Ottawa’s Heart Grows Three Sizes With New St. Vincent de Paul Locations
James Strate has to be getting tired of grand openings.
Less than four months after Strate’s organization, Ottawa’s branch of the St.Vincent de Paul Society, opened a temporary pop-up store on Metcalfe Street, it announced that it was opening a new location in the building evacuated by the recently closed Goodwill.
It is the perfect fit.The Ottawa branch desperately needed a location for a new sorting facility. “Wellington Street, where we are, has a sorting facility downstairs, but we’re basically outgrowing it,” says Strate (the Ottawa branch’s executive director).
St.Vincent de Paul, well known for its charitable thrift stores, uses the money from its stores to give back to the community, providing food and daily essentials for the less fortunate.
The 5,000 square foot Wellington store is the heart of the society’s Ottawa operation, and it’s clearly a community lifeline. Even at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, more than a dozen shoppers flip through the hangers and bookshelves inside.
The underground sorting area is packed with piles of clothes, furniture, bags of Christmas ornaments and pretty much everything you can imagine giving away. The latest load of donations are bags of clothes going to Syrian refugee families.
Over the years, the sorting area has seen it all.”We’ve had a wide array of the unusual,” Strate says, thinking back to some of the stranger things they’ve received. “An urn full of ashes was rather unusual.”
Almost all of St. Vincent de Paul’s stock comes from donations. It relies on church groups, trucks that offer home collection and 20 drop-off boxes around the city to replenish their stock.
The mounds of donations in the St. Vincent store make the giant sorting area feel labyrinthian, but it’s a cozy labyrinth. Signs posted on the walls read ‘Good morning everybody’ and ‘I can only do twelve things at once!’ The walls in the book sorting room are plastered with movie posters and magazine cut-outs that surround a cheerful man named Jamie who brings five flats of books upstairs to sell almost every day.
The Ottawa St.Vincent de Paul Society secured one of the biggest donations in its history last year, when the late volunteer Paul Dole convinced the owners of Stollerys to donate three truckloads of fine menswear after the Toronto institution closed.
There was no room for all of these new clothes in the already crowded Wellington store, so Strate set up the Metcalfe Street pop-up to sell the high-end clothes in a ritzy downtown setting. They named it ‘The Paul,’ not as a modern take on the St. Vincent brand, but after Paul Dole, who made it all happen. According to Strate, the store has been a “great success” and will stay open until the stock is gone or things slow down.”It’s just day-to-day. When sales die I guess we’ll pack up our wears,” he says.
Despite the Paul’s success, Strate won’t be changing the name or style of any of the other stores. “It’s a one-off,” he says. “If Canadian Tire or the Gap donated a warehouse full of goods we would continue on like that.”
The front window of the Wellington store is legendary for its displays. Because of all the work that goes into setting up the row of paintings, clothes and antiques, the store only sells the items in bi-weekly “blitz-sales,” where everything goes up on a first-comefirst-served basis. Sometimes, if the collections are nice enough, they get lines that wind around the corner.
When asked what the biggest issue St. Vincent de Paul is facing in Ottawa, Strate is philosophical.
“It’s just overall, general poverty,” he says. “There’s no reason anybody should be living on the street.”