Upcycling business, thrift partnership helps fuel Goodwill’s job training programs A win for the economy, small business, the environment and the unemployed in Pierce County

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Most children, when moved by the entrepreneurial spirit, open a lemonade stand in their neighborhood.

Pam Johnson was not most children.

Growing up with a fondness for antiques inspired by her grandmother, Johnson began shopping at thrift stores and selling the items she found at a stand in front of her parents’ house. “I was able to make money that way as a little kid,” she says.

The habit continued throughout her college years and during a decades-long career at Boeing. Today she is the owner of Inta Vintage, a Sumner boutique offering repurposed or ‘upcycled’ items from more than 40 vendors. In the year since it opened, business has been booming and Johnson has a waiting list of 37 new vendors trying to get in.

Sumner: Upcycling Capital of Washington

Inta Vintage was one of the stops on a tour showcasing Puyallup thrift and Sumner upcycling boutiques, hosted by Goodwill of the Olympics and Rainier Region. The tour began at the Puyallup Goodwill store and moved to Sumner Blue, a Goodwill boutique, Junkers Nest and Inta Vintage, culminating in a visit to Van Lierop Garden Market, a gardening store specializing in found objects. Armed with gift cards and gift certificates, upcyclers paired with bloggers to discover the world of upcycling and create a unique piece of garden art they could take home.

The day kicked off with Greg Medlyn, senior vice president of retail operations for Goodwill, acknowledging the role of upcyclers in supporting Goodwill’s job training programs. In Southwest and Western Washington alone, proceeds from thrift shopping fund $9 million in free career path job training for unemployed and low-income people. Money from the stores is used to support the region’s unemployed with job training and placement into careers in culinary, warehouse and logistics, computers, coffee shop operation, construction and many other occupations.

“There are a bunch of folks furthering the economic engine through coming in and finding items and repurposing them for the business they’ve created,” says Medlyn. “I just love the energy that creates. People think Goodwill is all about selling things but it’s about that additional economic benefit we’re able to provide to the community. Our job training changes lives and you’re helping us do that.”

In the upcycling model, shoppers find objects at thrift stores such as Goodwill or Value Village, spend time and energy restoring or renovating them then sell them at a considerable markup. Sumner Blue, a Goodwill Boutique that offers items procured through the larger Goodwill stores, is a starting point for many. “We have a very close relationship with merchants in downtown Sumner and we’re very intertwined,” says store manager Caroline Hamilton.

Upcyclers who shop at such places have options: they can split costs on a brick and mortar store or rent space for their racks from an established business. At Junkers Nest in Sumner, six vendors share the space according to Julie Cannon, one of the store’s partners. While some shop at traditional thrift stores, others attend estate sales or garage sales to find items.

Renting space rather than managing your own store has advantages, says Lynette Tapia, owner of Her Closet Boutique. She currently rents from Inta Vintage but has been in six stores located in locations ranging from Monroe to Centralia over the past two years. She pays a monthly fee for booth space plus a percentage to cover utilities and credit card fees. “So far Inta Vintage has been my most amazing store,” she says. “Because I have three kids and a job working part-time for the Federal Way School District, it’s easy to create my stuff in my spare time and then take it down to the store and they sell it for me. I just collect the check.” Her Closet offers vintage clothing, women’s boots, original jewelry and a variety of distressed flannel shirts.

Consumers also benefit from upcycling says Deanna Eicholz, owner of Tarnish and Grace at Inta Vintage. “If you have a creative spirit and like to make things, it doesn’t always take a lot of money. When I find leather for my jewelry, it’s not expensive to make,” she says. “On the other hand, there are always vintage stores where people have done the work for you and all you have to do is walk in and shop.”

The final stop on the upcycling tour was VanLierop Garden Market, a family-owned business that has recently branched out into educating clients on how to decorate their yards using found objects. Participants got to choose a plant to complete their design and sisters Anne and April VanLierop offered guidance and advice. Everyone got to take home their creation, along with a better understanding of how upcycling works and why it matters.

“We hope that if people come to our store, they get inspired,” says Cannon, one of the partners in Junkers Nest. “They know they have something unique that wasn’t made in China, it was created by us and it wasn’t just thrown in a landfill.”

Johnson of Inta Vintage agrees. “On any given day, you can see lines at the landfill,” she says. “That really bothers me. We don’t have to use up our valuable land with items we’re disposing of. People could give more thought to recycling and upcycling and not just throwing things away.”

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