City Opera Thrift Store: With a Cause and a Palate for the Arts

By Sung Hwan Hong

Do not be fooled by the pink accentuated word thrift in the signboard of the shop. City Opera Thrift Shop is, as one shopper puts it, “too expensive to be thrift.” Unlike other thrift stores such as Goodwill or the Salvation Army which are located within the same block, City Opera Thrift Shop boasts a selection of designer shoes, unique jewelry, furs and vintage housewares. The general ambiance of the store matches those not of thrift shops, but of boutiques in SoHo.

“Some thrift stores might have a big selection, but you have to search; you have to be on the treasure hunt to find it,” said Jay Thompson, manager of City Opera Thrift Shop. “Here we try to do that for you.”

Yes, with Louboutin, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada shoes displayed on the windows, it is a thrift shop that is unlike any other. What you may not know, however, is that City Opera Thrift Shop is working for a cause; it raises money for the City Opera. It began 35 years ago by a group of volunteers who wanted to raise money for the opera. All of its profits go to support the construction of sets and costumes.

And just like City Opera, which began with an original mission to bring opera to the people, the store brings high-end designer clothing to the people. Some might argue that it is too overpriced to be thrift, but many more think that the previously-worn fashion wears the shop offer are a steal, considering their original price in retail stores.

“It’s an absolute treasure, with donations made by designers and people with great tastes,” said Marilyn Sokol, a long-time actress and an Emmy Award winner. Sokol is a regular of the shop, visiting once every two weeks. “I’m reticent to talk about it, but I guess it’s only right to share.”

Aside from the occasional costume drops by City Opera, the store runs entirely on donations. Every day, trucks go out to all five boroughs, making 10-12 stops for donation pick-ups. Donors range from average persons to corporations and designers.

“We really try to go through every donation and put only the best that we have up there,” said Thompson. The rest are re-donated to charities and other stores. “A lot of fashion designers give us donations because they appreciate what we try to do here. Some of them actually come to this shop and look for inspiration.”

City Opera Thrift Store regularly holds various events that, as Thompson puts it, “creates excitement in the store and get people to come in.” It is the shop’s main marketing strategy, and with ‘one event a month’ method, the shop is always busy preparing for upcoming shows. The store also tries to “keep the pulse of what’s happening in the culture of the city and people’s interest. People are very interested in sustainable living, so we’ve used that as a catalyst for an event too.”

The most recent event was I’m dreaming of a White and Black Christmas, held on Wednesday, December 5. For the event, which was aimed at the holiday season, the store was coded in black and white, and its racks were filled with the best of black and white clothing the shop had been saving for three months.

Similar to major design boutiques, the shop has a committee comprised of designers and fashion magazine editors that help plan the big events, which are then organized by PR companies. Amongst other annual events such as Vintage Preview and Spring Gala, the biggest is DIVAS, which is usually held off-site. Last year’s DIVAS previewed in SoHo with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and celebrated designers such as Giles Mendel and Christian Siriano visiting as guests. “Those off-site events really raise the profile of the shop,” said Thompson.

According to Thompson, the store has been doing very well in the last three years. City Opera, on the other hand, did not fare too well. The theatre company the shops raises money for, is currently facing financial difficulties. It has moved out of Lincoln Center, shrunk its number of performances per season, and is looking to dispose of old productions. “What was once a very big company that did big productions has really shifted its focus to a smaller organization doing smaller productions. It’s really had to reinvent itself, which we all do over a period of time. I think we’re still doing that, and fortunately we’ve survived. It’s very difficult.”

“This thrift shop raises money for an arts organization, and we’re the only thrift shop in the city that raises money for the arts,” Said Thompson. “We think the arts are essential. So we have a challenge of persuading people to give money to the arts, so organizations such as the city opera can survive and evolve.”

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