Print article originally published in IMAGE.
Every Monday, the line extends out the door at the May Court Bargain Box on Laurier Avenue. There are students, seniors and parents alike all waiting to get their eyes on the shop’s new weekly stock of donations.
“It’s just like a treasure hunt,” said Helen Marjos, a May Court volunteer at the shop. “I’ll browse through when it opens and often people will come to the counter and come up with these wonderful things and I think: where did they find these?”
The cozy shop is lined with shelves of kitchenware, books, knick-knacks and closets worth of second-hand clothing, all donated from May Court members and people in the community. The leftover clothing is then donated to the Youth Services Bureau, the Ottawa Mission and Clothing for Charity.
This marks the 45th year the May Court’s Bargain Box has been open. The past couple years, the shop has made about $80,000 annually for May Court services such as the May Court Hospice, after-school programs in low-income housing areas and the library at Ottawa Civic hospital. But manager Sandra Ferguson said in the many years the shop has been open, it’s become more than a source of revenue for the club.
“They see it as their community centre. A lot of our customers live alone don’t have a lot of income and this is where they have social contact with shoppers and May Court members who staff the store,” she said.
The May Court Club of Ottawa started in 1898 by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of governor general John Hamilton-Gordon. Today there are nine May Court Clubs strewn across Ontario but Ottawa’s club remains the largest with 240 members and also carries the title of the oldest women’s service group in Canada.
Nancy Pyper, vice-president of Ottawa’s club said it’s the history and opportunities to volunteer in a social environment that appeal to so many women from all different backgrounds.
“It’s a vibrant club,” said Pyper. “It’s an intelligent group of women from a wide walk of life. You just learn so much about what they used to do and why they’re part of the club.”
Pyper explained how May Court members are required to volunteer 50 hours per year and many fulfill this by sorting, pricing or working the cash at the Bargain Box.
Although the May Court Club has always managed to find enough items to fill the shelves, Ferguson said this season was especially difficult.
“This winter has been a disaster as far as shoppers is concerned and we blame it on the terrible temperatures we’ve had,” she said, adding how the weather also made it hard for volunteers to get to the shop. But despite the weather, many regulars didn’t let that stop them.
Merrylee Frith, a local teacher, has been coming to the shop for about twenty years after she first discovered it as a University of Ottawa student. She said she’s found everything from a cowhide purse to a fur coat. Now that she knows many of the May Court volunteers, she said they not only know her clothing style, they are always great to talk to, even referring to them as “therapists” with a smile.
Helen Marjos, who knows Frith well from her shifts at the shop, said that’s ultimately what the Bargain Box has always been about.
“People of all socio statuses, people who can only afford this and others who know a treasure when they find one, come here and often just need someone to talk to and they love to come in and chat,” said Marjos. “It’s a great spot for more than just the bargains.”