TURLOCK -- Whoever thinks shopping is a just self-centered endeavor has never been to Turlock's Off Center Thrift & Gift.
The nonprofit thrift store has just given away its 400,000th dollar in proceeds thanks to its customers' tireless shopping.
Founded in December 2006, the stylish shop on East Olive Avenue in downtown Turlock looks more like a boutique than a secondhand store. But inside, bargains fill the racks and good deeds adorn the walls.
"We thought when we started that if we could pay the rent it would be good," said Off Center board president Sylvia Cox. "We couldn't believe it when we gave away our first $1,000. And now we're at $400,000. Every time we mail the checks out it's exciting."
Last week the board approved $14,000 in donations, putting them over the $400,000 mark. Those checks will go to the Carnegie Arts Center ($10,000) and Turlock Police Chaplaincy ($4,000).
In the past six years, the all-volunteer organization has donated its proceeds to some 70 causes across the greater Stanislaus County area. Those range from the Turlock Family Network to the Patterson Teen Center, Newman Toys 4 Tots to Hilmar Helping Hands and the Westley Fire Department to Denair Gaslight Theatre.
The only recipients the shop doesn't consider are for-profit enterprises, political organizations, churches and individuals.
A large chalkboard behind the checkout counter keeps track of the shop's philanthropic undertakings, neatly listing each organization and a running tally of the amount donated. All proceeds aside from rent and utilities are given away and the business keeps its overhead as low as possible, even using recycled shopping bags.
More than 90 volunteers keep the shop humming, many of whom have been with the store since it opened. The unpaid staff does everything from run the cashier to repair furniture and sort the donations. Board member Kathy Smith joked that if they see something they like, "the price goes up."
Volunteer Susie Van Foeken of Hilmar has been there since the start. She works three times a month and has also drafted her husband, Ken, to volunteer his time to repair wooden items for the shop.
"We get so many repeat customers," Van Foeken said. "I think people really like that the money goes back to the community. Their buying something helps someone else. Often the customers ask after they buy something, 'Can I bring something in to donate, too?' "
The store sells everything from designer jeans to home furnishings. Most clothing runs from $2 to $5. Paperback books go for a quarter. The only items not accepted are electronics, mattresses and baby furnishings.
All unsellable items are donated to the United Samaritan Foundation in Turlock.
Despite the bargain basement prices, board members like Linda Tell said they wanted the shop to have an upscale feel.
"It was very important that it look nice right from the start," she said. "We wanted someplace we wanted to be in."
All the board members volunteer at least once a month. The group has retained its 10-member, original, all-female board. The women have stayed on over the years to help steer its course and see its mission fulfilled.
Most of the members are friends or acquaintances of Cox, whose past businesses include a children's clothing store and antique shop. She said that when the long-running Emanuel Medical Center Auxiliary Thrift Shop closed in 2006, there was a need in the community.
"One of our goals was to keep the legacy of volunteering going after it closed," said board member Gail Ballas.
"We also felt this was something the community could really use after Emanuel's shop closed."
In the first year, the shop raised some $40,000. Donations have been growing, and in the past few years they've raised close to $70,000 annually.
A separate committee decides where the shop's proceeds will be donated. Donations range from $500 to $10,000, with the largest ever being a $15,000 gift to multi-agency charitable group Turlock Together.
Charities can apply for donations; the committee receives 30 to 40 applications each year. Groups can only receive one donation per year, and repeat annual giveaways are not guaranteed.
Cox said being an independent nonprofit allows them to respond quickly to groups in need and set its own guidelines.
"We tried to keep it very varied and different," she said. "So people in Hilmar could come here and not think, 'Oh, this is just a store that helps Turlock.' It was very important that people felt we were helping everyone. Also, it's been really fun to do. This is our passion."
Turlock's Off Center Thrift & Gift, 410 E. Olive Ave., accepts donations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays. For more information, call (209) 634-3344.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her at www.twitter.com/turlocknow.