A Positive Spin

With World AIDS Day Friday, a new store revitalizes an old idea.

By Gina Santino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 29, 2006

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Re-commerce: Store founders (from left) Peter Hiler, Tom Brennan and Christina Kallas had been on staff at Thrift for AIDS.

On the third Saturday of the month the Philadelphia AIDS Thrift store at Fifth and Bainbridge streets is in a tizzy. Christina Kallas, the store's co-founder, rings up a customer and throws in a free scarf. Co-founder Tom Brennan is frantically trying to fix the sound system so DJ Trans Am can start spinning.

Though the merchandise is pretty standard, this isn't your average thrift store. Take a look at the tags.

One familiar-looking sweater has a tag that says, "Dr. Huxtable wore it." A dress hanging in "Vintage Gulch" sports a tag reminding shoppers to "Call your grandma and tell her you love her." But it's not just the tags and the DJ that make the store different.

Philadelphia AIDS Thrift donates its proceeds to the AIDS Fund, which then distributes the money among 31 local organizations involved in the fight against the disease. Fundraising efforts will hit a fever pitch worldwide this Friday, the 18th annual World AIDS Day.

The store has already donated more than $30,000, not including the several $50-a-year in-store credits it provides to men and women with AIDS who are referred by caseworkers--all of which is pretty impressive for an organization that celebrated its first anniversary in September. But while Philadelphia AIDS Thrift may be young, its roots go back nearly 15 years.

In 1992 Peter Hiler lost a close friend to the disease and wanted to do something in his memory. His inspiration came from a TV show that featured a New York thrift store that donated its proceeds to charity. "They'd raised money for cancer but switched to AIDS in the early part of the epidemic," says Hiler. "I thought, 'Hey, we can do that here.'"

Around the same time Brennan and Kallas were looking for their own ways to contribute to the cause. Each joined the staff at the former Thrift for AIDS on South Street after suffering personal losses from the disease.

As the store grew, problems arose. "We built this great thing, and if you ask me to tell you why there were problems, I couldn't." says Brennan. "There was a power struggle."

In 1997 the board asked Hiler to step down. The next day seven employees who'd been instrumental in starting Thrift for AIDS were fired, sparking weeks of protests outside the store. Eventually dissension, growing expenses and poor management took their toll. The store closed its doors for good in 2001.

Hiler held onto the idea of starting over, and along with Kallas and Brennan, started Philadelphia AIDS Thrift last year. Though public urgency over the disease has dwindled over the years, the store's founders and its staff of more than 40 volunteers work to remind people the problem hasn't gone away. "It was a conscious decision to put AIDS in the name of the store," says Brennan. "It's a different time and a different place, but it's still a reality."

Brennan says the store plans to expand into a warehouse across the street early next year. Despite the current space constraints, there's a healthy influx of donations.

"There's always going to be someone in need," says Hiler. "So we figure everyone's closets can be shaken a little bit."

Gina Santino is a PW intern. Comments on this story can be sent to letters@philadelphiaweekly.com

Fast Facts

>> More than 1 million Americans are living with AIDS.

>> African-Americans account for half of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S.

>> AIDS is the leading cause of death among 25- to 34-year-old African-American women.

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