups we’ve worked with recently. These events also help us move through more inventory and allow us to be open during times when we have no staff or volunteers.
Cory on Community Response: We’ve had overwhelmingly positive community response. We’ve received a ton of support in the form of donations of goods, volunteer time, word-of-mouth promotion, etc, and we’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from folks who enjoy shopping at Treasure City, holding meetings in our space, receiving material donations from the store, and having their projects funded through our sales. We get great online reviews from serious thrifters . There are long time neighborhood residents who have made stopping by our store a part of their daily routine, and value our presence.
Even when we were first getting started and didn’t really know how to run a thrift store on a daily basis, let alone make a significant impact for the non-profits we set out to support, I think that folks appreciated how diligently we were struggling to figure it out, and I’m sure the reputation that many of our founders had as dedicated and hardworking organizers and activists helped with that.
I’m also sure we are not 100% universally loved. When we first catch someone stealing we try politely but firmly asking them to stop, and that’s actually worked out pretty well on more than one occasion. But there are a few die-hard shoplifters who’ve been kicked out and will tell you we’re the meanest people ever.
I’m sure there is also more serious criticism that we don’t often hear directly. A significant proportion of our collective have been white, and a significant proportion have been relative newcomers to East Austin, which is a historically Black neighborhood. The history of East Austin is one of long term neglect by the city, followed by rapid gentrification, benefiting real estate developers and new home and business owners at the expense of long term residents. While we strive to make our presence more of a thorn in the side of developers and bougie businesses than an assett to them, we recognize that our role is made more complicated than that by the larger economic and social forces at work. While artists and activists are often displaced by gentrification at the later stages, our presence can also be a factor in increasing it at the earlier stages. Personally, I don’t want us to be judged based on un-checked assumptions about who we are or what our politics are, but I think that long term East Austinites have a right to be a little skeptical of our presence here, and that it is up to us to demonstrate the validity of our solidarity with marginalized communities.
How did you find the space?
James: We went through two spaces before arriving at our current location. We always had to make tradeoffs. Our first space was large-ish and cheap, but was falling apart and not very comfortable to work or shop in. Our next space was smaller and less visible from the street, but more comfortable. Our current space is large, visible from a big thoroughfare, and is not falling apart. It is also more expensive, but absolutely worth it. The most important thing is that we never got ahead of ourselves and were patient as we slowly grew.
Simon: There were no hook-ups or lucky connections. As collective members travelled across town on their daily business, they looked for vacant spaces, called landlords, realtors, property managers and, after 1-2 months, we got a good feel for the cost per square foot in different geographic areas. One day we found a space in east austin that had been vacant for 18 months. We all had our favorite locations and honestly, no one really liked this one. But, the price was right – 50c per square foot and visible. The trade-offs were it wasn’t to code, we had to do all rehab and repairs ourselves and the landlord was a scumbag. The collective discussed this location/situation in depth and decided – even though there was some doubt and disagreement – to make the initial leap into the unknown.
We did all the demo, cleaning, rehab on the location ourselves, in under a month, with borrowed tools and equipment and free paint from the hazardous waste disposal center. Very little was to code, the waste pipes were always backed up, there were rats, the roof leaked, the lot was littered with crack pipes and feces, and we inherited a guy named L.D. who lived in a shack out back and detailed cars. The shack eventually burned down, as did our free box, then the front of the store and then the vacant house next door. L.D. went to jail for drugs and was replaced by other regulars who slept on the lot. Threats of violence and break-ins were common, but there was little of value to steal or damage. We built a shed to store excess donations and were later made to tear it down by city code enforcement. We stayed at this location for 3.5 years. Over time, with hard work and being consistent, our local reputation and rental options greatly improved. We are now at our third, best (and most expensive) location. It is a high traffic area: the street provides access in and out of town, we are close to an intersection and next to a convenience store. The building is pink. Our sales are great and we still have customers who have been coming since day one.
Looking back, our first space was a bad move (and we are advising another project not to move into it), but I feel like we did what was needed to keep momentum, and it was those early challenges that made us able to deal with anything after that.
How do you make your policies and politics known to your community? Does it matter that your clientele know about your politics?
Simon: Our politics are visible in the store – flags, posters, literature, events, reading groups – but we’re not evangelical about it. We have a truly diverse range of customers, so we try to make folks comfortable in our space first and let them ask questions later. It’s anarchism with a “little a.” If you come and volunteer with us, you will get more of a political introduction to the project.
Cory: Yes, it matters to us very much, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re handing people propaganda as soon as they walk in. Some of that communication does come through signs in our windows explaining our mission, the boxes of materials in the store labeled with the names of groups we support, or the fact that “collectively run since 2006” is printed on our flyers and stickers. But a lot of it also happens through face-to-face conversation with folks who walk in our door looking for nothing more than a cheap pair of pants. People see that we do things a little differently, whether it’s because they can’t figure out who’s in charge and who’s just a worker (at any given moment any one of us may be sorting the donations, taking out the trash, answering the email, writing the checks, or making on-the-fly decisions about how to handle things) or because they see us setting out the scuffed shoes in a “free box” in front of the store at night in our effort to keep them out of the landfill and in the hands (or feet, as the case may be) of someone who can use them. They ask about these things and we’re often given the opportunity to have real two-way conversations about hierarchy, capitalism, oppression, distribution of resources, etc, with folks we might otherwise never be talking with at all.
As an anti-capitalist, I personally never thought I’d feel so good about running a business. But operating a retail business (especially one that’s relevant to and meets the needs of a really broad cross-section of our neighborhood in the way that a thrift store does) turns out to be something I really love to do. While there are many roles that we fill as staff at Treasure City, from the physical grunt work to the legal and financial tasks of managing a growing non-profit, what we spend our time doing on a daily basis is, I imagine, not that different than a small town shopkeeper. We recognize the folks who come through the doors on a daily basis, and do our best to provide the things that they need in exchange for money. The income generated by that business allows us to keep a building rented and lights on in it, as well as to sustain ourselves, and that building functions as a community hub both in terms of the physical space that’s available to our community and the social interaction that happens within it. That social venue provides an opportunity for sharing politics, learning more about the people we share our city with, and strengthening our community.
What’s next for you?
James: Overthrowing capitalism. Or if that doesn’t work out, maybe franchising?
Simon: James (another co-founder) jokes about how we should franchise! I think the radical thrift store model is the new anarchist project, and the model is open source, so call us. We’d like to see one in every town!
Cory: oooh could be so many things. I think that we each have slight variations in our hopes, dreams and expectations…. personally, my goals are:
1. Really totally getting a handle on this running a waste-diversion oriented thrift store without getting buried under a mountain of trash.
2. Really totally getting a handle on this running a growing non-profit thing without getting buried under a mountain of paperwork.
3. Increase revenue in order to:
–give more money away, eventually eliminating the need for fundraising among radical Austin organizations.
–make our jobs more genuinely full time/living wage with health care
–hire more people to help with 1, 2, and 3.
and then…spin off autonomous worker cooperatives to upcycle everything we can’t sell into awesome new stuff… Have interns come from other places to learn how we’re doing it and start collective non-profit thrift stores of their own…Host workshops and trainings for all the radical groups in Austin where we can learn and grow and build things together…Buy a building so we can stop giving all our money to creepy landlords…And so we can have a permanent home of our own and provide space to radical groups and start-up worker coops?
Or on a less ambitious day…replace the speaker wire so our music keeps playing at the right volume. Figure out how to get people to stop pooping in the alley next to the building. Get that recycling sorted properly for once. Remember to bring in the drill to put up the mirrors that have leaning against the wall in the dressing room for a year. Keep having fun
Where can you be found, as either inspiration or for those in the Austin area, to shop?
Cory: Come by and see us at 2142 E 7th St. We’re the big pink building between Los Comales Restaurant and the Bread Basket Convenience store.
You can also find us at www.TreasureCityThrift.org
Anything to add?
Simon: Sometimes things don’t turn out as you planned or expected. Sometimes you fail. These are learning experiences. Stay focused, stay consistent. Above all, be open to group and/or community critique and adaptable to change.