There is no end to the magic and creativity that happens with the inventory at the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Furniture Thrift Store.
The non-profit, volunteer-based store at 18 Keewatin St. is no ordinary second-hand shop. A hair dryer and a teapot become lamps, records are transformed into retro purses, old licence plates adorn birdhouse walls, sewing machine parts serve as bookends, and old beat-up dressers get turned into anything from Harry Potter-style suitcase dressers, to VW vans, to giant Lego pieces.
In a society where much is disposable, it’s rare to find those who mindfully save things to recreate them, giving them a new life rather than throwing them away.
Laurie Goetz is both manager and resident artist at what used to be a furniture store owned by Stephen Juba before he became mayor. For a while after that it was known as Shelly’s Furniture, and in 2003 it was sold to the four founders of the MCC Furniture Thrift Store who had a passion for supporting refugees.
Goetz and her creative ideas flow constantly to create one-of-a-kind pieces. She and her team of volunteer artists, retired engineers and other creative spirits anxious to work on the next project have mastered the art of upcycling, recycling and transforming ordinary items into extraordinary, unique and functional art pieces.
“The artwork is a collective effort,” Goetz says. “Usually, I come up with the ideas and the design work and colour schemes, and get my volunteers to do the rest. I get to create and hunt for the pieces, that’s the fun part. The volunteers do the sanding and priming and painting and all the work that goes into it. They love the finished product. I never let them get bored,” she says with a laugh.
What better way to keep furniture out of the landfill than to donate, purchase, restore, refurbish, recreate or upcycle it?
“I cannot express enough the responsibility we have to our environment,” says Goetz. “I like to think that everything we do is in fact recycling and reclaiming.
“I’ve always had a knack for seeing the potential of odd, unusual or broken things and love to give them a second chance. As a manager, I don’t always have the time to recreate a project myself but am grateful to have the team willing to run with my ideas, often exceeding them, or empowering them to come up with ideas of their own. There are always about half a dozen pieces in the workshop ready for new life that would otherwise go to the dump. Customers love the quirky creativity even if they don’t buy anything. It’s always so rewarding to me when people leave here with a smile on their face.”
Goetz has a long history of giving new life to old things. As a child she accompanied her mother on her volunteer shifts at the MCC thrift store on Sargent Avenue. She still has her first purchase from over 50 years ago.
“I spent hours playing while she worked,” Goetz says. “She would give me a nickel if I was good, to spend on anything I wanted. My first MCC purchase with my own money was a real gaudy pair of black horn-rimmed glasses without the lenses. I had actually gotten 10 glasses for a nickel but this one was my favourite and throughout my childhood I wore them for play with my friends and being goofy. In my adulthood I’ve worn them to Halloween parties and ’50s costume parties. I still have them today and it’s fun to see my grandchildren being goofy with them.”
The two-storey, neatly organized 10,000-square-foot showroom boasts good quality furniture and an eclectic mix of household decor items.
“Our volunteers do everything from housekeeping, bookkeeping, answering phones, customer service, fixing or repairing items, to upcycling and so much more. There are some very interesting pieces being created in this space, and some very interesting individuals behind these creations. Everyone has a gift, and my job is to find out what those gifts are and where to best put them to use. Some volunteers don’t even realize their capability until they are put to the test,” Goetz explains.
Mennonite Central Committee, which celebrated 100 years of service in 2021, relies on store-generated funds to help support their many local and global humanitarian programs. Today, there are over 100 thrift shops across North America generating millions of dollars for relief and development.
“I am always astounded by the generosity of our donors,” Goetz says, citing such donations as antiques, mid-century modern teak pieces, leather sofas, dining sets and bedroom sets. “It feels like Christmas every day.”
Donations must be smoke and bug-free and be in good and saleable condition to be accepted. Careful inspection by staff is done before anything enters the store and tax donation receipts can be provided upon request.
‘Although the thrift stores provide good quality second-hand goods at affordable prices, our customers are not just those on a tighter budget. Thrifting is trendy. We get a lot of regulars that frequent this place to explore anything new. There are the collectors, the dealers, the movies, the surrounding community and customers from across town or outside of Winnipeg. We have recently launched a new Shopify website where customers can view our posted items. As the pandemic has moved people towards online shopping, this has become very timely for us.”
Staff creativity adds both interest and value to the store. An old $60 dresser was turned into a one-of-a-kind $600 showpiece. One hundred per cent of all net proceeds is forwarded to the MCC.
“At the moment, much of MCC donations, including that which comes from the thrift stores, is being used to supply aid to those in Ukraine. This is really the most important part for me. What we do here hugely impacts lives around the world in ways that we cannot imagine. It is crucial that we keep our eye on the bigger picture.”
Find more information at furniturethrift.ca and mcccanada.ca/learn/what/relief/ukraine.
St. Boniface community correspondent
Janine LeGal is a community correspondent for St. Boniface who also writes the These Old Houses column for our Community Homes section.