The business of thrift

An entrepreneurial spirit saw a business opportunity where others saw trash


The first 18 months in the thrift store business were challenging for the Keely family of Nelson, B.C. Aviva was caring for their new baby while spending her days at Pawsitive Apparel, the 875-square-foot thrift store. Her husband, Sean, and mom, Simone Varey, had full-time jobs in addition to working at the thrift store.

In July 2010 the local Women in Need (WIN) thrift store in Nelson announced that it was closing its doors, and—contrarily—the Keely family decided to take over that store as well, changing the name to Positive Apparel.

“We had no money—we had nothing,” Aviva said. “We were actually talking about closing our first store. But the WIN society and our landlord said they would help us, so we went ahead and took it over.”

What works and what doesn't

In an attempt to  manage the staggering volume of clothing being donated, the WIN society had tried to limit its intake, but their system wasn't working.

“People would dump piles of stuff in the parking lot after hours,” said Aviva. “The bags would get ripped open and things would get wet and strewn across the parking lot—it was a mess. George from Creston Gleaners was super helpful and kind in sharing information with us, and told us about textile exporters in bigger centres that will accept excess textile from thrift stores.

“(However), the minimum amount that can be sent to the exporters is 25,000 pounds at a time, and the little thrift stores are swamped—they just don’t have the space to store that amount of stuff while it’s accumulating.”

Growing the operation

Putting every extra cent back into the business, the Keelys bought a truck for picking up and delivering furniture in the surrounding area, and to do pickups at other thrift stores.

“We were able to buy a clothing baler and a forklift at a great price,” Aviva said, “though the cost still almost bankrupted us. We wanted to take our business to the next level. After we learned about the textile exporters, we knew we wanted to eventually have our own facility for recycling fibre, so Sean has become certified to run a recycling centre.”

The established textile exporters sort through the materials that are shipped to them, sending the “garbage” to China and India where it is processed and repurposed. The reusable clothing is sold to other stores or is shipped to third-world countries.

Aviva said that her goal is to open a Kootenay-based fibre reclamation plant by 2016. It will concentrate on boiling and shredding materials to be repurposed, sourcing those materials locally and receiving them from the exporter(s) in Vancouver. The excess re-sellable items received at Positive Apparel will continue to be sent to Vancouver.

“In the long term,” Aviva said, “we want to create a sustainable product and stability in our community, with permanent, higher-paying jobs than we can offer right now.”

Stats and specs

Here are a few more aspects of this expanding, interesting family business.

  • As well as clothing, Positive Apparel includes a vintage clothing store, a pawn shop and a used furniture section.
  • From February to June, 2014, the store has sent 178,507 pounds of excess textile—clothing, shoes and belts—to be resold or repurposed. That’s the equivalent of eight semi-trailers full of goods.
  • The Dollar Room at Positive Apparel houses cool-but-less-than-perfect items: sweaters, leather, shoes, blankets and such. It’s a treasure trove for the artist and craftsperson.
  • “We have nine employees and we pride ourselves on providing that first job for the younger generation,” Aviva said. “I want that person with no experience.”
  • The Keely family is eager to give to the community and welcomes requests for support. They want to share the abundance that is available to them.
Marie Milner

Marie Milner is a writer and photographer for Kootenay Business magazine and several other publications. She appreciates the inspiration that she gets during her interviews and hopes to share that inspiration with you. View all of Marie Milner’s articles

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