Miami-Dade County

Cutler Bay thrift shop is a gold mine for treasure hunters

Plate du jour: Margaret Land, left, and Barbara Hellman look at a piece of serviceware at the Ruth Kinsman Thrift Shop in Cutler Bay.
Plate du jour: Margaret Land, left, and Barbara Hellman look at a piece of serviceware at the Ruth Kinsman Thrift Shop in Cutler Bay. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The treasure seeker, the bargain hunter, the occasional dabbler looking for the perfect vintage piece — they all begin to line up under the hot summer sun before the door creaks open at 9 a.m. on the dot. Who knows what they will find?

A blouse with the $152 price tag still attached: $5.

A maybe-maybe not antique vase: $2.

A new high-speed fishing reel: $9.

A rolling four-drawer cart, perfect for notions and knickknacks: $4.

This is the Ruth Kinsman Thrift Shop, a four-room one-stop store where friendships are made, kitchens equipped and living rooms decorated. But the Ruth Kinsman is different from other thrift shops.

Situated in an unlikely place — a low-slung building in the retirement community of East Ridge at Cutler Bay — it’s open only once a week, Tuesday mornings, and only for three hours. The limited hours, however, do not seem to deter the hard-core buyers or the dilettantes.

“They’re always waiting outside for us,” says Gwen North, who has managed the shop since 2007, when its namesake “retired” from the job after 17 years. “Sometimes it’s like we can’t open fast enough.”

Most of the early birds come from outside the retirement community. Many are regulars who have been shopping there for years. The volunteers know them by name — know, too, what they like and alert to them potential purchases. Some bolt for the housewares, others make a beeline to the clothing racks. Most loop around the shop several times before checking out at the door.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” says Carmen Docurro, who has been a faithful client for six years. “Sometimes I come in looking for one thing and I walk out with something else.”

She gleefully holds up a new pair of girl’s sandals for her granddaughter ($2) and a pair of cream-colored women’s tights ($.25). “Where are you going to find prices like these?” she asks.

Key to a bargain

Across the room, Jerry Weaver, another regular, is browsing through a medley of potential gems. “I didn’t come here for anything specific,” he says, “so I’m looking at everything.”

On other visits, he has bought a queen mattress and bedspring — “practically new” — for $60, as well as clothing, shoes and electronics for a fraction of the retail price. The key to a bargain, he adds, is to come early. “You have to get in line to get the best deals.”

An open mind and a gimlet eye help, too. This particular Tuesday, he leaves with the $9 fishing reel, which he didn’t know he needed. A lack of necessity, however, does not diminish the joy of the find. “In a store, this would go for $70.”

The thrift store attracts collectors and dealers, as well. Denise Batura, an antiques dealer, has shopped here almost every Tuesday for the past dozen years. She has found sterling silver and Roseville pottery for a song. One time, she bought a Wedgewood plaque for $25 and sold it for 10 times that.

The reality TV effect

But true finds, she acknowledges, have been dwindling as amateur sleuths, tuned into reality TV shows like Antiques Roadshow, American Pickers, Pawn Stars and Cash in the Attic, have become more knowledgeable about discovering lost treasure.

Sometimes Batura shops for herself, for what she calls “the odd surprise.” She found a four-post mahogany bed with a new mattress for less than $250 a few years back. On this Tuesday, she’s buying a tobacco jar with hunting dogs ($3), a framed coat of arms from Ireland ($1) and a set of dangling earrings with an unusual pattern ($.50). She remains coy about potential value in the marketplace.

Fact is, the thrift shop’s volunteer donors don’t always know the true worth of any item, either. They can’t even predict what will sell and what will languish on a shelf.

“We are poor judges of what will sell,” says manager North. “One week, we sell a lot of jewelry, another week clothes, another week books. There’s no accounting for what people will want.”

Residents make donations

Most donations to the shop come from residents, many of whom are downsizing from homes or from independent living apartments to the community’s assisted living facility. Volunteers sort, clean, price and arrange the merchandise every Thursday. North’s husband, Art, checks to make sure electronics are in working order.

“It’s like Christmas all the time,” Gwen North says. “You open the boxes and don’t know what you’re going to find.”

The shop is divided by sections, with housewares and accessories in the front and clothing items, most priced at $2.25, in the back. Plants are sold in an adjoining area, as well. Camaraderie is free.

“It’s so much doggone fun,” says Greta Brasington, who began working at the shop shortly after moving into East Ridge about 18 months ago. “I’ve made lots of friends, and I like talking to the people who come to shop.”

The store grosses about $30,000 a year. The money goes into the town hall fund to buy big-tickets items, such as a sound system purchased last year for the auditorium.

Steady stream of customers

Although the early morning rush eventually slows down, a steady stream of visitors continues through to closing time. Joan Frawley and Peggy Schuler, both teachers, come every Tuesday during summer vacation and school breaks. The volunteers know them.

“School must be out,” a volunteer calls out when she spots the two sisters browsing by the book section. Frawley, who teaches social studies, likes to buy books for her classroom. “I like having visuals for my students,” she says. “And at 50 cents, you can’t go wrong.”

This week, Schuler has found a few must-have items, including the $4 rolling cart and the $2 vase. As she pays for her goodies, she wears the broad smile of the satisfied. Her shopping philosophy could, if ever needed, become the shop’s mission statement: “You don’t know what you need until you see it.”

(Surely this unexpected need includes the $2.25 sky-blue maxi skirt your faithful correspondent discovered on her way out.)

If you go

Ruth Kinsman Thrift Shop, 19301 SW 87th Ave., Cutler Bay. Open Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon.