Saturday, June 6, 2009

More than a Thrift Store

Published in L Magazine, October 2008
Copyright 2008 by L Magazine, used with permission
This is my original, unedited version

It seems the Junior League Thrift Store has always been a part of Lincoln. For most of its 56-year existence, the store occupied the corner of 18th and O, drawing Lincolnites from all over town: people who needed the low cost clothing and household items, as well as those just looking for a bargain or an unusual find.

The store was known for high-quality clothing and household goods, said Melissa Dirr, president of the Junior League of Lincoln, which opened the thrift shop in 1952 at 215 North 9th Street. Other locations have included the Alamo Center and University Place, a spot it occupied from 2005 until May of this year, when declining profits led the League to close the store.

Lavore Amgwert bought nearly her entire wardrobe there, including professional clothing, formalwear and casual outfits. “I was able to wear designer clothes for a very nominal amount,” she recalled. “You’d be surprised at how many people thought I had a lot of money.”

She and a friend used to go out for breakfast every Wednesday morning at a restaurant located next door to the shop, poised and ready to check out the new merchandise put out weekly. Some of her favorite finds were a 25-cent purse with a $20 bill tucked inside and a $5 bracelet with 14-karat gold charms, a treasure she still wears often. Her home is decorated with accessories she purchased at a fraction of the cost of new items, from lamps to candlesticks, to a living room desk and even Heisey crystal.

For Lavore’s 70th birthday, her daughter-in-law Susie Diers, who works as an administrative assistant for the Junior League of Lincoln, surprised her by throwing a party—where else? The Junior League Thrift Store. Lavore thought she was going out to dinner at the Old Country Buffet with her son. “There’s something in the thrift store window I want you to look at,” he commented. Then : “It looks like the store is open!” Inside were about 35 of her friends and relatives, some from out of town. After enjoying cake and sandwiches, some even stayed to shop.

Local poet and former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser was a regular shopper at the Junior League Thrift Shop and even mentions one of his finds--a plaid flannel shirt--in his book, Local Wonders. Twenty years after buying it, he still has that shirt, along with countless other treasures. He recalls buying a painting for $20 and later discovering the artist was quite a noted painter. He bought a couple of suits purposely too large and then had them tailored to fit.

“The quality of clothes was really quite marvelous,” he said. “It was not unusual to find a suit from someplace like Hickey Freeman, a suit that today would cost $1200, but I’d pick it up for $25.”

Although the thrift store is now closed, the Junior League of Lincoln continues to impact the community through its programs and contributions. The local organization, which started in 1921, played a part in establishing and improving many Lincoln institutions, such as the Child Guidance Center, Folsom Children’s Zoo, Fairview, the Junior Golf Course, Hyde Memorial Observatory, and the Lincoln Symphony. Significant projects have included developing the docent program at Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and helping with funding and construction of the new Friendship Home.

The Association for Junior Leagues International (AJLI) was founded in New York City in 1901 by Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old debutante who saw the need to help the new immigrant community. She mobilized a group of young women (hence the name “Junior”) to work toward improving health, nutrition and literacy among immigrant families. Its mission soon expanded to include all aspects of community improvement, especially as it relates to women and children.
The Junior League of Lincoln recently received the $10,000 “Fund For the Future” award from AJLI to develop “Dream Designs,” a program that hearkens back to the organization’s original purpose of helping immigrant families.

“Lincoln is a huge resettlement area for many communities, especially Sudanese and Middle Eastern,” Melissa Dirr explained. “Some of these families come separated—children without parents, one spouse without the other. When they first arrive, they are flooded with resources through many of the community organizations, but we’ve found that after three or four months, these things are seriously lacking.”

The goal of Dream Designs is to help Sudanese women use their traditional skills to earn money. Using the Entrepreneurship Investigation curriculum developed by UNL Extension, League members are partnering with Lincoln Literacy to help these women develop business plans and market handmade items such as traditional clothing, embroidery or crochet.

Well organized projects such as Dream Design give League members an opportunity to help local women and children through hands-on volunteering, said Dirr. “It’s a great way to be a part of something, to have that support of other women and also to give back to the community. And we’re fun.” The Junior League also provides leadership opportunities and a supportive environment.

Dirr joined the League about ten years ago, when she realized that everything she was involved in outside of the home was work related. “I wanted to focus on things that were completely outside of work, and I wanted to introduce myself to a new group of women, and I wanted it to be through a volunteer experience.”

At the new member open house, she was impressed with the women from different backgrounds and walks of life who were dedicated to the same mission. Serving with the Junior League helped expose her to different parts of Lincoln. The training she received has been invaluable in developing her leadership skills.

Dott Hoff, age 94, is one of the oldest members of the League, as well as the group’s most enthusiastic recruiter. She joined the organization in 1996, when the upper age limit restriction was lifted. Since then, she has served at the thrift store, helped with holiday parties and assisted with hospitality at social events. In 2004 she won the Distinguished Sustainer Award for the Junior League of Lincoln.

She rarely attends a League meeting alone; she nearly always brings along a young woman she has invited to come find out more about the organization. “It’s a wonderful way to meet women who have the same interests as you do,” she said. Once you get established in the organization, you can choose which projects you want to get involved in, she said. She’s always looking for potential members. “I ask them to a meeting, and from then on, it’s easy.”

The Junior League of Lincoln is looking for new members. They welcome any woman who is at least 21 years of age and a resident of the greater Lincoln area. For more information, call the League office at 464-2050 or visit their webpage at

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