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Goodwill: in deed and in retail

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2011 - I was asked recently to come to a reception at the grand new retail facility Goodwill acquired and renovated at 3728 Market Street, just east of Vandeventer Avenue. For years this behemoth housed Famous-Barr's warehouse, and if you've ever driven east on I-64 on your way downtown, you've passed it on your right, just east of Vandeventer. Famous had a gigantic operation there, and from time to time warehouse sales would be announced, and the public was invited to pick through bargains of all sorts. Were you so inclined, you could buy lampshades by the dozen or enough mattresses to use to go to ground in a big gangland war.

So even before its acquisition by Goodwill, a most fertile field for bargain hunters, the warehouse complex had a long history in the bargain business. Goodwill has renamed it the Outlet Store, and for many objects, this place is the end of the line. More about that in a minute.

First it's good to review what is meant by Goodwill, as well as goodwill. The latter is kindness and support we extend to others. As for Goodwill, well, some late 19th-century genius came up with the name "Goodwill" for an organization that would provide ways and means for financially challenged men and women to earn livings. Now in its second century as an institution in the American charitable world, Goodwill organizations all over the country make manifest the fundamental meaning of charity, a word based on the Latin word caritas, which means love, in the sense of benevolence and kindness to others, and fulfilling the inclination to do good for our fellow creatures.

"Goodwill," like Xerox and Cellophane and Hoover in the United Kingdom, has taken on generic meaning in our vocabulary, and is frequently employed to mean thrift shop, and so, when one says, "Take those (old sweaters or books or vinyl records or whatever) to the Goodwill," the word takes on both specific and general meanings. Here, "Goodwill" is used specifically to signal MERS/ Goodwill, the proper name of the organization in these parts. In our region, the name resulted from the marriage in 2001 of the Metropolitan Employment and Rehabilitation Services and Missouri Goodwill Industries. It summarizes, directly, the mission of the organization. Goodwill not only offers bargains to a population consisting of thrifty folks and collectors and needy individuals and families, but also provides "for the vocational needs of individuals who have barriers to employment through disability or economic disadvantage."

MERS/Goodwill services are extended to more than 23,000 individuals, and it operates 50 service centers in this region alone. Revenue from its retail stores helps to pay the bills for the services Goodwill provides - vocational counseling and real jobs, with genuine paychecks, to a huge population, members of which otherwise might be out of work and out of luck.

Retailing is the Goodwill's public face, and those who operate Goodwill enterprises here are keenly aware of that function and its importance. The new facility on Market is a material expression of that concern. Mark Kahrs, senior vice president of retail for MERS/Goodwill, said the organization did some shopping itself for a good building, and the expedition took them deep into St. Louis County. Eventually, Goodwill landed in the city, just a few blocks east of the store I know best, at 4140 Forest Park Avenue.

Today (May 5) is the grand opening. (For information on hours, etc., go to www.mersgoodwill.org.)

Shoppers will find that most of the goods for sale are priced not by the unit but by the pound, and there are two basic prices, 39 cents and 79 cents a pound. Some items are priced individually - for example, I picked up an upright vacuum cleaner for five bucks and it works beautifully. Nothing costs more than $15. The look of the place is bright and cheerful, not like the murky basement impressions some thrift stores give off.

This store is, however, where life ends for most unsold merchandise from Goodwill stores around the region. So have pity on the poor Pablo Casals vinyl disk or the pretty blue and white, made-in-Portugal bowl that didn't move in other establishments. Every 20 minutes, about 2,000 new items are put up for sale, and if they don't move off the floor fast, employees swoop down upon them and move them out to the big, behind the scenes recycling facility in the back of the building.

Cloth items are bundled in bales, for example, and sold for rags. The bales, from a purely aesthetic point of view, are quite beautiful and colorful. Other categories of the material meet similar fates. But some items have second chances. Goodwill has a deal with Dell, which buys scrapped electronics for parts. Whatever can be recycled is recycled. And the operation is so focused on aspects of thrift and re-use it provides gigantic, dynamic new meaning to the notion of Green.

And as I looked around this bright, lofty spaces of the building I felt a great admiration for Goodwill. Now well into its second century of service, it has grown from small eleemosynary origins in Boston and Brooklyn into an organization providing invaluable services from coast to coast. The fundamental impulse, to help someone who needs help, to extend goodwill to others, still obtains, but as the culture has changed, Goodwill has changed with it, and now, along with manual training, contemporary demands for computer-related skills are taught.

For many of us, however, Goodwill still means hunting for treasures or a way to extend the life of unwanted material accumulations in a consumer culture on steroids. But what matters most here is that Goodwill has figured out a practical alchemy, turning dross into gold. Emerging from the never-again-to-be-worn sweater or the chipped service of china for 12 can come, at the Goodwill, the beginning of a new life for a man or a woman or a family.

As they thrive, so do we all.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.