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Family Tree Resale Is a Thrift Shop With a Social Mission

By Patty Wetli | April 17, 2014 6:44am
 Thrift store partners with schools and charities on a voucher program for free merchandise.
Family Tree Resale
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LINCOLN SQUARE — There are people who have closets stuffed with clothing from high-end boutiques and others who can't afford to buy T-shirts even at second-hand prices.

With a unique business model that's one part retailer, one part social service enterprise, Family Tree Resale, 5066 N. Lincoln Ave., bridges the gap between the two.

The brainchild of Elizabeth Basa, a divorced mother of three, Family Tree looks, from all outward appearances, like any other thrift store. Shoppers will find shelves of used books, vaguely outdated furniture and oddities like a barbell set and bench press.

Patty Wetli joins DNAinfo Radio to discuss Family Tree Resale in Lincoln Square:

Where Basa's operation differs: Family Tree establishes partnerships with neighborhood schools and charities, which in turn earn vouchers for free merchandise based on donations and purchases made in a partner's name.

How it works: Customer walks into Family Tree, donates a bag of clothing, buys a toy and references a participating partner. Points are awarded to the partner — each point equals $3 — and once the tally hits $20, a voucher is issued.

"It wasn't enough for me to just have a resale shop," said Basa, a lifelong thrifter who counts her Salvation Army wedding dress among her biggest finds. "I want it to have a greater vision."

In the four years since Basa opened the suburban Glen Ellyn outpost of Family Tree, she's given out $60,000 in vouchers — distributed to social workers at participating organizations, who then pass the vouchers along, in the case of schools, to needy students and their families, or, in the case of other nonprofits, to their clients.

"It's more dignified for people to come in and shop with vouchers. Just because someone's in need doesn't mean they shouldn't be treated with respect," she said. "We love to see the full circle of the vouchers going out, then coming back in."

With the quantity of donations far outpacing demand in Glen Ellyn, Basa, who lives in Lombard but grew up in Lakeview and graduated from Whitney Young, set her sights on the city for a second location. Her criteria: "A place with all kinds of income, diversity and people friendly toward resale."

She settled on Lincoln Square and a long-vacant 5,000-square-foot storefront formerly occupied by a furniture maker. Though she initially planned to open in fall 2013, delays in city inspections pushed the date back to winter.

"I don't even consider us having been open the past two months," Basa said of nearly nonexistent sales due in large part to foul weather. "I haven't even bothered to advertise."

A bona fide grand opening is set for Thursday, featuring special discounts, music, cocktails and raffle prizes.

First-time visitors will find a highly organized space that caters to a broad range of tastes.

"We try to be considerate in how we present things," Basa said.

Electronic toys, for example, have all been outfitted with new batteries; board games are either labeled "complete" or with a list of the missing components.

Currently stocked with overflow from Glen Ellyn, Family Tree's more unique inventory includes an entire section of Indian clothing — tunics, pants, scarves and saris — for both adults and children. Basa explained that many of the brightly-colored, elaborately-embroidered items were purchased for special occasions such as weddings, intended to be worn a single time.

One customer, she said, bought 60 of the scarves and sewed them together to form a sort of ceiling for her loft apartment.

Anyone making a purchase on Thursday (and beyond) can direct voucher points to neighborhood organizations that have already inked partnerships, at no cost, with Family Tree: Budlong Elementary, St. Matthias Elementary, Swedish Covenant Hospital, the Lincoln Square Friendship Center and the Ethiopian Community Association.

Though she's still sorting through dozens of bags of donations stored in the rear of the shop — "Handling chaos, it's what we do" — Basa is more than ready to begin accepting goods from Lincoln Square residents, which will add even more voucher points to community partners' tallies.

Apart from mattresses, food and giant television sets, Family Tree will take pretty much anything, and is always in need of household and decorative merchandise.

"We never have enough of it," Basa said, theorizing that most folks swap out home decor far less frequently than their wardrobes.

Only items in top condition make it out onto the floor, with the rest tagged for recycling.

An environmentally conscious science teacher by trade, Basa, who works part-time at the Chicago High School for the Arts, is keen to keep as much stuff out of landfills as possible, even down to the shop's fixtures, which were purchased from liquidation sales at places like T.J. Maxx.

When it comes to textiles— which account for more than 10 million tons of waste annually, according to the EPA — she's teamed up with the Green City Project to send clothing unsuitable for the shop to Third World countries.

"Your used shoes will end up on the feet of very poor children who've never had shoes at all," Basa said.

"It's been so rewarding," she said of seeing her vision for Family Tree come to fruition — creating a sense of neighborhoods as extended families.

"If people cared about each other in their vicinity, life would be more meaningful," she said.

Family Tree Resale's grand opening will be held 10:30 a.m. - 9 p.m. Thursday. Organizations interested in participating in the voucher program can email info@familytreeresale.com.