Longtime Bellingham thrift store manager stepping down but not away

Arla Fowler had never been one to spend time shopping at garage sales, church rummage sales or thrift stores.

Until she reached her mid-60s, that is. That’s when Fowler, a retired elementary school teacher and librarian, began to volunteer at Wise Buys, the downtown Bellingham thrift store affiliated with Lydia Place.

Now, in her last month as volunteer manager of Wise Buys — although she will continue as a volunteer worker — she loves to spot, well, a wise buy at the store. There are literally thousands of them.

“That’s about all I wear now – clothes from Wise Buys!” she said with a grin.

Arla, 83, and husband, Dick, 84, a retired professor of technology at Western Washington University, have spent untold hours in volunteer work at Wise Buys.

Wise Buys benefits Lydia Place, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Lydia Place offers a variety of housing programs as well as life skills programs and case management while meeting the needs of the homeless in Whatcom County. In 2013, Lydia Place served 410 individuals in four programs, including 165 households and 208 children.

The affable Fowlers, who met as high school students in small-town Montana, have lived in Bellingham since 1965. Arla graduated from Sacramento State University and earned a master’s degree at Washington State University. Dick earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from WSU and a doctorate from Texas A&M.

Question: Arla, what’s your role as manager been like at Wise Buys?

Arla: I starting subbing (as a volunteer) in 1996, then working as a regular volunteer. Shirley Murray, who had been managing Wise Buys primarily as a business manager, moved away. I was on the board of directors of Lydia Place, the only member who had ever worked at Wise Buys, and I started managing Wise Buys in 2000.

I like to say, “I don’t run Wise Buys; I’m the one who sees Wise Buys runs.” I’m the one who takes the broad view and looks at the essentials. I can’t micro-manage it because I’m not there that much. I have tried to develop a sense of ownership among the staff, who are all volunteers — 25 to 30 of them. Various volunteers take responsibility for various aspects.”

Q: Since you hadn’t been interested in garage sales and rummage sales, and you hadn’t shopped at thrift stores, how did you become willing to manage Wise Buys? Why did you serve so long?

Arla: In April of 2000 I said I would manage the store until the end of the year. But I had so much fun doing it, I managed the store for 14 more years! I’ll be retiring as manager at the end of this year, but I still have too much fun not to volunteer. I’ll work two days a week and help with the transition.

Q: What makes it so much fun?

Arla: The people! Both our customers and our volunteers. I’ve really gotten to know some outstanding women. And I would always have to have something to do – I could not just stay home.

Dick and I have made so many new friends and we’ve met so many interesting people outside our original circle of other educators.

Q: Do your customers enjoy the scene?

Arla: They sure do. We’ve always felt Wise Buys has a multiple mission. A large number of people depend on Wise Buys as a source of low-cost goods. Sometimes our customers also come in to chat with us. Part of our responsibility is to be open and friendly with everyone who comes in. We get a lot of Western students who love to “thrift” — now it’s a verb! Our customers are a lot of fun.

Q: Dick, what’s been your role at Wise Buys?

Dick: I had already been enthusiastically into garage sales. I was always looking for tools and wood for my remodeling projects. Arla twisted my arm! She got me into volunteer maintenance repair work at Lydia Place. I’ve also built the fixtures at Wise Buys with the help of friends. I started out as an industrial arts teacher.

Arla: Dick can do anything! Dick would pre-check and repair when needed all our electronics stuff.

Dick: Jack of all trades and master of none! But I would realize when it would be a waste of money to put $10 into repair work if the item wouldn’t sell for that much.

Q: You always want donations, right?

Arla: We always want nice clothing in very good condition; we try to keep our standards high. We always need small household appliances, plus blankets, sheets and the like. But we don’t sell large furniture.

Dick: I think the donations are getting better. I notice people bringing in new clothes that still have price tags on them. The store is really loaded with good stuff.

Q: Arla, why weren’t you into secondhand sales until working at Wise Buys?

Arla: It was just not part of our culture as we grew up in the little town of Conrad, Montana. My dad had a department store, and that’s where we shopped. And garage sales really didn’t start until the 1970s or so. I can’t ever remember seeing a garage sale when I was younger.