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Turning to Thrift Stores to Raise Money to Battle AIDS

March 9, 1996

BOSTON (AP) _ With a steady flow of shoppers combing through its brightly colored displays, plus mountains of stock stored in its basement, Boomerangs is a new retail store that looks like it’s here to stay.

Its owners would rather go out of business.

``I would be happy to say, `We don’t need the money any more. The epidemic is over,‴ said Larry Kessler, who runs the AIDS service group that spent $200,000 to launch Boomerangs last month.

The AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts is the latest to turn to secondhand stores for a steady source of cash to keep pace with the persistent epidemic.

Similar stores exist in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Philadelphia. In San Francisco, Under One Roof has raised $2.75 million from gift and card sales since 1990.

``We all had the same idea,″ said Kessler, the Boston-based committee’s executive director. ``There are only so many bake sales you can run.″

Creative fund raising has become vital for all U.S. charitable groups as corporate giving and private donations flag. It is especially important for groups trying to cope with the effects of the AIDS epidemic, which began in the late 1970s and continues to escalate.

Last year, the United Nations estimates, more than 2 million people were infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Three-quarters of a million died of the disease.

In the United States, between 40,000 and 80,000 people become infected with the AIDS virus each year. One in four is a teen-ager.

And a vaccine is several years off, at best.

AIDS groups say thrift stores, which have been used for a century by churches and charities, satisfy Americans’ thirst for bargains, while giving shoppers and donors a sense that they are helping fight the epidemic.

The stores vary in look and feel, but all appear successful.

Housing Works Inc. in New York City opened its Chelsea thrift store in 1992 and outgrew it a year later. It now operates two thrift stores and a two-story used bookstore and cafe in another section of Manhattan known as SoHo. Proceeds help pay for Housing Works programs to provide housing, job training and treatment for AIDS patients.

``Business is great,″ said Chris Proios, who manages the Chelsea store. ``We had to get a warehouse space because of the backlog of donations. We couldn’t keep up.″

The Brown Elephant on Chicago’s North Side has moved four times into larger quarters since it was founded in 1985 to raise money for the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, a health center specializing in the treatment of AIDS.

Seattle’s Chicken Soup Brigade runs two thrift stores which generated $67,000 last year for the group, which provides fresh meals and home help to about 800 AIDS patients, said Sally Clark, the Chicken Soup Brigade’s communications director.

The AIDS Health Care Foundation in Los Angeles runs five stores; Thrift For AIDS operates one in Philadelphia.

In Boston, Boomerangs has been doing solid business since it opened on Valentine’s Day in a 120-year-old former furniture showroom near North Station.

``From the day we opened, we were swamped,″ said Jonathan Finn, the program manager.

Although private donations account for 70 percent of the goods, several dozen corporate donors, including Filene’s Basement and Saks Fifth Avenue, have chipped in with clothing and other merchandise.

The custom-built racks, polished wood floors, tin ceiling and designer-quality show windows give the store a trendy feel. A four-month supply of stock is stacked in the basement.

Kessler said proceeds from the store should be able to pay back the $200,000 loan from the committee’s reserve fund within a year.

By the end of the second year, Boomerangs should have gross receipts of $460,000 _ $250,000 of which will go directly to AIDS prevention and service programs.

``It’s another niche, it’s another way to raise money,″ Kessler said.

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