Thrift shop at St. Gerard is one couple’s labor of love

Marie Bertrand sorts and folds clothes at the St. Gerard Church thrift store in Aiken on April 22.

Marie Bertrand sorts and folds clothes at the St. Gerard Church thrift store in Aiken on April 22.AIKEN—Customers who buy knick-knacks, furniture, and clothes at the thrift store run by St. Gerard Church in Aiken don’t just get great bargains. Their dollars help needy people in the community to keep the lights on for another month or put a meal on the table. 

Harold and Marie Bertrand, two St. Gerard parishioners who retired to Aiken from New Jersey seven years ago, have managed the store since 2005.

They accept and sort donations, set up displays, and work with customers. Mrs. Bertrand frequently takes donated clothes home to press, wash and occasionally mend.

It’s a labor of love.

Mrs. Bertrand said she and her husband were both needy earlier in their lives and now are thankful they can help others.

“We did well in life and we wanted to give back to the community,” Mr. Bertrand said. “It doesn’t seem like work when we know it’s going to a good cause.”

The shop holds a large sale from 8 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of every month. The next sale will be May 1. It is also open on Sundays after the morning Masses.

Money from the sales goes into an account set up to help community members with rent, utility bills and other necessities.

The thrift shop raised $8,000 for the needy in 2008 and $12,000 the following year. It occupies three rooms in parish activity center, which used to be the Catholic school.

One room holds mainly clothes and shoes; another contains large furniture such as couches, chairs, computer desks and lamps; and the third has household items.

The Bertrands work hard on the displays and use every inch of available space so each item, no matter how small, can be seen easily.

Father Anthony A. Batung, administrator, has been enthusiastic about the shop since he arrived in late 2008.

 “I knew this would be very helpful for evangelization, and also to fulfill the desire of the church to help the poor,” Father Batung said. “Even though this is a small parish, because of the store we can help someone with a light bill, with water, with a rent allowance.

“The prices of things are small — one dollar, two dollars, but it adds up. It shows the little you have can be multiplied, and you see God can help you when you are determined to help the needy,” the priest said.

He said the project wouldn’t work without the Bertrands.

“Harold and his wife are marvelous,” Father Batung said. “For a store like this to succeed, you need dedicated people. They make a lot of sacrifices to make sure everything is in order here.”

Not all donated items are sold. People frequently call the church looking for furniture, clothes, bedding and other basic home supplies. Mr. Bertrand said they also help people referred by the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken. They assist families who lose their homes to fire, and others starting fresh in homes and apartments near the church.

Medical items such as walkers and wheelchairs are donated to a rehabilitation center, and Mr. Bertrand said they often give religious items, such as rosaries and statues, to people who express an interest.

Some of those they help are especially memorable. Mr. Bertrand recalled how a young man who lived in the neighborhood showed up at the thrift store one day and asked if they had a bicycle for sale.

They gave him a bicycle that had been left at the church by a previous priest, who frequently rode it around the neighborhoods.

“That young man told us he needed that bicycle as his mode of transport to get back and forth to work every day,” he said. “He’s still working because we see him ride every day.”

Donations come from parishioners, neighborhood residents and other areas around Aiken.

Mrs. Bertrand said they generally accept anything, as long as it’s usable. They can’t take baby cribs because of safety concerns.

There’s always an element of surprise when donations arrive. Mr. Bertrand said they once received an office-style water cooler. A recent display included everything from unusual jewelry and collectible Avon plates to golf clubs and crocheted tooth fairy bags children can put under their pillows.

Couches, beds, electronics and kitchen items are among the best sellers. On Super Bowl Sunday, the shop sold every television in stock.

The Bertrands like helping customers, who line up outside the door two hours before the monthly sales start. Many regulars show up month after month.

Mrs. Bertrand said she doesn’t mind the long hours the store requires.

“I just enjoy it, all of it,” she said. “To me, it’s like coming home and doing your work at home. Everybody we deal with is so nice and friendly. After being poor at one time, God has been good to us.”

The St. Gerard Thrift Store is located at 640 Edrie Street NE. For more information, call the church at (803) 649-3030.