Addison: The Brown Elephant Prospers in Tough Economy

Brown Elephant resale shop

Brown Elephant resale shop. (Photo by Caylie Sadin)

Addison Stop IconBy Caylie Sadin, Madison Ornstil and Ally Holt
The Red Line Project
Posted: Friday, June 3, 2011

Shannon Wright is one of the many people who are turning to thrift stores to save money. She ventured into the Brown Elephant in Lakeview looking for a deal on furniture and walked away with a micro suede couch for under $100.

“I was surprised by the condition of it (the couch), because I walked in expecting used products but it looked like it was in great condition”  Wright said. “I was very pleased with my purchase”.

The Brown Elephant, located in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood in Lakeview and in Oak Park, is a resale shop and has sold more than 740,000 items yearly, and all the profit goes to charity.

But unlike most businesses, this thrift store has prospered in the recent downturn of the economy. Because more people are interested in finding a good deal, the Brown Elephant has seen more customers than ever before, according to Assistant Manager Brett Wilson.

“What better place to come than a thrift store to save money?” Wilson said.

According to Wilson, not only have more people started shopping at the Brown Elephant, but more people have also started volunteering there too.

Due to the loss of jobs, people have more free time and are looking for a way to occupy themselves, Wilson said.

Today, more than 220,000 people visit the Brown Elephant stores each year in hopes of seeking bargains.

The items there are priced from a penny to more than $1,000. Sometimes people are surprised or upset at a high price, Wilson said. Occasionally people who have taken issue with the price of an item will vandalize it, Wilson said.

Wilson attempts to put it in perspective for angry customers by telling them that “our donors, when they are bringing in merchandise, they know what it is and they expect us to get the most for it and it can go to help the organization.”

Unlike most thrift stores, The Brown Elephant  also includes an x-rated section stocked with second-hand porn and toys.

“You probably can’t take a picture of what I’m sorting,” saidKai Wallace, a volunteer of 18 months, while sorting through various sexual items, casually tossing some in a keep box and others in the trash.

The profit the store receives from donations and purchases goes directly towards helping Howard Brown Health Center clients who are under-insured or uninsured pay for their medical needs.

The Howard Brown Health Center’s mission is to eliminate the differences in health care for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders on a daily basis. Through research and education, Howard Brown plans to promote health and wellness in the gay community, according to its website.

Founded in 1974, it is one of the largest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender organizations in the country. The organization was entered into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1991 for their outstanding efforts in fighting AIDS by teaching facts, providing medical services and reaching out to those who needed assistance.

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The Brown Elephant accepts donations, such as:

  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Household products
  • Kitchen appliances

All clothing must be washed and cleaned prior to donation. Furniture must also be in good condition with no rips, stains and/or pet hairs.

Due to the high cost of handling, fuel and scavenger services, the Brown Elephant no longer accepts some items. (Detailed list)

Brown Elephant side counter

Brown Elephant side counter (Photo by Madison Ornstil)

The donations office is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Brown Elephant suggests a minimum donation for pick up is ten bags of clothing or other items. Their pickup service is free and tax deductible.

One of Wilson’s favorite things about working at the Brown Elephant is getting to go through what people donate.

“It’s like being an urban archeologist," Wilson said. "So every time I open a box or someone brings something in and you get to research it or go through, and it’s like someone brings you their life in a box and you get to dig through it, which is really exciting and you learn a lot about a person in the things that they bring over."

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