After 15 years at the MVCS Thrift Shop, Dolly Campbell moves on

Dolly Campbell (center) with Karen Child (left) and Sandy Pratt, have turned the Thrift Shop into a must-stop shop for many Islanders. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The average patron of the Chicken Alley Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven spends 15 minutes three times a week browsing, either for a necessity or a rare find. Most often the 9-to-5 days pass with little commotion — just a steady stream of shoppers who, little by little, support the vital work of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), the beneficiary of the shop’s profits.

But one hot lunch hour not so long ago, a middle-aged couple plunked down several bulky items around the register. Just as the total amount was tallied, the fellow took a nose-dive between the counter and employee exit aisle, and stayed prone on the cement floor.

Dolly Campbell, the shop’s manager for the last 15 years, placed a stack of newspapers under his head, called 911, and alternately soothed and served other customers. Unfazed, the fellow’s partner continued to look for “one last thing.” When the ambulance arrived, she assured Dolly the collapse was due to a few Long Island Iced Teas, a favorite midday libation. The man was lifted into the ambulance, and she hopped aboard just as the doors were closed and the siren began to blare.

It’s that calm tone, in part, that makes so many people, and their best friends, feel at home at the Thrift Shop. Those of us who include the shop in our daily rounds have come to know the dogs who often shop with their owners — Daisy the Bassett hound, and Jake the Mighty Mix, for example, who have come to expect gourmet office treats. Dolly’s Yorkshire terrier, Hillary, was once the Main Street Thrift Shop’s mascot, holding court in the front window and barking hello to all passersby. Now, breeds of all sizes act as if they are as welcome as their owners.

Little children who started coming here as infants in their mother’s arms find more treasures in the corners and cubbies than they might in most toy shops. There is the fetching brown-eyed Warren who knows every nook and cranny and can always find his mom behind a rack of clothes. Two-year-old Erika needs to see Dolly before her mother, Laura, can do the grocery shopping.

Young teens seek out vintage outfits, except this month, when they are hunting for the most funky or bizarre Halloween disguise. And those octogenarians, who choose their stores very carefully, manage to park outside without sideswiping three or four cars in the driveway and find that stylish slip, that 40s broach, or that tiny little teapot for their collection.

When Chef Marvin arrives looking for a dapper suit, he brings the staff the latest concoctions he creates for Ellio’s Market and the students at his ACE MV Cooking Class. The regulars know there are estate treasures and wearables from the rich and famous. Sometimes the volunteers label the finer stock with its pedigree, but more often it is gratifying to see a splendid object sell for five dollars, without any reference to its identity. Friends buy for needy families far away; they fill boxes of high-quality goods and mail them out that very day.

There are 50 stalwart volunteers who donate time to this Community Service, helping Dolly, Sandy Pratt, and Karen Child cull through donations to present the best bargains.

It wasn’t always as amusing and rewarding to shop at the Thrift Shop when it was on Main Street. Back in that former location, the sidewalk was cluttered with dropped-off donations, some worthy but most often they were cast-off items that couldn’t be resold. Because of limited space, volunteer Ralph Jones would sell any furniture at an airport venue. When the fat plastic bags were too heavy for Phronsie Conlin and Dolly to haul up the back stairs, they would let them fall backwards and roll back down, swearing to one another that there would one day be a new and efficient operation.

In an earlier life, Dolly and her husband, Bruce, lovingly established the first Vineyard Gourmet, a specialty shop that offered select cheeses and hors d’oeuvres, enticing desserts, and prepared meals. Before that she had managed The Scottish Bakehouse and the West Chop Post office, while Bruce ran the Ranger, a fishing party boat.

Then there were the years when she and Bruce lived in Shreveport, Louisiana. Bruce had developed a rice hull ash business in the area and Dolly took on the directorship of a literacy program at Centenary College. She and volunteers worked with the semi-literate wives and children of the military. In Shreveport her eyes were opened wide to the tragic deprivation of the poor and disenfranchised. The home they bought there they furnished with second hand collectibles. In the South, thrift shops are large and ubiquitous. When they left for Leporte, Texas, they sold their house complete with all their accumulated treasures. In Texas, Dolly joined the local NPR crew, spending hours raising money and awareness for the importance of public radio.

All her life she has been passionate about people and social justice. Back on the Vineyard, her family’s home in West Chop, the Howland House, was the scene of receptions for various political candidates, including the late Gerry Studds, who spoke eloquently from the grand porch overlooking the Sound. For Dolly, a house not filled with friends, family, and people of artistic and intellectual curiosity would be empty and sad.

Back on the Island in the early ’90s, Dolly and a few fellow volunteers decided to ask Ned Robinson-Lynch, director of MVCS at the time, to give her a chance to reorganize the Thrift Shop, then a somewhat chaotic enterprise. Her proposal included a salary for herself if, after a few months, her direction proved her worth. In short order, with a determined volunteer force with designated roles, Dolly took a fumbling business and shaped it into a vital fundraising tool for MVCS.

And so, with Martha Rich, Florence Koster, Claus Buchthal, Shirley Robinson, and a loyal and talented crew, customers came to Vineyard Haven to shop first at the Thrift Shop. Marilyn Wortman, who had had no luck finding a matching curtain, was dubbed Linens Organizer. Olga Hirshhorn with her experienced museum eye, became the art connoisseur, later creating The Annual August Art Show which in a single day makes an enormous profit for Community Services.

Soon enough Vineyard Haven had a gem of a second-hand shop, but its success created new needs — a bigger space and adequate parking. The tin building on Lagoon Ave, almost across from the back exit of the post office, was purchased by MVCS as a permanent location for what was soon called the Chicken Alley Thrift Shop. Andy and his M.V. Moving Company spruced it up and made it a solid space for year-round business. Some of us call it our downtown Hot Tin Roof in the summer. In inclement weather, the pounding rain thrums the worry lines from customers pinched for time. In the winter it boasts a ceiling unit that breathes like Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Still, there is ample room for plenty of inventory and some 50 customers at any one time. A storage space out back is busy with volunteers like Jim Novak, techno wizard supreme who tests and fixes all things mechanical and electronic. Claire Chalfon and Liz Requena sift and prepare the donations for the big room. Vivienne Perry, Lynn Weber, Dolores Ruckman, and Ann Cronin clean and polish and rearrange once a week. The result: Chicken Alley smells and feels better than our own closets and attics.

For 15 years, Dolly has poured her heart and soul into welcoming, cajoling, and listening to her customers as if they were a Bonwit Teller clientele. As one adoring volunteer says, “If you are having a bad day, she makes you feel better. if you are having a good day, she makes you feel great!” Rick Lee, a constant volunteer with the humor and projection of a circus barker, gives Dolly the top award for instilling fun and community gaiety in the Chicken Alley venture.

Earlier this week Dolly celebrated her birthday, and tomorrow she retires from the Thrift Shop, 15 years to the day after she started. Her plan for the future includes tending her own dahlia garden, occasional volunteering for the indefatigable co-managers Sandy Pratt and Karen Child, and living a few months every year in New Zealand where her son, Seth, lives with his young family. Her grandson, Silas, will be three in December. and another grandchild is due in January. Her other child, Victoria, is an actress, filmmaker, and adventurer who lives primarily in New York.

The Thrift Shop is in great shape and won’t go anywhere, but it won’t be the same without her. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like on the other side of Dolly,” Karen Child said. “She has an ability to listen to and care about people that I’ve never witnessed before. People refer to her as the face of the Thrift Shop, but I think she’s the heart of it.”

For Sandy Pratt, life without Dolly is as hard to imagine. “We work so well together that we start finishing each other’s sentences. She has the capacity to make everyone come in here and feel welcome.”

Also quick to praise Dolly was Julia Burgess, executive director of MVCS. “She walks on water, what can I say,” she said. “We’re going to miss her so much.”

Dolly is looking forward to the next phase of her life, but she has loved her time at the Thrift Shop.

“I hardly consider it work,” she said. “It’s been my social life and my work life. It’s been such a rewarding place to be, so motivating, so real. You touch people and they touch you.”

Liza Coogan of Vineyard Haven has known Dolly Campbell for years, and she volunteers at the Thrift Shop.