How hard could it be to work at the Island’s favorite boutique

Churning through heaps of stuff at Chicken Alley Thrift Shop

Annie Tuerff, left, Anna Marie D'Arddarie, Holly Nadler, Barbara Thornton and Sandy Pratt at the counter of Chicken Alley Thrift Store. Holding a variety of their favorite items (Holly is holding a plastic hospital urine specimen bottle). — Photo by Sam Moore

It’s a well-kept secret that’s no secret at all. Vineyarders, men and women alike, love to hunt for treasures at the Thrift Shop on Lagoon Pond Road in Vineyard Haven. It’s probably a country thing. Even more than that, an Island thing. It’s hard to imagine an executive at a New York ad firm being asked where she got that créme Hermés scarf, and having her reply, “At the thrift shop! Two bucks!”

And, before I go on with this story, I need to tell you something odd about myself: I never like to shop for much of anything, particularly clothes. God knows how a woman in America could grow up this way, and what sort of twisted upbringing led to this state of affairs, but if not for my sister and a few close friends passing along hand-me-downs, I’d go around in sack-cloth. I even have a penchant for wearing the same thing day in and day out — and before you think I’m Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic strip, I do toss my garments in the wash on a regular basis.

Here’s where this sartorial trait got really weird: It was the late 60s and I was rounding out my education with a final semester in a prep school at the northeast end of the San Fernando Valley (my parents hoped this would bump up my grades). Well, this being the Anything Goes Age, I was clad in mini-skirts as short as Peggy Lipton’s in “The Mod Squad.” The headmaster told me my hemlines had to dip below my knees. Have you ever heard of such a heartless request? I retaliated by grabbing one of my mom’s house frau smocks, a long sleeveless number with a yellow daisies print and a thick Ben Franklin fringe of lace around the neckline.

I wore this every day. Each Sunday evening when I washed the dress, the lace raveled at the edges, and I snipped it straight until, on the fifth Monday back at school, the lace was down to a one-inch relic. In homeroom, the headmaster swept into the class, and summarily suspended me for “Mocking the system!”

But here’s the thing: Even being a non-shopper, I lose all inhibitions at our magical thrift store. Dig it!, as Lenny Bruce would have said: I’m typing right now at a big white desk purchased from the thrift store, a desk whose provenance was a Connecticut library! I’m wearing a winter-thick gold velveteen Liz Claiborne dress that, mea culpa, I had on yesterday, and may have even donned the day before. Here’s the beauty part: Some rich woman bought this for, say, a couple of hundred dollars, wore it a time or two, then donated it with a box of other chic items, so that I could pick it up for a fare-thee-well and spend the winter in it.

So when recently Anna Marie D’Addarie, assistant manager at the thrift store, suggested I put in some hours, and write about it for the paper, I leapt at the chance. This past Monday I showed up at 9 am, and long-time manager Sandy Pratt led me to the office with the choice comment, “You can put your stuff back here so it doesn’t get sold.” Indeed, let nothing leave your hands or you could find someone paying $3 for your rain slicker and waltzing out with it.

Sandy let me pitch in with the pre-sorting in the back room (yes!, the back room that you’re too shy to even peek into, but you’d kill to know what’s kept in those private environs!). Here’s the drill: After people leave bags of stuff, the goods are transferred to big plastic bins over which staff members and volunteers pore, before making executive decisions about what stays and what goes. One item donated over the weekend that Sandy was able to toss without regret was a quart-sized hospital urine specimen bottle (without the specimen, thankfully). Yes! Cue the scream!

As I performed the pre-sort, I learned to discard plastic but keep ceramics and glasses, after testing for chips along the rims. And something turned up that got volunteer Greg Thornton scrambling for his iPhone: a silver of which hood ornament that belonged to a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, whose twin was on offer on eBay for $119.95. The staff will either set it aside to hawk at the fabled summer art and collectibles show, or they may offer it themselves online. All proceeds go to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, so the best way to turn a buck flows into the same pipeline. And, FYI, Anna Marie showed me the ledger for January’s sales, and they’re nearly doubled from last year’s take, even three weeks into the month. Who cares about the ailing Dow Jones? The thrift store is smoking!

Almost immediately I found something that I had to buy, and you would too if you’d spotted it: A 6” x 9” turquoise mini-waffle maker with the name “babycakes” on top. I asked volunteer Barbara Thornton, appraiser extraordinare, to assign a price to it, she said $5, and I put it in my pile which already contained a $4 hardback of Colette’s short stories.

Some other wonderful oddments around the store: An extensive collection of Royal Carlsbad Czechoslovakia dishes, white with little pink rosebuds, the entire set going for $50. A pot holder with the words “West Chop” can be yours for a buck-fifty. Anna Marie was going slightly gaga over a 1960 green pyrex zodiac casserole dish with lid. The price was not yet established, but much research was being done, and this prized item will probably join the Chevy Bel Air hood ornament in the wowie! zowie! pile. Reigning over the store atop one of the bookshelves built by the handy Mr. Thornton is a 1926 B.S.A. Light Roadster bicycle, worth around $2,000, although it’s a bit rusty, but so are all metallic museum pieces.

The thrift store got its start in October 1962 in the building next to Brickman’s. It did the Island shuffle to a venue across the street, then in 1977 to the Old Haynes gift shop, and finally, in 2001 to its present and much-celebrated location.

In the off season, the store provides that kind of small-town intimacy where, not only does everybody know your name, but you can pick up a ceramic bowl of various-sized knitting needles for $12. Staffer Annie Tuerff told me a few elderly regulars visit daily to get their people fix and if, for some reason, one of them fails to show up for a few days running, a staffer will call that customer at home to make sure all’s well.

Finally, I helped in every way I could — lifting bins, scribbling prices, hanging garments, welcoming customers, all of us sporting big grins. Then when the time came to cash out, I hauled my finds from the back office: 6 long-sleeved light tops to wear under my 3 dresses, and the turquoise “babycakes” waffle maker. The grand total: $18. But wait! I nearly walked out of the store with the knee-high boots I’d tried on and found a perfect fit. I gripped the edge of the counter to contort my right foot up to locate the price on the underside of the boot: $6. I forked it over.

Later, when I got home, I realized I’d accidentally hauled away the Collette short stories under my lunch left-overs. Oops! I owe the thrift shop $4. I think they know I’m good for it.