If you drive down Hoffman Road in Mankato and turn into the parking lot next to Happy Dan’s gas station, you will discover a thrift store that only opened three weeks ago: the S.S. Boutique.

Push through the glass door with a jaunty anchor painted on the front, and you’ll walk into a space stuffed with racks upon racks of clothing, shoes, purses and even books. Merchandise runs from baby onesies to swimming suits to formal gowns, along with winter coats, men’s jeans, hats and other accessories.

The S.S. Boutique might seem like a typical thrift store, but its prices are surprisingly low, even by thrift store standards. Jeans cost only $3, while adult tops are $2 and kids’ clothes are only $1. Kids’ shoes cost $2, but there are sometimes sales that reduce the price even further, down to 50 cents. A recent sale also listed all winter coats at 50 cents. In fact, in the entire store, you’d be hard-pressed to find something that costs more than $3.

But the S.S. Boutique is more than just a thrift store with really great deals. It’s actually a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that anyone in the southern Minnesota area (and sometimes beyond) has access to clothes if they need them. The newly opened shop is its latest outreach effort, according to founder Brianna Anderson, with the hope of reaching more people and also generating the funds to be financially independent.

“We’re starting this thrift store to help cover the cost of the nonprofit, and then we’ll still be able to give clothes out for free for referrals,” Anderson said. “When people [come] in and buy stuff, that helps us keep the doors open for our nonprofit. The money that goes through S.S. Boutique [at the store] directly impacts the people in the community.”

Humble beginnings

The S.S. Boutique started in November 2015 as something quite a bit different than it is now.
Anderson, a resident of Eagle Lake, came up with the idea to hold a “Secret Santa Shop” during the winter holiday season to help families struggling to buy presents for their kids. A mother of six, Anderson knew firsthand how difficult it can be to stretch a Christmas budget between six rapidly growing kids, so she and a group of volunteers hosted a free “shopping experience” where families could come to the American Legion in Eagle Lake and pick out donated toys, clothing, books, movies and home ware—all free of charge.

Photo by Grace Brandt - Mission Statement and statistics at SS Boutique
Photo by Grace Brandt – Mission Statement and statistics at SS Boutique

The event was open to all area residents, regardless of income level. And, while Anderson said she hoped for about 100 people to attend, more than 400 people ended up “shopping.”

“After the holiday drive, I realized how much of a need there is in the community,” she said, adding that many people made the drive from Mankato and other areas outside of Eagle Lake.

Because of the immense community turnout, Anderson decided to keep going with her idea and form an official nonprofit: The SS Boutique. She started out of her garage, hosting scheduled shopping days at the “boutique,” which was filled by donations and entirely free of charge.

“There’s a lot of people in town that just need help,” said longtime volunteer Jaime Spaid. “There isn’t any scarcity on clothing; it’s just getting it to people. That in a nutshell is what started us off—making sure people could get what they needed.”

Clothes for everyone

S.S. Boutique also partners with other local nonprofit organizations, city and county agencies, nursing homes, daycares and schools to create packages of clothes for people who needed them. They serve about an hour-wide radius around Mankato, though they’re willing to go farther at times.

Photo by Grace Brandt - Some of the offerings at SS Boutique
Photo by Grace Brandt – Some of the offerings at SS Boutique

People can individually message Anderson, or groups will reach out to her about someone. For example, a school can reach out and say it needs clothes for a female child in size 10 kids, and S.S. Boutique puts together two weeks’ worth of clothes to send over. (In cases such as these, volunteers also put together two weeks of clothes for every member of the school child’s household.)

Spaid explained that orders include two weeks of clothes because it’s a “good start.”

“Sometimes laundry isn’t super available, so it’ll get you through that,” she said. “And it allows school kids to switch up clothes so they’re not having to wear the same thing every few days. Also, it’s carriable; if somebody is camping out or not in a home, you can take it with you. You can keep it in your car if you’re living in it, and it’s not going to take up too much space.”

Fun fact: Every $6 spent at the S.S. Boutique gets a weeks’ worth of clothing at no cost to people who need them in the community.

According to Spaid, the nonprofit puts together about 15-20 clothing orders a month through self-referrals and another 20-30 orders for requests from area agencies. In total, they put together about 50-60 orders a month. It becomes busier right before school starts and a lot busier as the season changes into winter.

“We kind of get a little bit of lull from late spring into summer, and then late summer kicks up again,” Spaid said. “But by lull, I mean we’re maybe only serving 30 people a month in that capacity.”

She added that people generally pick up orders at the S.S. Boutique location, though volunteers will sometimes deliver in extenuating circumstances, such as if the family doesn’t have access to a car.

Over the years, volunteers have become skilled at figuring out the best clothes to put into an order. Spaid explained that she makes sure high school boys receive sweatshirts and tennis shoes, not button-down shirts and cardigans, while folks at nursing homes won’t receive two weeks’ worth of lightweight blouses.

“We really try to tailor what we do for orders to the people that we’re serving,” she said.

She also stressed the emphasis volunteers put on turning around orders quickly—within three or four days.

“We work with a lot of highly mobile families, especially through the school system, so it’s critical to get things to a family fast,” she said. “Within a week, they could be gone, moved onto the next place.”

A new space

In January 2019, the nonprofit opened up a new location (also called the S.S. Boutique) on Our Lady of Good Counsel/Loyola campus. The store’s inventory was made up entirely of donations, which could be dropped off at Bounce Town’s River Hills Mall location. A few months later, it moved to a new location on First Avenue in April 2019. On its first day open in the new location, it provided clothing and household items to 94 people, 55 of them children.

While the store continued to see new customers and a high turnover in inventory, Spaid said that it became too difficult to pay for the space and its utilities.

Photo by Grace Brandt - Book rack at SS Boutique
Photo by Grace Brandt – Book rack at SS Boutique

“It was just drowning us,” she said. “It almost shut us down, honestly, because our budget got so low, and we were working for free. It was a good idea, and it really did move things out to people. The cost of it was just not something that we could keep up with.”

S.S. Boutique ended up closing its free store that November. The new plan was to reopen as a for-profit store, using funds generated from sales to continue providing free clothes for people who needed them. By December, the organization had begun renting space off Hoffman Road, and it officially opened the new S.S. Boutique in late February 2020.

“We always run on everything being free, so it was a big leap for us to say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to start charging for some stuff,’” Spaid said. “In about three months, we went from idea to opening.”

So far, so good

In the three weeks that the new store has been open, Anderson said it’s doing pretty well. It costs about $4,000 a month to run the space and fund the organization, and she said they made about $3,000 in February—not bad for the first month.

Spaid said that one hope for the store is that it enables the organization to reach more people who need support.

“While we were really doing well and meeting the needs of people who need things for free, there was a whole group of people that we weren’t meeting that weren’t going to ask for something for free, because they can pay a little bit,” she explained. “But they still needed a good break on clothing. When we opened this, we were hoping we could reach that demographic as well.”

She also stressed that everyone is welcome to come shop, regardless of their background, and no one should worry about taking advantage of the extremely low prices.

“This is just a great way to get a good deal and support us, so it’s open to everybody,” she said, adding that every purchase helps fund their mission. “The less that we have to ask for [in terms of donations], the less that we have to chase down, the more time that we have to actually be focused on the thing that we want to do, which is helping people.”

No strings attached

One of the most important parts of S.S. Boutique is the commitment to serving anyone—no strings attached. The organization doesn’t ask for people’s backgrounds, age, income level, county of residence or anything else before helping.

“We trust that if somebody’s coming for help, then they need it,” Spaid said. “We don’t collect personal info. We reach too many people in community, [and] that would be a big barrier.”

But this openness comes with its own challenges, because many grants require more information to be collected, or require certain limits such as income caps. Both Anderson and Spaid spoke about the difficulty of securing funding when they refuse to turn anyone away or make anyone prove their situation in one way or another.

“We don’t take money that has strings attached to it,” Spaid said. “People who support us trust us that we’re going to do what we need to with it. We need to make sure that people understand that we are going to put your money to the best use but we’re not going to be told how to do it.”

Waste not, want not

According to Spaid, running as close to zero-waste as possible is a priority for S.S. Boutique. One thing that volunteers do to help is create reusable shopping bags out of old T-shirts that are too damaged or dirty to use anymore. These bags are then sold at the store for 50 cents each.

“If we can turn [unwearable items] into shopping bags, we feel good about it,” she said.

For more information

To donate

Ever since S.S. Boutique opened, the community has resoundingly supported the nonprofit organization through thousands of pounds of donations. Spaid said they usually receive about 2-3,000 pounds of clothing a month—which is lucky, since they tend to give away roughly that much every month, too.

Anderson said she thinks there’s been such community support because people realize how just difficult it can be to make ends meet at times, especially when rent is high in the area and jobs don’t always pay top wages.

“There’s such a need in the community, and I think a lot of people have seen that,” she said. “Having those free items just to help you get by can be such a blessing at times.”

Spaid added that when it comes to donations, there are things that are in especially high demand: kids’ clothes in sizes 8-16, men’s jeans, and (seasonally) winter boots and gloves.

To donate, people can either bring clothes to the S.S. Boutique during its open hours of operation or drop items off at a drop site at Bounce Town during its open hours.

Grace Brandt
is a wandering reporter whose home base is in Mankato. Throughout her career, she has written for more than two dozen publications.