woman with mask on stands behind the counter of a store. shoes and other items visible behind her
Kimberly Wise manages the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop in North Oakland, which has been overwhelmed with donations for a few years. Credit: Amir Aziz

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The morning after Thanksgiving, many Oakland residents will rouse themselves from their feasting stupor, open their laptops or get in their cars, and scroll or search until they find a deal on an air fryer or hiking socks—supply chain issues be darned.

For staff at local thrift stores, so-called Black Friday is yet another day when Oaklanders will acquire the kind of items that will later show up in their donation piles, shoved into garbage bags and oversized suitcases by people eager to get rid of them. 

When secondhand shops reopened after the initial COVID-19 shutdown, there were widespread reports of donation overload. Some people who were stuck at home had found themselves with more time on their hands—or a newfound need to clear out space for remote learning or home offices. Stores received way more stuff than they had space or use for, especially with some people still reluctant to go out and shop in person.

“Once we opened back up, it was nonstop,” said AlaaEldin Elshaikh, donation attendant at the Goodwill on MacArthur Boulevard in the Laurel district. It was so busy, the store moved the donation operation to the parking lot and put an extra staffer on the job. “People were in their house so much and finally realized, ‘I gotta to do something with this stuff.’”

With the holiday gift-giving season around the corner, we checked in with staff at a few local thrift stores, to find out whether they’re still overwhelmed with donations and what advice they’d give to donors and shoppers.

Goodwill on MacArthur Boulevard moved its donation drop-off outdoors once the quantity became too much to handle, said employee AlaaEldin Elshaikh (pictured). Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Kimberly Wise, manager at the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop off Piedmont Avenue, said piles of donated goods is not strictly a pandemic phenomenon. On her phone, she has dozens of photos of bags of clothing spilling out of the shop’s backroom from 2018 and 2019. Around that time, the popular Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo also prompted an inundation of donations to stores nationwide.

“I literally had nightmares of drowning,” said Wise, who started as a volunteer at a Discovery Shop in Southern California many years ago.

When the Oakland store reopened in June 2020, it was clear the old system wouldn’t cut it. Now, instead of a free-for-all, donors must make an appointment, and the shop only accepts items three days a week. But it’s still a lot. Wise is the only full-time staffer at the Discovery Shop, and aside from two very part-time workers, everyone else volunteers. Many of the volunteers are older, retired people at higher risk of suffering from COVID-19, so some have chosen to stop working, Wise said.

Other East Bay thrift stores closed permanently during or just before the pandemic, like the popular Thrift Town locations in El Sobrante and San Leandro, likely concentrating donations among a smaller number of shops.

But Wise and Elshaikh both encouraged people to continue donating their items in spite of the crunch. Thrift stores offer quality goods to people who can’t afford to buy them new, and most of the shops are nonprofits that raise money for social services or research.

“Obviously without donations we wouldn’t survive,” Wise said. “It’s a strong symbiotic relationship” between donor, buyer, and organization. 

Shortly after The Oaklandside visited the Discovery Shop, a customer found, and modeled for everyone else, a shiny white dress she plans to wear at her wedding. It was undoubtedly priced at a fraction of the cost of a typical new wedding gown, and the money she did pay will support the American Cancer Society.

LaToya D. manages Out of the Closet by Lake Merritt, where donations continue to flow in, but not at the high rate seen early in the pandemic. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Wise said there are thoughtful ways to donate that don’t put a strain on the understaffed shops. “Put in a little effort at home or with a phone call,” she said. 

A woman recently called the store to say she was on her way with a truckload of items. Wise informed her she’d need an appointment. “She was like, ‘If I can’t bring it in now, I’m going straight to the dump,’” Wise recalled. 

This week, she opened a donation bag to find a toilet repair kit. But the donor had taped on a handwritten note that said, “This is not a complete set. Some parts have been removed.” It was unsellable. There was also the time the shop received a suitcase packed with sex toys. They were all in good shape and neatly packaged, but not appropriate inventory for the small, family-friendly store.

What happens to donated items that can’t be placed on shelves? At Goodwill, Elshaikh said the stuff can be passed onto the chain’s local headquarters if that particular location can’t use it.

At the Discovery Shop, it’s a bit more complicated. An organization called Bay Rag, which recycles unwearable clothing into cleaning rags, picks up batches of items weekly. Volunteers set aside unusable electronics and bring them to the El Cerrito recycling center—and specific items like wigs or bras are given to places that sell those things. 

Wise said there’s a lack of centralized information out there for people looking for a place to donate particular things that typical stores won’t take, so she’s working to put together a website listing all East Bay locations and what they accept.

At some thrift stores during the pandemic, like the Discovery Shop, smaller staffs are faced with more donations to process. Credit: Amir Aziz

Other donated items that thrift shops can’t use are given to organizations that serve unhoused people. Some of those organizations are also uninterested, however. The East Oakland Collective, for example, distributes large amounts of food and supplies to homeless community members, and has a wish list for winter items. Some of the things, like tents or tarps, can be secondhand, but the organization doesn’t have enough staff to wash and sort through piles of used clothing, said Executive Director Candice Elder.

Some items are just too old and broken to reuse and have to be thrown away. Oakland residents looking to get rid of “bulky” waste have more flexibility as of this month, because the city of Oakland has just begun allowing free drop-off at the landfill in San Leandro. Curbside pickup has gotten easier too, with renters now permitted to schedule their own services instead of asking their landlords to do so. 

Not all Oakland thrift stores have continued to see an uptick in donations a year and a half into the pandemic, however. Latoya D., who manages the Out of the Closet store on E. 18th Street, said the pace was “ridiculous” right after the shutdown—a financial boon for the shop, but tough on the short-staffed workforce—but it’s largely calmed down since then.

Earlier this week, Oakland resident Taliyah Campbell dropped off a bag of goods at Out of the Closet. She began donating items with her mom about a decade ago, when she was a teenager. (“In high school, thrifting was a thing,” she recalled.) 

The COVID-19 crisis only made her ramp up her donations. “A lot of people lost their jobs, so I looked around to see if I had anything to give” to shops serving shoppers on budgets, Campbell said.

Wise encouraged all shoppers, on Black Friday and beyond, to consider thrifting, even if they can afford to buy new.

“There’s a fair amount of everything in existence already,” she said. “You get the gamut here, from Forever 21 to thick, well-constructed 1970s. Sometimes it just requires a little paint, or some buttons. Embrace the funky.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.