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The Economy of Stuff: The Popularity and Importance of Provincetown’s Thrift Shops

Examples of the diverse array of offerings at our thrift shops

Photos: Rebecca M. Alvin

by Steve Desroches

On a grey, overcast day in April two pink-sequin tank-top dresses shimmer and sway in the breeze as they hang outside Ruthie’s Boutique on Bradford Street. It’s an unexpected bit of glamour and glitz on our otherwise dismal day where the thermometer stubbornly hovers around a temperature that induces impatience for summer, nevermind actual spring. The cheerfulness of sequins on a gloomy day is a good reminder that Ruthie’s is always full of surprises. 

Ruthie’s, along with the Provincetown United Methodist Church (PUMC) Thrift Shop, has become a vital part of the town’s culture, community, and economy. And on many levels, it’s easy to see why. Let’s face it, humans are a messy species, and in a consumer-based economy and culture we produce a lot of stuff. So much so that there are folks like extreme organizer Marie Kondo and cultural movements like “Swedish death cleaning” that address that we as westerners have too much stuff, more than we can ever use in a lifetime. And shows like Hoarders illustrate the extreme cases of obsessions with consumption and material objects. Our stuff even clogs outer space as NASA estimates there is 9,000 metric tons of space junk orbiting Earth. The environmental movement’s motto of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, in that order, is more important than ever, making thrift stores a vital part of this effort. Plus, with the high cost of living, which has become ridiculous on the Outer Cape, thrift stores serve a very important role in life in Provincetown.

“We get all walks of life here,” says David Hall, the manager of Ruthie’s for the past ten years. “Everyone loves a bargain. Every aspect of Provincetown, of the community, comes to Ruthie’s.” 

In any given year Ruthie’s receives about 450 boxes of donations according to Hall. A beloved institution for over 30 years Ruthie’s remains as popular as ever for those looking to shop in a way to reduce waste and at affordable prices. Dealing mostly in clothing, accessories, and home goods Ruthie’s is a hive of activity year round. And the ebb and flow of items coming in and going out is constant, with spring and fall being the busiest times as folks spring clean getting ready for “the season” and then clean up from said season. The donations in totality reveal a lot about the community and our level of consumption.

“It’s still surprises me how much brand-new stuff we get,” says Hall. “Tags still on the clothes or never taken out of the box. We get lots and lots of never used items.”

However, any metric of what comes into the thrift shops needs to be countered by both the popularity of Ruthie’s and the PUMC Thrift Shop, and the lack of such organizations elsewhere. Both Hall and Peter Juris, the manager of PUMC Thrift Shop say that seasonal residents and even tourists show up with car loads of donations they brought to the Outer Cape, both as they know their donations will be handled responsibly and to help each non-profit as each give proceeds to local charities and service organizations. As extreme wealth continues to change the demographics of who lives and visits the Outer Cape, the donations reflect the shift, say both Hall and Juris.

“We had someone drop off a $4800 chess table,” says Juris. “He knew it and didn’t think twice about donating it. It was beautiful. The guy who bought it at a much cheaper price was so happy. It made his day.”

Shoppers at both shops run the economic range. If you own rental properties, it’s the perfect place to buy furnishing and kitchen ware on the cheap. If you’re a seasonal worker and need any household items, they’re the perfect place to help set up your new place. If you’re throwing together a last-minute drag look or costume each has an inventory of a queen who just decluttered or someone who got rid of a trove of old Carnival outfits. Both shops also have international impact as many immigrant communities on the Outer Cape, especially the Jamaican population, will load up on items to bring back to their country of origin to share things that might be hard to find there or are otherwise prohibitively expensive. And on the flip, if you are moving, downsizing, or in charge of liquidating an estate or need to get rid of unsold, but useable inventory, thrift stores provide a great multifaceted service to responsibility getting rid of stuff. And to the earlier point of donations of high-end items appearing more frequently has increased the pricing of some items. But just inquire about cheaper options as since these shops raise money for organizations like the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, Helping Our Women, the Homeless Prevention Council, and more, generating as much revenue as possible helps the charitable mission, but they each also want to serve anyone in need that comes into the shops.

“Some people have started to complain about higher prices, but it’s just that we put the higher priced stuff out on the floor,” says Juris. “So, if you need a table and can’t afford the ones on display ask us, we’ll give you one that we have elsewhere for free if you need one.”

Of course, any discussion of Ruthie’s and the PUMC has to delve into a discussion of the weird, unusual, and downright bizarre, something people expect when visiting a Provincetown thrift shop. Hall laughs when thinking of strange donations over the years as he hangs a pair of red suede thigh high stiletto boots on a rack. Some of the variety of clothing, including the dramatic and odd, will be on display at the second annual Ruthie’s Fashion Show on Sunday, June 9 at the Crown & Anchor. And as Juris thinks of some of the doozies that have come into his shop a co-worker waves a giant silver fish over his head. At first, he thinks of people who donate dirty microwaves where you can see what they last reheated. But then he smiles and says that once someone brought in several boxes of vintage gay porn on VHS tapes.

“We didn’t put them out on the shelves, but they did sell in a private sale,” says Juris. “This is Provincetown after all. But I did not tell the church ladies about it.”

The Provincetown United Methodist Church (PUMC) Thrift Shop is located at 20 Shank Painter Rd. and is open daily except Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information call 508.487.4925 or visit Ruthie’s Boutique is located at 14 Center St., with entrance on Bradford St., and is open Tuesday through Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday) 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information call 508.487.3820 or visit

Rules of Donation

  • Never, ever leave items at the door after hours. No dumping!
  • If its dirty, torn, broken, chipped or otherwise damaged it’s not donatable. If you wouldn’t buy it, they can’t sell it. Things that are unsellable generally end up costing these charitable non-profits money to dispose of them.
  • For larger items like furniture its best to call or stop by and arrange a good time to drop it off.
  • If in doubt about an item ask first before bringing it in for donation. 
  • No pillows of any kind.
  • Try to avoid making donations shortly before closing time.

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Graphic Artist

Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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