Gerry Loewen runs her fingers along a row of books and moves toward a clothing rack packed with sweaters and cardigans. She is explaining what sort of donations come in to the thrift shop when a customer approaches her. He holds out a business card and tells his story. She listens patiently and, once he’s finished, asks if this is his first time visiting the shop. He answers yes.
“I hope you’ll come back again soon,” she tells him.
Gerry has managed the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) thrift shop on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg for nearly nine years. But her family’s thrift shop roots run much deeper. Her mother, Selma Loewen, was one of four women who opened the first MCC thrift shop, in Altona, Man., in 1972.
“I still remember the shop,” she says with a laugh. “It was so dingy.”
The women used a curtain to cover the dressing room and sorted incoming items in what Gerry describes as a “little hovel.”
That first shop, run by Linie Friesen, Susan Giesbrecht, Sara Stoesz and Selma Loewen, quickly grew into a network. Today there are more than 115 shops in Canada and the U.S., and they contribute a significant portion of MCC’s annual revenue.
Selma passed away in January at the age of 87.
Gerry describes her mom as a very spirited woman who “liked funny things and dressing up.” During the last few months of her life, the family could tell how Selma was feeling by the colour of her lips. She loved red lipstick and near the end of her life put it on whenever she felt well.
“She had a very sharp mind,” recalls Gerry. “She loved poetry, she loved reading. She couldn’t do a lot of physical things anymore, so these things became very important to her.”
Gerry remembers the moment she told her mom about her new job. After working as a nurse for 31 years, Gerry was feeling burned out, but wasn’t ready to stop working altogether. So when a woman from her church who managed the Selkirk Avenue shop suggested volunteering there, Gerry jumped at the opportunity.
Her mother was pleased as well. “She was just happy I had found something I also could enjoy,” Gerry says.
The Loewen family was no stranger to thrift, even before Selma opened the shop. Growing up, Gerry and her sister got toys and many of their clothes from the local Goodwill store. As teenagers, she says they foraged for lumberjack jackets and “hippy sweaters.” Their parents bought them winter coats from the “seconds” piles in the warehouse district.
Sometimes the coats had too many buttonholes; other times there weren’t enough. This was never a problem for Selma, who would pick up a needle and scissors to remedy the glitch. Like Gerry, she needed to keep her hands occupied.
“Those are the kinds of things she’s really instilled in me,” Gerry says. “[Along with] being very respectful, very kind. She was a very generous person. You have to have a certain generosity to work in a thrift store, I think.”
But these aren’t the only tendencies she inherited from her mother. As the interview ended and it was time for photographs, Gerry ran off to the bathroom and then emerged with her lips painted red!
For an audio clip of Gerry sharing memories of her mother, Selma Loewen, visit mcccanada.ca/stories/mother-daughter.