Board members, volunteers and friends gathered in May to celebrate Crozet’s Green Olive Tree as it turned 40. Congratulations and refreshments—including green olives and nonalcoholic champagne—were in order as speakers acknowledged the history and toasted the sometimes quirky serendipity of the wildly successful thrift store.
June Andrews sketched out the store’s beginnings. Mary Sherlin Willetts, formerly of Greenwood, had an employee who said she’d like to pay a little something in exchange for the used clothing, furniture and other household items the growing Willetts family gave her as they no longer needed them. Willetts was one of the seven women in a Bible study group meeting on Tuesdays in 1979. Andrews, a current board member who was also an original member, said this caused the women to think of the possibilities of a shop that would benefit Crozet, a place where donated items could be bought for a modest price and put to good use by people who needed them and who would prefer to pay for them. The women hoped the idea would flourish like the olive tree in Psalms 52:8. That’s how the store got its name. The original offerings took up one shelf at a fruit stand where Brownsville Market now does business. Receipts were laboriously written out by hand and money was stored in a cigar box.
Donated items piled up, winter made the outdoor location uncomfortable. “The wind blew through it,” Andrews said. So the operation moved into Crozet, the first of several moves.
The women had adopted a management model that went way beyond consensus. They agreed to pray and talk until there was unanimous agreement on every new step. Something about the low key, noncombative technique worked, and one day the women realized they had a serious money problem. Despite the low prices and modest offerings, they were piling up more money than they needed to pay the rent and other expenses, a situation that had not been in their original vision. That’s when the board decided to bless the community twice, donating excess funds to worthwhile community groups.
The business proved to be recession proof, and thrived in lean times as well as good. Those who could well afford new items learned to shop The Green Olive Tree first, where they could thriftily recycle their neighbors’ former treasures and benefit the community with their purchases. It became a bit of a gathering place, both for the volunteers and those who visited the store several times a week.
There were plenty of anecdotes: A deer wandered in one day; a car came through the window another day; some unusual items found their way into the store. The money raised––more than $1 million to date––supported more worthwhile community charities than anyone could have imagined, including anti-poverty efforts, school programs, scholarships, emergency responders and hospice. There’s a complete list of beneficiaries at the store and on the website, greenolivetree.com.
At the 40th anniversary celebration, White Hall District Supervisor Ann Mallek presented The Green Olive Tree with a declaration from Albemarle County. She’s had the same relationship with the store as many in the community, Mallek said: “When my children were growing so fast, I’d find clothes for them here and, once they outgrew them, I’d donate them back.”
Store Manager Deborah Ferreira noted that many community members are seeking more than bargains when they come to The Green Olive Tree. “It binds the community together,” she said. “There are people who come every day, see their friends, and are greeted with a kind word.” The first full-time manager in the shop’s history, Ferreira said some new ideas are in the works, including a silent auction for donated items worth more than the store can realistically charge.
It’s no secret to anyone who has seen the crowded back rooms or the new storage shed at the present location that the store is quickly outgrowing its current space. When it comes time to move, Ferreira said, the board would like to see a place for people to sit down to visit and perhaps have a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, The Green Olive Tree is celebrating its anniversary with a Crozet library display of some of the more unusual treasures that the community has sent their way over the years, a look at items of utility, artistry and recreation, including a prize U.Va. baseball, a pair of shoes that could only be called a one-of-a-kind fashion statement, a cabbage patch doll, a chamber pot and a minnow trap.