One of my favorite Dorothy Day stories is about the diamond ring a wealthy admirer donated to the Catholic Worker. Everyone in the community was curious to see what Dorothy would do with the ring, and some were dismayed and a bit annoyed when she gave it to an elderly woman who often came to the Worker for meals. When someone pointed out that the ring could have been sold to pay the woman’s rent for almost a year, Dorothy replied mildly that it was up to the woman what she did with the ring: she could sell it and pay her rent, use the money to take a cruise, or even keep the ring just to look at and enjoy. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

I was reminded of the story recently when my colleagues and I here in India started our latest project, the Rainbow Resale Shop, a second-hand store staffed by young adults with mental and physical disabilities. Thrift shops are widespread and familiar in the United States, but in India they are unheard of. It is interesting to speculate on why this is so.

The most obvious reason is that-until recently-people in India had less to give away. Fashions here took longer to change, and the urge to get rid of what one had, simply to accommodate more of the same, only newer, was discouraged by a culture that traditionally frowned on conspicuous consumption and waste. Another, less flattering reason may have to do with the way charity is dispensed in a hierarchical society where rank and position are clearly defined and universally understood.

When my coworkers and I first broached the thrift-shop idea in our various social circles, we often heard two contradictory responses, sometimes from the same people. First, they said that they didn’t really have anything to donate because they already gave all their old things to their servants. Second, they said that poor people (that is, their servants) didn’t like the idea of used goods, especially clothes, and that we wouldn’t get any customers. Other friends warned that many people would donate totally useless things, and that we would be stuck with a collection of junk, a fear we took seriously, having seen for ourselves the tattered, dirty clothes wealthy neighborhoods had collected for the victims of an earthquake in our area.

Strung together, the three objections made sense. Rich people were already donating their used things to their servants, but the latter didn’t like the goods because they were often better suited to be used as rags than to be worn. The recipients’ less-than-overjoyed reaction to their employers’ largesse perpetuated the stereotypes about poor people so common here: ungrateful, never satisfied, impossible to please. Still, my coworkers and I were convinced that people would be happy to buy second-hand clothes, provided the clothing was in good condition and they themselves were free to choose what they wanted to buy in the store.

Indeed, one of our reasons for starting a thrift shop was to remove the element of charity from the equation and replace it with choice. We made the shop as attractive as possible, given our limited budget, and though we don’t yet have the space for a dressing room, it’s the first thing on the list when we move to larger quarters. Till then, we have a liberal exchange policy for things that don’t fit.

We have kept up our campaign for donations, explaining over and over that everything must be clean and in good condition. Our accountant has made things easier by requiring that we provide donors with itemized receipts. As a result, going through each bag to list what is in it has done away with the possibility of using the shop as a glorified garbage dump.

As people have caught on to the idea of our thrift shop, contributions have begun to pour in, many from friends of mine in Delhi who do their own share of bargain-hunting in thrift shops when they are abroad. The things they give are amazing: brand-new blouses, sweaters, shoes, and suits; a beautiful mirror framed in carved wood; a blender; a pressure cooker; gifts they have received that don’t match their color schemes or their tastes. Their generosity has raised the stakes, and the quality of donations here in Dehradun has improved considerably.

The response on the street has been overwhelming. At first, our customers were all people we knew, but soon the word began to spread and now daily-wage laborers, teenage girls from neighborhood slums, and young mothers looking for baby clothes have begun to flock to the store.

The problem now is making sure that the good things get left for the people who need them the most. And that’s how the Dorothy Day story occurred to me. I was doing my stint as cashier in the shop one Friday afternoon when I found a lovely short blue dress, sleeveless, with a scoop-neck both front and back. Twenty-five rupees (about sixty-nine cents). Too risqué for the average Indian, I thought. Who else besides me would actually wear it? And anyway, to paraphrase that great American saint, “Do you suppose God made bargains only for the poor?” I bought the dress.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2006-07-14 issue: View Contents
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