Community minded vintage for the people

written by Brittany Tiplady, photography & video by Maks Eidelson

Comfort looks like different things to different people. And for some of us less fortunate, the privilege of comfort is rooted in necessity. Maybe it’s a steady job, shelter, structure and the opportunity to sustain all three.

In Vancouver, Community Thrift & Vintage has been providing just that: a place of stability and comfort for women in the Downtown Eastside. Operating as a Social Enterprise initiative, the beloved second-hand shop is founded, managed and staffed solely by women.

“We started in 2011 as a benefit for the PHS Community Services Society and also a place where women who were living at the Rainier Hotel could get housing and support, whatever stage of recovery they were in,” says Community Thrift founder Jenni Lee Nelson.

“Community is set up as a place for women to get back into the workforce, when they are ready, through our work program.”

Community Thrift opened its doors in 2011 on Cordova Street and expanded with a second women’s store, The Frock Shoppe, later that year. In 2017, Community Thrift and Window Art Shop relocated together under one roof and opened a new flagship store on Hastings Street, between Army and Navy and Pigeon Park.

The space – appropriately named, ‘Community & Window Thrift + Vintage + Art’ – emulates the shop’s mandate: warm and approachable. Generous in size, it boasts racks of fresh vintage gear, peppered with locally made goodies like pouches and totes from Carrall Street Canvas Co., ceramics, candles and moccasins handmade by Indigenous artists in the DTES.

“We put out between 600-800 pounds of vintage clothing a week. That’s part of our philosophy: we have a huge selection of items and we price everything very competitively so that there’s a constant turnover of stock. So if you’re the kind of person that comes in every Monday, you’ll see 500 new items a week,” Nelson says.

“I was sick of traditional vintage stores, and seeing the same precious items being put up on the wall and having some crazy price point. I wanted to make it really accessible for people who lived in the area [to shop] and still have our space look like a high-end store. You love it, buy it, take it home and you’re happy.”

Part of what makes Community Thrift & Window so wonderfully unique is the many layers folded into the company’s initiatives. As it turns out, Community is also home to two other social enterprises nested within the four walls of the shop.

“Windows is also PHS social enterprise and they, now we, are a consignment shop for people who are artisans and artists in the DTES, who can sell their wares through a reasonable commission split,” explains Nelson.

“Katie Piasta, through Windows, has developed another business on the side – Carrall Street Canvas Company – which makes all of Community’s tote bags. Through this, she teaches people in the DTES, who are getting back into working, how to sew, and she has a piece work program that she runs through the back of the unisex shop.”

It’s common knowledge that Community is one of the best vintage shops in the city, but beyond the affordable price points, the wealth of stock and the wonderfully curated vintage selection is Community’s efforts to stay true to its namesake.

“When you have been left out of society for so long, it’s really meaningful for people to be able to go to a place that seems like it would be exclusive to them, but we make sure that they feel really welcomed and give them a sense of personal value by offering a supportive work environment,” says Nelson.

“One of the women that’s still working with us is now full-time. She started with us on our first day in 2011 and has since reunited with her family, she’s [been clean and sober] for eight years, and is now one of our store managers. She’s really the proof that this kind of supportive work is needed and valued and what it really can do for people. It gives people a place to go that’s different and separated from their past.”