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The Economy Shop: 101 Years of Volunteerism

Volunteers have been running the Economy Shop in Oak Park since 1919, and yet these individuals' thoughts and experiences at the shop have never been recorded. The Economy Shop is an important charitable organization for the Oak Park area, and this special online exhibit documents a snapshot of the volunteers 101 years after the organization was founded. This exhibit, created by UIC Masters Candidate Abby Atwood in Spring 2020, highlights 24 volunteers, sharing some of their thoughts on the shop and why they give their time to this organization. The full surveys may be found in a PDF below or in the archives of Oak Park River Forest Museum.

View full transcripts of volunteer surveys

Excerpts of volunteer surveys:

Nancy Hines, Sewing and Crafts

Q: Describe your favorite moment(s) at the shop.

“We have many customers in our room who bring in items they have made with their purchases from our room. We try to take photos of their work and post a ‘Customer of the Week’ sign on our bulletin board so others can see how creative our customers are, and get ideas about what they might make with their purchases. Though we don't have a customer for every week, we do have a collection of dozens of these signs from more than 10 years worth of sales.”

Q: Anything else you wish to say or comment on being a volunteer at the Economy Shop, or the Economy Shop in general?

“From those who drop off donations, to our staff and volunteers who sort and price those items and to our customers who attend our sales, we have a wonderful group of people all working together to provide much needed financial support to the seven local charitable organizations that are our partners.”

 

Jane Costa, Housewares

Q: Anything else you wish to say or comment on being a volunteer at the Economy Shop, or the Economy Shop in general?

“I enjoy participating in a multi-faceted volunteer experience: earning money for the charities we support, providing bargains and a degree of social interaction for our customers, and maintaining a supportive environment among fellow volunteers.

 

Lisa Sorensen, Toys

Q: Describe your favorite moment(s) at the shop.

“It is a delight to see children find the "perfect" toy buried amid our collections, and then they dig out their handful of change or crumbled bills to pay for it themselves.”

Q: What do you think is the reason for the Economy Shop’s long-term success?

"’What's old is new again.’ ‘One man's trash is another man's treasure.’ Both of those slogans could sum up the 101 years of Economy Shop success.  But more than anything, I think it's the determination of the volunteers to keep it afloat. Volunteers play many roles, work hard, and understand that Economy Shop is an institution that we want to continue to thrive.”

Q: Anything else you wish to say or comment on being a volunteer at the Economy Shop, or the Economy Shop in general?

“A side effect of volunteering that might be overlooked is that it provides a social outlet for people that otherwise might not feel like they belong anywhere. Each room becomes a real community and develops long-term relationships that extend well beyond our doors.”

 

Lauren Murphy, Accessories

Q: Anything else you wish to say or comment on being a volunteer at the Economy Shop, or the Economy Shop in general?

“Grateful that I can be a part of something so special.”

 

Donna Morris

Q: What do you think is the reason for the Economy Shop’s long-term success?

“The fact that it's a department store. It is mostly run by volunteers. They have high quality items donated. I have a friend in her late 20s who recently move here. I took her on a tour and left her to shop. When I asked how her shopping trip was she was elated--bought a lot and even found a dress that would have cost over $100 in a retail store for a few dollars. This has happened many times in the few years I've been working here.”

 

Kathy Atwood, Basement Emporium

Q: What do you think is the reason for the Economy Shop’s long-term success?

“It’s a win-win situation. High quality items at low prices; recycling; all proceeds go to charity; only open three days per month so it’s not too time-consuming for volunteers but it provides enough work to make it seem worthwhile.”

 

Jacqueline Elder, Basement Emporium

Q: What do you personally get out of volunteering/thoughts on volunteering?

“I get more than I give.

   -Great stuff

   -Great folks

   -Great customers”

Q: Why did you become a volunteer?

"I retired and had the time and energy. And it is a natural anti-depressant for me."

 

The following information is based on 20 interviews from Economy Shop volunteers who responded to this project in January-March of 2020. 

What is the most difficult aspect of working at the shop?

Describe your favorite moment(s) at the shop. 

This research presented contentious discourse over the very nature of volunteerism. In grappling with important issues such as payment for services rendered and the gender gap between paid versus unpaid labor, many people question why this is and how it should change. The Economy Shop stands in a peculiar place in this regard. It simply could not exist without running on volunteerism; it could not generate enough money to donate to charity and pay 30+ employees. However, as seen in the results of the surveys, many of the volunteers do not feel as they are being taken advantage of. Many responses stated that they get more than they give. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 when this exhibit was compiled, the Economy Shop was shut down. Yet even while volunteer work was put to a sudden and complete halt, email chains between the volunteers continually stated how much they missed the shop and working with each other. The Economy Shop serves as a model for how an organization should treat its volunteers.

View this page for more on the history of Economy Shop and OPRF Museum's exhibit "Economy Shop at 100"

Created by Abby Atwood, UIC Masters Candidate, Spring 2020