When you step through the doors at North Vancouver’s Auxiliary Thrift Shop, you may find yourself facing a bouncer.
But instead of muscles and machismo, 92-year-old Helen Galan stands less than five feet tall. Wearing a blue volunteer vest peppered with pins, she sits at the ready to greet guests, control the crowd and keep long lines of shoppers happy with her warm smile and sense of humour.
“Helen is the Auxiliary personified,” says Aren Evers, chair and manager of the store. The Auxiliary to the Lions Gate Hospital Thrift Shop is the core piece of an organization that has served the North Shore for 101 years, selling well-priced wares while sending a steady stream of funding to improve the nearby hospital.
Now, with a mandatory move-out date looming, the shop and community staple faces an uncertain future.
The current iteration of the thrift shop, at 128 15th St. West, opened in 1982, the fourth in a legacy of stores along the Lonsdale corridor supporting Lions Gate Hospital, which opened in 1961.
The 40-year-old 15th Street location’s lease ends on Jan. 31, 2023, to make way for construction of a 22-storey tower by developer Polygon. Also displaced by the build is Persia Foods market, Tehran Nights restaurant, Laleh Bakery and Salamat Financial Services.
Like many of the storefronts on this block, business at the Auxiliary Thrift Shop is bustling. On a given day, a constant stream of customers files in and out of the store – walking in with empty bags and leaving with clothes, other essentials and homey trinkets.
The store closing will leave a hole in the community.
It provides a place for people to recycle and reuse items instead of sending them to a landfill, while giving residents and recent immigrants low-cost options, explains Leeann Lambert, president of The Auxiliary to the Lions Gate Hospital.
For many, the social contact the thrift shop workers provide can be as important as what people come to buy. “A lot of the people that shop are elderly, or maybe living alone – this is an outing for them,” Lambert said. “It lifts them up a bit and also lifts the volunteers up.”
“People who donate clothing or shop there feel good because they know they’re supporting the hospital,” she added.
According to the organization, over the past 10 years – two of which were pandemic years – the Auxiliary has provided almost $2 million in funding to Lions Gate Hospital. Funds go toward programs, medical equipment and capital improvements that improve patient care. More than 60 per cent of those funds come from the thrift shop, with the rest coming from the Dogwood Hospital Gift Shop.
Patrons and staff are worried, Lambert said, because they want to continue to support the organization but realize how difficult it is to find something that will fit within budget while meeting other needs.
“Everybody knows that the North Shore is not the cheapest place to live,” Lambert said, adding that The Auxiliary’s mission is to contribute, so all proceeds can’t be spent on rent.
“We need a proper receiving area in the back,” she continued. “We need street access, not stairs, and near a bus line. Anything that’s brand new is out of our price range.”
Lambert noted there’s less supply at the moment. Also, there was a promising site that probably would have worked, but the zoning was wrong. She said her team has been in discussion with city councillors about changing zoning, and is broadening its search to include more properties.
Another consequence of the move is that due to the lack of a new address, the shop has lost its permissive tax exemption for 2023. In 2022, the tax was almost $25,000.
Lambert is hopeful that boosting awareness of what her organization does will lead to a positive result, and welcomes any leads on a new location that could work for the shop.
“This is a very good location,” said Galan, who has volunteered at the thrift shop for more than 31 years. “Some people come here every day.”
Galan’s belief in what the shop is doing shone brightly during the pandemic, when she helped keep things running by picking up shifts when others cancelled.
“Wash your hands,” she would always say. New customers entering the store might be confused, and look for a sink.
Regulars would take a pump from the hand sanitizer bottle on the table where Galan sits, and smile.