Sometimes, it’s just good to get out of the store for a little while and check out what’s going on around you. And recently… that’s just what I did. One would think the last place you would expect to go for some retail / merchandising inspiration would be a thrift store. But, that is exactly where I found myself recently.

At the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Portland, they have an incredible program called, Lifechange. It is a 4 year live-in program for men and women to in a sense… start over. Of course, the mission does an amazing job working with the homeless community, but it is this group of 40+ people that truly blows me away.
One of those guys in the group is one they call, Big Dave. Big Dave is 52 years old. And, of those 52 years… 19 of them were behind bars. It started early in life for Big Dave and coincided a few years ago as in his prison cell. Big Dave was finished. In his mind, life was finished and he was determined to end it through either taking himself or someone else out.

dave1But, it was on the brink of life and death that Big Dave, still in prison… went to church.

Fast forward three years into the Lifechange program and Big Dave is on a mission to touch lives with the love of Christ Jesus.

As part of the Union Gospel Missions ways to connect with the community, create a revenue generating source, and give folks in the Lifechange program an opportunity, they have a thrift store. Currently, the thrift store is managed by Big Dave and is 100% ran by the Lifechange group. That in itself is amazing.

A few weeks back, I was at the Lifechange worship services leading worship with a few friends when Big Dave spotted me. Well, of course… first there is the monster Big Dave hug. Not kidding, this guy is tall!

“Gunnar… when are you going to come see me at the thrift store? I would love to give you a tour.” Big Dave asked.

That afternoon, I visited the Thrift Store and before I even walked into the front door, I was welcomed by the bright lights that lit up the inside of the store. Perhaps, that was just a sign of what was yet to come.

Upon entering the store, it was great to see a lot of the Lifechange folks that I had seen that morning working and doing their jobs. I got to be honest with you, my next thought was… This was one of the most organized and clean stores I have ever seen. (Did you notice that I didn’t say just Thrift Stores?)

And here came Big Dave. He made a beeline for me and gave me one of those monster hugs.

It was amazing. Big Dave gave me a tour of every single part of that store. The passion and vision in which he gave me the tour was very impressive and inspiring. It seemed that every part of the store had both a story and a purpose.

“Over here is the kids department. We try to give all the kids a space to play and we like to give them all a free toy. I really like to come over here and shower these kids with love… you know, I never got that as a kid growing up. But, I even have letters and such from kids thanking me for spending time with them in the store.” Big Dave says, as his eyes welled up with tears. Big Dave speaks with a passion that reflects a man who clearly understands that he has been positioned for purpose, right there at the thrift store.

He then turns around and shows me the clothes racks…

“Now, Gunnar… the clothes over here will sell at their top price for a certain amount of time. If they don’t sell there, then we take them over there to those racks and mark them down. If they don’t sell there, we either donate them or turn them into wash rags.”

By this point of the tour, I am thinking to myself… where did this guy come from? Where did he learn all of this? This guy is a natural.

We then head up stairs to the loft where he has a book department, music department, and an electronics department.

Immediately upon stepping into the book department, he tells me proudly about the chairs he has up here… “We really wanted to create a space for people to come, sit down, read and such while maybe their spouse was shopping. So we created this space.”
It was then as if on cue a guest walked past and complimented Big Dave on that decision. They loved it.

As I look over at the bookshelves, there were so organized. They were broken down by category and then author. Big Dave apologized because it was a little disorganized at the time. I smile and nonchalantly look around. There were maybe three books out of place. Big Dave says they like to get up here several times during the day to make sure everything is in order.

By this time on the tour, I am just shaking my head and smiling. All the while, I am thinking… this is retail.

The beauty is, is that I haven’t even shared with you how Big Dave was treating his staff… it was unreal as we went into the back part of the store and saw what it takes to operate this type of a store. This guy has a team of people that know their roles and do them well. This guy has a team that has a purpose, and knows it well. I know these things not by anything I was told but by what I was seeing.

The final place Big Dave gave me a tour of was the loading and unloading dock. He tells me how critical this location of the store is…

“This is the first place our customers will see us and what we do. We need to make that first positive impression.”

As I leave the store I wonder…

Why is it so hard to make everything we do in retail count? It seemed at every corner of the store, Big Dave had a vision, a plan, and a passion.

What is it that makes this such a special retail experience? (Since then, as we have told friends, others who have shopped there say the same thing as we have.)

You know what? I think I know now what makes it special…

After that experience, Big Dave invited me to come down to the mission early on Friday mornings as they gather with others to pray for the city. Well, how could I let this guy down?

As we sat there and prayed… in tears, Big Dave began to cry out. As his words became intertwined with the tears rushing down his face, Big Dave began to cry out over the store, the team, the community it served. “This is Your house God!” He would continue to cry out.

My friends, it was then that it struck me…

How often do I shed a tear and cry out over my store(s), staff, and community? Or has it just become part of the daily checklist?

During this day and age as the economy gets tough, retail will become, and already is, very difficult. However, I am hopeful.

When I grow up, I want to be like Big Dave. He loves God, He loves others, and He is grateful for what he gets to do. Enough of life has slipped him by. And now… time is all we have. This is a man that in that… understands clearly the importance of making your moments… make a difference.

Thanks Big Dave for reminding me what retail should look like! God bless you my friend!

For information on the Lifechange program, please check out: Union Gospel Mission