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Cornerstone Thrift Shop Reopens Following Pandemic Closure



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Following a 14-month closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry/mission thrift shop at Newtown Congregational Church reopened its doors last month.

Cornerstone Thrift Shop volunteers were ready for customers by mid morning, Tuesday, May 11. The shelves and racks were stocked, the entire space had been repeatedly scrubbed, new signs requesting face masks for all customers had been posted, and volunteers were excited to have the doors at 14 West Street open again.

Volunteers and customers were so eager for the reopening, in fact, that everything was ready earlier than the planned 10 am opening. So Cornerstone co-chair Judy Stowell opened the doors a little early.

“We had the door open while we were doing final touches, and people kind of wandered in,” Stowell recalled with a laugh the following week. “Everything went very smoothly.”

Co-chair Barbara Bradley nodded in agreement, saying those who were first in line and those who arrived later in the day were all “very polite. It was great, fantastic. Everybody’s been very cooperative.”

Cornerstone volunteers are counting on customers to respond to COVID guidelines that are in place, including shopping within 15-minute windows if they are asked to, wearing masks, and respecting the space of others in the store.

“We have been limiting the number of people inside the shop, and limiting the amount of time for shoppers if needed,” Bradley said. “If there is no one else in there, we’ll let someone browse for as long as they would like. If someone comes in, and someone else has been in for a while, we’ll gently ask them to wrap up their visit.

“We’ve had no problem whatsoever,” she said.

There is a sturdy protective barrier around the cash register area, another new measure to protect shoppers and volunteers alike. Volunteers use gloves and hand sanitizer regularly; customers are asked to do the same.

Hours are currently Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 1 pm, and Saturdays from 11 am to 2 pm, which is already an expansion from May’s reopening of Tuesdays and Saturdays only. As of June 1, the Thursday hours were added.

“We will continue expanding our hours,” Stowell said. “Baby steps. We hope to return to regular hours soon, but don’t want to rush anything.”

Entry is through the lower level of Newtown Congregational Church. A large sign over the eastern door from the driveway proudly announces The Cornerstone.

Cornerstone was a project begun by the church in 1991. Its purpose was two-fold, former longtime chair Judy Craven told The Newtown Bee in 2005. The church, she said, was struggling financially, trying to raise funds to help pay for a new sanctuary.

When Cornerstone was launched thirty years ago, NCC was still at its original location — 31 Main Street, the current home of Newtown Meeting House. Cornerstone’s fundraising helped pay for the church’s move into its then-brand-new building on West Street.

Craven also recalled talking “to someone else who wanted to have a place where people who might not be able to afford to clothes themselves otherwise would have a place to shop,” she said in August 2005.

Cornerstone Thrift Shop first operated out of NCC’s undercroft when the church officers were at 41-A Main Street. It then operated for many years from a storefront at 67 Main Street South in Ricky’s Shopping Center.

It moved into its current location in September 2008.

Donations & Volunteers

Cornerstone, Bradley said, is “pretty well stocked at this time.”

Racks are filled with clothing for men, women, and children; shelves are loaded with games and books; other cases are chock-a-block with decorative accessories and household items, most grouped by theme or use.

Jewelry fills the cases near the cash register, and boxes of notecards are near the check-out.

Donations were on hold while Cornerstone was closed, from March 2020 until just a few weeks ago.

The store and its volunteers did one special outdoor event in August, but the space had otherwise been closed up tightly until recently.

Bradley and Stowell said last month that they are again accepting donations, but — as has always been the case — they do ask that donations are dropped off only when the shop is open.

Volunteers make certain clothing is clean, unwrinkled — thanks to an on-site steamer which alleviates the need for clothing to go out to someone’s home to be ironed — mended if needed, and generally ready for sale.

They highlight seasonal items on store shelves, and put nonseasonal items away until needed.

Anything not up to standard is donated to Bay State Textiles, a post-consumer textile recycling company with a location in Waterbury. Other items go to Savers.

“Nothing is wasted,” Bradley said.

“We sometimes know we aren’t the right market,” Stowell added. “We throw very little in the trash.”

Volunteers have always been the “cornerstone” of the shop’s success.

“It is not a two-man operation here,” Bradley said. “Far from it. We have the happiest, best volunteers around,” she added.

People who want to help have always been allowed to find their niche, one aspect of the program that interests them.

“We welcome anyone,” Stowell said. “If we get a volunteer, we will find something for them. We continue to follow Judy Craven’s thinking,” she said of the project’s previous chair. “Find something you like to do,” Stowell added.

“Even if someone comes in and says they want to help, and don’t know what they want to do, I’ll talk to them and we’ll figure out where they’ll go,” Bradley noted. “We’re not going to force anyone to do a job they don’t enjoy.”

Of the current 35 to 40 people who give their time to Cornerstone, some have been donating their time for years. Bradley has been a Cornerstone volunteer for ten years. Stowell has been with the project since its inception. The two have served as co-chairs, they said May 21, for the past four years.

Not all volunteers are members of Newtown Congregational Church.

“We have one woman who has been coming for 25-plus years to volunteer her time,” Bradley said. “She was a friend of Charlotte Kalley, one of our late NCC members and a longtime volunteer.”

The daughter of another late NCC member also volunteers at Cornerstone, the women said.

“The volunteers are so very important,” Stowell said. Many work in the storage and sorting room adjacent to the shopping area. Some work from home, however, checking to make sure donated puzzles and games have all their pieces, or handle other tasks that do no need to be done on site.

“We have one person who does the scheduling at home,” Stowell said. “That’s something I have no interest in, but it’s perfect for them.”

Bradley and Stowell have enjoyed seeing returning customers and new shoppers in recent weeks. They offered their thanks to those who waited for the space to reopen, and said they look forward to increased shopping opportunities as pandemic guidelines continue to loosen.

Cornerstone Thrift Store accepts clothing, jewelry, household decorations, linens, books, and toys.

It does not accept electronics (including computers), baby equipment, golf clubs or related equipment, or furniture.

The staff requests that items never be left at the store when it is not open, nor at the church when no one is there to accept them.

For additional information about donating and/or volunteering, call 203-270-9359.


Associate Editor Shannon Hicks can be reached at shannon@thebee.com.

Cornerstone co-chair Judy Stowell smiles from behind her mask while changing the sign from Closed to Open at the Newtown Congregational mission thrift shop on May 11. The store had been closed for 14 months. —Bee Photos, Hicks
Chris Dran proudly indicates an area within Cornerstone that she organizes on a regular basis. Volunteers are key to the success of the project, now in its third decade.
Cornerstone co-chair Barbara Bradley, on the right, goes over using the cash register with volunteer Lee DeLucia on May 11, the morning the thrift shop reopened. Sturdy plastic partitions were installed around that work space to protect shoppers and volunteers.
The entrance to Cornerstone at Newtown Congregational Church is marked by a large sign over the appropriate doorway, visible from the church’s driveway. Bargain hunters were ready for the thrift shop/ministry to reopen on May 11 for the first time in nearly 14 months.
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