Worker-owned thrift store opening in Hamtramck reimagines what second-hand shopping should be

That’s what Public Thrift, opening in September on Joseph Campau, is inviting its customers into. The woman-owned, Black-owned, and queer-owned second-hand shop is radically reimagining the environment, offerings, and relationship a thrift store can bring to its community. 

The reuse store featuring clothing, household goods, furniture, art, and more is committed to being a low waste, community-benefitting store, that provides an affordable and environmentally conscious place to shop. 

We caught up with Margo Dalal, a Public Thrift co-founder, to talk about the worker-owner design, the journey from pop-up to storefront, and the innovative model of second-hand shopping her team is working to launch. 

Model D: Public thrift is a worker-owned cooperative business. What does that mean?

Margo Dalal:  It means everyone that works in the business is an equal owner of the business. We have shared financial ownership and shared decision-making. 

Model D: How did you come together as worker-owners?

Margo Dalal: Three of us were friends who just really liked working together. We talked about starting a business, and the idea of a thrift store came up. At first, we did yard sales and pop-ups at festivals, farmers’ markets, and places like Anthology Coffee in Eastern Market.  But then Build Institute launched its incubator space, and we were the second business to move in there. In January of 2020, we actually got the opportunity to have a real thrift store in Corktown. That helped solidify our business.

Model D: How was your business affected by COVID-19?

Margo Dalal: Unfortunately, we were only open for two months before the pandemic shut us down. But it was a really fun two months. We had a lot of business, we were able to throw events there—we actually hosted a post-election watch party which was great. A lot of people got to know us there. Since then, we’ve been looking for a permanent space. 

Model D: That was the three of you, and now there are six worker-owners?

Margo Dalal: Yeah, so that was three of us. And then our team has basically just grown by both friends and strangers who reached out to us who were also really committed to wanting to run a thrift store, interested in fashion, and in reusing clothing and who kind of really aligned with our mission. We’re interested in growing the team, and so far, we're six people who work really well together. 

Model D: What does it mean that Public Thrift is “reimagining the traditional thrift store”?

Margo Dalal:  When I approached my two friends to start this business, the goal was to be an inclusive and radical space. To me that means it's not embedded in a religious charity, it's run by the people who work there and it doesn’t contribute to the waste stream, or to the shipping of global donations.

It's really meant to be a local store by and for the people in the area. We want to have relationships with community organizations, nonprofits, shelters, and people doing mutual aid in Detroit so we can work to coordinate where some of our donations would benefit others nearby, instead of throwing them away or shipping them overseas.  

Model D: You mentioned having specific programs to benefit local organizations. Can you tell me about those?

Margo Dalal: We’d like to partner with an organization every month. That would mean that people can donate to that organization while checking out by rounding up their balance or making a donation to the tip jar. We'll also have nights where people can come and shop and profits will go toward a specific organization. We can also coordinate with shoppers if the organization needs specific in-kind donations. I  think we can get really creative with different programs and things to help others.

Model D: How did you settle on Hamtramck as the right spot for Public Thrift?

Margo Dalal: Detroit rent is not affordable and its also quite expensive to get the permits you need there for a thrift store. When we were offered this space in Hamtramck, it was much easier to start up. 

What’s interesting about where we’re located is there are two other co-ops in walking distance of our store, Book Suey and lyengar Yoga. It’s great that we’re going to have three cooperatively owned businesses right near each other. 

Another benefit is that there are several vintage and thrift stores right in our area-—there’s actually a thrift store opening across from us. So I think we're really contributing to this idea of, funky, recycled, vintage clothing and small businesses that are already on this corridor in Hamtramck, which is I think is pretty exciting to be a part of. Eventually, I'd like to coordinate with the other business owners and build that identity out a bit. 

Model D: During your brief stay in Corktown, besides hosting a thrift store, you also held some music events and special gatherings in your space. Do you envision continuing those types of events in this more permanent location? 

Margo Dalal: Yeah, we definitely want to be a fun space. When it’s safe again to do so, we’re down with having parties and hosting events for people who are aligned with our mission, and that bring people into our shop. Many of us do have other jobs, so this is one where, while it obviously also supports us, we can also be more flexible and creative with it. Since we’re all owners, we have a say in how we want the business to engage with the community around us. 

Model D: What vibe can shoppers can expect from your thrift store?

Margo Dalal: Our store will feel more like a boutique, and will have mostly clothing and home goods. It's not the white linoleum, fluorescent lighting, kind of thrift store you’re familiar with. It will be friendly, relaxed and you're going to get great customer service. Even though it will have a local boutique vibe, you’ll pick out an article of clothing, and it'll be super cheap. 

Model D: You have a goal to be a low waste, and you’re encouraging people to be seasonal with their donations to your shop. How will you manage the donation process?

Margo Dalal: We have lots of standards that we ask people to take a look at on our website first, and then when you drop off stuff, we're actually going to look through items and let you know what we'll accept. 

Model D: So no “drop and run” donating like you might see behind a Salvation Army?

Margo Dalal: That’s not a sustainable model. And those types of stores have a much larger capacity to deal with waste. We don’t have that type of capacity, we don’t have other locations to rotate or store things, and we don’t want to give other organizations stuff they don’t need either. 

We’re totally open to having “free sales” or supporting mutual aids that have free clothing pop-ups, but the idea is that we can maintain turnover. We want to keep the quality of our items up, and to do this I think we need to do a little re-education to make sure people aren’t treating our store, or any other thrift store for that matter, like a trash can. Most thrift stores only put out a third of what gets donated and the rest is thrown away or shipped somewhere else.

Model D: You’re currently fundraising through Patronicity to help launch your store. How’s that going?

Margo Dalal: Our goal is $10,000 to help build out the space, purchase inventory, get our business license and have a little operating capital. We do have some savings from our last pop-up, but it’s definitely not enough to cover everything. We’re offering a variety of pay-ahead options, where you’re donation today becomes store credit once we open.

Model D: Your logo is a dandelion. Does that signify anything in particular?

Margo Dalal: My two co-founders from Detroit said there are dandelions everywhere in the city. It’s a common plant that kind of gets a bad rap for being a weed. People don’t really value it, but it’s actually kind of pretty. We thought it would fit us perfectly. 

Public Thrift opens in Hamtramck this September and is currently accepting item donations.

Financial support to the store can be made on their crowdfunding campaign on the Michigan-based Patronicity platform

Stay current with shop updates on Facebook and Instagram @detroitpublicthrift

Public Thrift address and store hours: 
10237 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck
Sun.-Thurs, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.


Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller