Photo courtesy Jenni Lee Nelson.
Nestled in on Carrall Street, just north of Pigeon Park, sits Community Thrift and Vintage Frock Shop. With a window display of mannequins that are usually dressed to suit the weather and a bright white interior, the clothing store that runs as a social enterprise feels like a fashion time warp. Once you’re inside, it’s hard to ignore the racks of pretty silks, vintage leather and lace handbags and pants with wild patterns that made their debut in the 1990s.
In addition to offering affordable and fashionable vintage clothing, Community Thrift and Vintage is partnered with the PHS Community Services Society to employ primarily women in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). The women are provided training in retail and customer service and get a hands-on chance to help run a small but expanding business.
Jenni Lee Nelson, the shop’s manager, says that employment program is a two-way street and that the employees offer the employers a lot in return for the job opportunities.
“What we really try to offer is a sense of self worth, because what our employees bring to the table for us is such a meaningful connection to the community,” she says. “And in exchange they gain interpersonal skills and retail skills which are really good transferable skills.”
Community currently employs six women who are living in PHS-run housing facilities and are usually on the road to recovery from addiction. Lee Nelson emphasizes the respect she has for the women who work at the store while working on maintaining healthy lives.
“Everyone [we’ve employed] has been really successful so far,” she says. “We are fortunate that the people we’re working with in our stores are already on a path to success and positive change in their lives.”
Lee Nelson was living in New York when she was approached with the idea of a social enterprise clothing shop in the DTES. Excited at the prospect, she moved to Vancouver to get the shops up and running, starting with a store on Cordova Street and later expanding to the Carrall Street location in 2011. After having worked in traditional retail in the fashion and design industry for many years, she says that a social enterprise model has a set of rewards in a class all its own.
“Working within nontraditional modes of business is really inspirational,” she says.
“Being able to help people get back into the job market, training people in retail skills and also being able to eventually donate what money we can back into the Downtown Eastside is just incredibly rewarding.”
In addition to finding those wardrobe scores that one can only come upon in vintage stores, Lee Nelson says that the store is a positive place for everyone, including the customer.
“People can feel like their money is going to a good place as a result of shopping here because of our social responsibility.”