COLUMBIA — When it opened its doors in 1970, there was no carpet or air conditioning—just dirt floors and a small group of women dedicated to helping others.
Forty years later, The Wardrobe, a nonprofit organization that sells secondhand clothes to the public and offers free clothes to referred individuals and families, has both air conditioning and cement floors and is remembering the practical service mentality of its founders during its anniversary celebration.
WHAT: 40th anniversary open house of The Wardrobe Inc.
WHEN: 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16
WHERE: The Wardrobe, 715 Park Ave.
Refreshments will be served.
“None of us thought it would last 40 years,” said Pauline Marienfeld, 90, board member and past president of The Wardrobe.
“All those women, nobody thought we could agree on anything,” she said with a laugh.
The Wardrobe operates without grants, fundraisers or subsidies and runs on a volunteer-only staff made possible by “very faithful people,” according to Beverly Miles, one of the founders. All sales pay for utilities and new clothes for referred families.
“Everyone just kind of cooperated,” said Miles, 75. “It was quite an adventure.”
“I laugh when we complain about how hot it was in here this summer when I think about how it was when we opened,” Marienfeld said.
That first summer in 1969, Roberta Weaver, wife of former UM System President John Carrier Weaver, approached Miles about the community’s lack of a central resource for families who couldn't afford new clothes. Various service organizations had frequent rummage sales, but there was no organized main location, Miles said.
“I told her, ‘I don’t know why you want me to do this,’ but it was kind of an intriguing idea,” Miles said.
Some of the women originally involved with the project, including Miles, Marienfeld, Evelyn Estes, Ann Heverling and Elizabeth Connor, met weekly in Estes’ house to brainstorm ideas for the store. Each week they would give each other assignments and report back on the progress they'd made toward developing what would become The Wardrobe.
The store's name came from an old wardrobe Estes found in an antiques shop. The group found the name fitting, and the wardrobe still sits in the store's office.
The store's first location, 223 N. 9th St., had once been a small shoe shop. A few months later, The Wardrobe moved across the street to an old carriage house with the help of a few local homeless men to have more room for the overload of donations from the community. It shared the building with Woody's Auto Center.
Within its first year, The Wardrobe assisted 1,526 Boone County residents, 1,100 of whom were children.
“That The Wardrobe is 100 percent a volunteer endeavor is in itself unique and remarkable,” Beth Emmons, former chairwoman of The Wardrobe, wrote in 1971. “It is proof that Columbians are concerned citizens.”
Between 1974 and 1980, The Wardrobe purchased 6,351 pairs of shoes for its back-to-school coupon giveaways.
In 1983, The Wardrobe lost its lease because Woody’s Auto Center had plans to expand, which began the search for a new home. Within a year, the store had raised enough money to reopen in its current building, which was constructed entirely by volunteers, on Park Avenue. Marienfeld said there was an overwhelming response from the community, including a $25,000 donation from Jack Silvey, founder of MFA Insurance Co. and Silvey Insurance Cos.
Marienfeld and Miles said The Wardrobe has thrived on the loyalty of its volunteers and their individual attention to customers and clients from varying walks of life. The volunteers said they seek to build relationships with those who walk through their doors.
Artie Miller could tell you all about that. She stumbled upon The Wardrobe in 1987 after her husband retired from the military and said she has felt welcome ever since.
“I came in to shop,” Miller said. “Pauline said, ‘We’re closed today.’ I stayed awhile while they worked and sorted clothes and then she said, ‘Would you like to work?’ I’ve been here ever since.”
Miller is now co-chair of referrals and said she is encouraged when clients come and express their gratitude.
One client who stood out in Marienfeld and Miller's memories was a mother who owned a cleaning business. She offered her services for free to show her appreciation.
“It’s the only thing that keeps you going,” Miller said.
In the '90s, Miller’s granddaughter Anna Miller, then 8, volunteered with her friend Savannah Freeman, then 12, during The Wardrobe's back-to-school jeans giveaway when Anna visited Columbia during the summer from Festus.
“I was excited to go with Grandma to work,” Anna Miller said. “It became (my and Savannah’s) own little world when we sorted and folded clothes.”
“My favorite memory is when kids would come out of the dressing room and their faces would light up because they were getting new clothes for school,” Freeman said. “It was never work to us. It was more exciting to help someone.”
Hope Quaintance, 46, still remembers when board member and volunteer Tillie Berkely, now deceased, picked out a pair of red shoes for her to wear during the upcoming school year. Quaintance’s mother raised six children, and Quaintance said the money saved by shopping at The Wardrobe was a great help to the family.
“They’ve always been there,” she said. “It’s not that they’re bored. They could be doing a lot of other stuff, but they take the time to help others.”
Janie Coleman, 46, and her mother usually bring baked goods, candies and beverages to the Tuesday volunteers, which Marienfeld said makes volunteering worthwhile.
“The clothes are just as good as the new things,” said Coleman, a lifetime shopper. “I love the stretch cotton clothes. (Marienfeld) will save stuff for me that’s in my size. They know me very well.”
Behind the scenes, volunteers like Ruth Ann Arends and Carol A. Smith, The Wardrobe's current board chairwoman, spend their time sorting piles of bags filled with donated clothes.
Arends has volunteered for two and a half years but has seen The Wardrobe grow over time because of her 30-year friendship with Smith. Smith said she began helping The Wardrobe in 1970 through Church Women United, mobilizing volunteers from 17 different churches in Columbia to donate their time once a month.
During cleaning and sorting on Mondays, Arends said it can sometimes take her up to 30 minutes just to transport the bags of clothes inside to the receiving room.
“It’s a big undertaking, but it’s a good problem to have,” she said. “It’s worth being able to help the community.”
This year, on The Wardrobe’s first day with winter clothes on the rack, 97 families and 83 individual shoppers came to browse. Marienfeld said that number is only going to grow as the colder weather settles in.
As the seasoned thrift store looks back on its 40-year history, volunteers and community members will celebrate at an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16 at The Wardrobe, 715 Park Ave.
Marienfeld said the open house will be an informal thank-you to the community for all its support through the years.
“Everyone should give back to their community,” she said. “If this is what I can do, I’m happy with it.”