Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

More than a MILLION: Grand Marais's First and Second Thrift Store celebrates donating over $1 million to local non-profits since opening

Feb 05, 2024 08:59AM ● By Content Editor

Lois Johnson fills everyone in on the thrift store’s history as President Ann Marie Mershon looks on. All photos provided. 

By Ann Marie Mershon for Boreal Community Media - February 5, 2024

It’s taken 17 years, but the First & Second Thrift Store in Grand Marais, Minnesota, has finally broken the million-dollar mark. They’ve donated $1,062,000 to local non-profits since they first opened their doors in 2007.

Lois Johnson, the last of the store’s founders still involved at the store, spoke about First & Second’s history at their annual Payout Party on January 30th, 2024, at the Johnson Heritage Post in Grand Marais. She said she and her cohorts (Arvis Thompson, Sharon Bloomquist, and Bev Green) were tired of holding rummage sales to raise funds. “We had the bright idea to create a store for people to donate and purchase gently-used items, and our first location was where Johnson’s grocery used to be. It’s the Arrowhead Building on the corner of First Avenue and Second Street West, so that’s how we got our name, First & Second.” Of course, it also refers to the first and second-hand clothing and items sold there. 

Their next bit of genius was to divide the store's profits by the total hours worked, so each volunteer could choose a non-profit to receive the fruits of their labor. Lois believes their profit was only a few dollars the first year, but it has increased considerably over the years.

The thrift store was originally established through the Cook County Council on Aging, and it moved from its location beside the Arrowhead garage to the Cobblestone Building in 2008. “We started in a small space there, so we had to keep our donations in the garage at the Senior Center,” Lois recalls. “We moved from one space in that building to the next, and when Brian gave up his fitness center, we finally got a space that included a back room for storage. What a difference that made!”

Last winter Voyageur Brewing purchased the Cobblestone building, so First & Second launched on a mission to find a new home, not an easy task. After investigating numerous dead ends, they agreed to move into the not-yet-renovated Birchbark Building. Now they needed a place to store their fixtures and merchandise for months. Rent containers? Store boxes outdoors? Yet another dilemma.

Amid all this turmoil, the store broke ties with the Council on Aging and became an independent non-profit, managed by a Board of Directors. (Current board members are Barb Backlund, Annie DeBevec, Lois Johnson, Renee Larsen, Gwen Mattice, Ann Marie Mershon, and Chris Silence.)

Thanks to the generosity of Shoshanna Matney and James Foulds, they were able to store fixtures, shelves, and merchandise indoors through the coming months, which stretched from three to five as construction delays postponed their move-in date. A team of 18 volunteers helped move items into storage and eventually into their new location on First Avenue West downtown, two blocks south of their original location. Another team of volunteers built extensive storage shelves in the store’s back room and hung shelves and slatwall in the retail space. First & Second finally opened its doors in the Birchbark Building on July 22nd, 2023. Though their rental and utilities costs have doubled, the new location has proven its worth; they expect to meet their expenses and give away at least $100,000 a year.

This past year the total profit was $117,389. Divided by the 4,270 volunteer hours, workers had “earned” $27.49 per hour. (Note: a local supporter donated $35,000 to help the store through the transition from the Cobblestone Building to the Birchbark Building.)

This year, 61 volunteers gave their earnings to 32 recipients, with donations ranging from $55 to over $15,000 (Hamilton Habitat). 

 Donation recipients and volunteers fill the JHP for the First & Second Annual Payout Party.

The following non-profits received donation checks at this year’s First & Second Payout Party:

  • American Legion Auxiliary Post 413
  • American Legion Post 413
  • Arrowhead Animal Rescue
  • Bethlehem Lutheran Church
  • Care Partners of Cook County
  • Cook County Council on Aging
  • Cook County Food Shelf
  • Cook County Higher Education
  • Cook County Historical Society
  • Cook County Local Energy Project
  • Cook County Tennis Association
  • Empty Bowls of Cook County
  • Evangelical Free Church
  • First Congregational Church
  • Go Dog North Shore
  • Grand Marais Art Colony
  • Grand Marais Playhouse
  • Great Expectations School/Foundation
  • Hamilton Habitat
  • Library Friends of Cook County
  • Maple Hill Fire Department
  • Minnesota Children’s Press
  • North Point Youth Center
  • North Superior Ski and Running Club
  • Ruby’s Pantry
  • Snacks ’n Packs (diverted to ISD 166 lunch program)
  • Spirit of the Wilderness Church
  • St. John’s Catholic Church
  • Tofte Historical Society
  • Violence Prevention Center
  • WISE
  • WTIP

First & Second welcomes new volunteers, who can choose to work in the retail store, sort donations, price merchandise, clean, and/or do laundry. It’s an effective way for residents to support their favorite local organizations as they help recycle household items. Non-profits that would like more funding should encourage their supporters to volunteer at either First & Second or Oddz ’n Endz. Both stores operate on the same model, and together they donated well over $200,000 to local non-profits this year. 

It’s time to start working on the second million.

Related: Unusable donations given to Grand Marais thrift stores have large impact on volunteers, resources

Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here