When Dolores Johnson closed her 15th Street thrift store to make renovations, she knew she was making a huge gamble. But being surrounded by the Temple community meant there was some hope.
Kehmari Norman, a sophomore film and African-American studies double major, came to Johnson with a vision to make the shop more accessible to the public. Johnson, after carefully reviewing Norman’s plans, agreed to allow Norman to prove her talents and bring forth a new era for Robinson’s Urban Thrift, located at 1542 N. 15th St.
“I was very interested in it. It was a challenge, but it went well,” Norman said. “[The store] used to be dry and cluttered.”
The space the thrift store occupies has been in Johnson’s family for six generations, and ever since the store became hers, Johnson has aspired to sell vintage attire and items to Philadelphians.
Veronica Moyer, a freshman university studies major said she likes thrift stores because they provide budget-friendly attire and she’s a “poor college kid.”
“[Thrift Stores] are cool because you find unique clothes,” Moyer said. “They’re great conversation starters.”
Asked if a nearby thrift store would be beneficial for Main Campus, Nara Allen, a junior media studies and production major said, “Most definitely, we need a thrift store. I love to shop, and you can get things cheap.”
Johnson did get attention from some students by hosting art shows of student work. However, there have been several obstacles she has had to face along the way. Johnson said she used to only get customers through word of mouth, not advertisements, causing the level of clientele to not reach its full potential.
Micheal Spencer, a freshman university studies major brought up the issue of the store’s lack of formal advertising and its location being slightly hidden from the most active parts of Main Campus.
“I think it’s beneficial [to have the store,] but I wish it was more visible to the students,” Spencer said.
The thrift store reopened Oct. 17 after cramming all the tweaking, repairing and redecorating into just three weeks. Norman not only painted murals for the store, but also advertised the store by circulating flyers, which she made herself, throughout Main Campus.
Norman aiding Johnson in renovations spurred the store to go through an extensive metamorphosis in hopes to prevent it from further remaining inconspicuous to potential customers.
“This has been my biggest artistic challenge,” Norman said. “My goal with [Johnson] is to make this place more attractive to students.”
The amount of painstaking effort and creativity that Norman and Johnson have put forth in the store is most apparent in their décor. Not only did they put fresh paint on the walls, but Norman tried her hand at painting murals to bring bright colors into the shop. One of Norman’s designs is her version of a piece by Keith Haring, one of her favorite artists. On another wall, speech bubbles reminiscent of comic books, reads, “Buy it cheap, wear it well.” Customers will also see vinyl covering another wall, and freshly-stocked shelves on the other.
More astounding yet is that Norman has not been painting very long.
“My first time painting was last year. But, I feel like I have a natural gift for it,” Norman said.
Johnson has always targeted her neighborhood clients in North Philadelphia, but she along with Norman want to attract more students. They both said they realize college students need to live cheaply, and a thrift store is just the kind of place to help them out. Johnson said the goal is to keep most things less than $10.
But frugalness does not mean students are willing to sacrifice quality or style. Fortunately, Norman has started to help Johnson buy clothes for the thrift store since she has the unique perspective of being part of the demographic that Johnson is targeting.
Although Norman’s main goal was to impact Johnson’s business in a positive manner, she said there is much that she has learned throughout the process.
“It helped me grow, and now I feel more powerful,” Norman said. “I feel like I can do anything.”
Additionally, they are further reaching out to the community by donating some clothing to the Salvation Army and the homeless.
The cooperation between Johnson and Norman is one of few like it outside Main Campus. Their relationship could serve as a catalyst for more collaboration between students and local residents.
Only time will tell if students and the North Philadelphia community will use a place like Robinson’s Urban Thrift to save money on vintage clothing. In the meantime, the thrift store plans to continue to progress with its changes and push itself to gain further recognition.
Samantha Stough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.