The ‘Marie Kondo Effect’ Comes at a Weird Time for Thrift Stores

“Independent thrift stores are increasingly a dying breed in the Mission, once a thrifting oasis,” read a blog post from San Francisco's shuttered Mission Local thrift store. Sarah Holder/CityLab

Community Thrift is a second-hand staple in San Francisco, a spot consistently mobbed with shoppers and donators alike, employees say. For the past week, though, the mob of people armed with donation bags has grown. By a lot.

Another weird thing has been happening, says Susan, who works the front desk: People have been thanking their objects before giving them away. She rolls her eyes.

“People are influenced easily,” says her colleague, Rene.

The influencer here, of course, is Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant-turned-author whose book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, re-popularized the idea that the first step to achieving inner peace is to give away the useless piles of things you’ve accumulated over the years. (Per the KonMari method, you’re first encouraged to hold the stuff, think about the stuff, and thank the stuff for its service). The guru’s new Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, has drawn people further down the anti-hoarding rabbit hole: Binge all eight episodes and you might find yourself purging your earthly belongings.

That’s the sell, at least. And, according to the benefactors of all that tidying, it seems to be working.

Community Thrift. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

At the downtown Salvation Army, a few blocks down Valencia Street from Community Thrift, I met donations processor Richard Washburn, who said he’d packed two and a half trucks full of stuff (clothing, house-ware, coffee pots) in four hours—something LeAnn Trimmer, the office’s business administrator, says usually takes two days. At a San Francisco branch of the national thrift chain Buffalo Exchange, five people waited in line to donate bags that were stuffed or overflowing. It was a rainy Monday afternoon, usually a shopping lull.

“Clothing has really inundated us right now,” said Clint Smith, who’s worked at Community Thrift for 17 years. He slouched on a stack of wood cabinets, wearing a vintage-looking Giants jacket. “We’re treading water trying to get rid of everything.” Salvation Army’s Trimmer agreed. “Usually, donations dwindle after the first of the year,” she said. But December has come and gone, and the donations rate hasn’t slowed down the way it usually does. “The piles are still high.”

Across the country, things are trending similarly. At Beacon’s Corner, New York City’s famed used-clothes emporium, a clerk told the New Yorker’s Rachel Syme that the store was the most crowded it’s been in five years. Washington, D.C.-area Goodwills reported a 66 percent spike in donations during the first week of January, according to the Washington Post; with one branch reporting a 367 percent increase. Chicago’s Ravenwood Used Books store got a month’s worth of donations in a week, its owner told CNN.

We’ve definitely seen a lot of new faces coming in to sell their closet cleanouts and many of our sellers have been specifically mentioning Marie Kondo,” Kerstin Block, Buffalo Exchange’s president, said in an email.

This January, it seems, has been a season of tidying up.

But is all this life-changing magic really happening because of a Netflix show? Though spring and December cleanings usually account for most of the donation rush, New Year’s is also a time for reinvention, and reorganization. Even as it cites ratcheted donation rates, Goodwill says it’s too soon to tell if it’s really abnormal. In Washington, D.C., for example, the increase in donations locally has been attributed partly to the government shutdown, which has given furloughed employees a lot of free time after the holidays to clean up and give back.

Community Thrift employees—even those that heard donators mention the show as their catalyst for coming in—also point to a more local dynamic. In San Francisco, Smith told me, the spike might have more to do with the mini-retail apocalypse that’s happening among thrift stores in the area, driven by rising rents in the Mission and a changing culture. Mission Thrift, which once sat catty-corner to Community Thrift as a friendly competitor, announced in December it would be shutting down after 20 years of business. The owner, Werner Werwie, cited a lost customer base, shoplifters, and high property costs. Werwie once owned a total of six vintage stores in the city, but has now closed four; including another on Valencia Street that he says he shuttered in 2015 after rent rose from $4,000 to $12,000 per month.

“Independent thrift stores are increasingly a dying breed in the Mission, once a thrifting oasis,” wrote Mission Local. And with fewer places to donate, the remaining business is being funneled into Community Thrift. As Searses and Toys-R-Uses evaporate from suburban shopping centers, thrift stores are shuttering, too. Savers, the country’s largest for-profit thrift chain, makes about $1 billion from annual sales, but shuttered all its Colorado locations in March 2017 amid a lawsuit alleging it misled the public about its charitable donation practices. The chain has since lost stores in places like St. Paul, Chicago, and Madison.

Mission Thrift closed this year, leaving many San Francisco would-be clothing donators with fewer options. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

But even as thrift stores are gutted by other market dynamics, the ones that take donations have also been bolstered by another revolution: The rise of fast fashion. Clothes are getting cheaper. People are buying more of them, faster; and now, getting rid of them apace. Charity shops in England have started turning donations away, the Telegraph reported, because people keep buying £2 shirts and getting rid of them after a single use. “The whole industry is based on us buying more than we need,” Mary Creagh, Labour MP and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee in the United Kingdom, told the Telegraph in November. “And not valuing an item of clothing when it comes to the end of its life."

That’s where Marie Kondo comes in. She reminds people to acknowledge that inherent value; and at least starts to challenge them to think more about where its second life should begin. Partly, this is the great irony of her theory of austerity: Decluttering is what happens after you’ve accumulated mountains of goods, and it’s most freeing when you know you can replace whatever, if you really need or want to. It’s as much a product of the fast-fashion moment as a reaction to it.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in business over the last few years, both as a result of the KonMari method, which has brought decluttering to the forefront, as well as the increased popularity of secondhand fashion,” a Buffalo Exchange spokesperson said. The Autism Awareness thrift store in Tampa, Florida, which employs autistic workers and equips them with vocational training, even has a sign out front encouraging the connection: “Donate to us what doesn’t spark joy for you. It may be for someone else.”

But treasuring objects before you trash them—and avoiding “trashing” them in the typical sense of the word—is part of the beauty of KonMari-ing, Trimmer says. “I think it’s brilliant.” The commercial venues selling hand-me-downs, like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, are supporting working-class and low-income shoppers. And if too many piles accumulate, clothing bales are sold to companies to recycle or re-use in bulk. Community Thrift is a non-profit originally created to address the AIDS crisis, and it now partners with 200 local charities. When you buy clothes, you can pick which charity to disburse funds to.

“The Salvation Army was recycling before it was cool,” says Trimmer. It certainly helps that a Netflix show is making it even cooler.

Community Thrift’s cup overfloweth. (Sarah Holder/CityLab.)

Still, there’s at least one group of people immune to Kondo’s magic—not because they don’t believe in the gospel of thrift, but because they’re indoctrinated already.

“After working here for a long time, you learn: Quality over quantity,” Smith said as he surveyed shoppers fondling used couches. “You don’t want to end up having a hoarder scenario.”

Owen, another Community Thrift employee, said he tried to watch Tidying Up, but couldn’t stick with it.

“It reminded me too much of work."

Sarah Holder

Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab.

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