At the Salvation Army thrift store in Southwest Baltimore, the loot beckons from the lawn -- a like-new stair stepper, wooden chairs, a dinette set with a retro look that now is cool again.
The store started placing some of its best goods outside about two months ago, hoping to lure passersby inside and to unload the flood of castoffs that now frequently fill its 20,000-square-foot warehouse to the bursting point.
As the holiday season begins, the Salvation Army's windfall is shared by charities throughout the region and nation -- the beneficiaries of an booming that encourages the weeding out of yesterday's goods.
Because there's so much to pick up and go through -- a process that takes time and money -- many charities are now getting choosier about what they will pick up and what they put in their stores.
"We're able to be more selective because we have so much to choose from," says Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries International in Bethesda.
The donation boom has more to do with consumers' acquisitiveness than their generosity, says David W. Stewart, deputy dean of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.
"When people are feeling good about the future and about their economic situation, they tend to buy things," Stewart said. "There's the issue of, what are you going to do with the old stuff?"
Even the kitchen sink
At the Baltimore-area Salvation Army center on West Patapsco Avenue, truck runs for donations went from 55,782 in 1997 to 63,065 in 1998, a 13 percent increase. This year's total is expected to be even higher.
"We've probably gotten everything but the kitchen sink -- and the kitchen sink," says Capt. Don Smith, administrator of the local center covering Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties.
Sales in Baltimore-area Salvation Army stores have gone up 24 percent in the last two years, resulting in a net gain of about $350,000 for the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center, a six-month work training program for men addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Other charities are experiencing the same fortune. At Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, material donations coordinator Irving Lewis expects to beat last year's donations of 10 million pounds of textiles by another million.
The staff at Smith's Salvation Army branch has almost tripled in five years, from 35 to 93, to handle the load. During the busy season -- October through December -- workers must quickly process a full room of furniture in a day to send back out to stores, in order for there to be room for the next day's haul. "It's got to be in one day and out the next, or it gets backed up," says production supervisor Richard Leake. "Four years ago, we'd probably get in half of what we're getting in now."
Deluge of donations
Donors are so eager to get rid of things fast that they've started to drop bags off behind stores whether trailers are there or not. Smith has had to take the painful step of asking some of his employees to pick up those bags on Sunday, a day the organization prefers to shut down completely.
Donations of rapidly outdated personal computers are hitting the secondhand market in a big way, fueled in part by Y2K fears, says Bragale. Nationwide, Goodwill collected 30,000 computers last year, which it sold in stores or put to use in its job-training programs.
Some of the donations are hitting the Internet, where Salvation Army and Goodwill are finding they can get better prices for certain items than in their stores.
Goodwill Industries of Orange County has launched its own site, www.shopgoodwill.com, where bidders can vie for such items as a beaded denim jacket or a ceramic vase. Fifty Goodwills around the nation are expected to be selling on the site by mid-January, Bragale said.
Drawbacks to the blessing
But the deluge is not a complete blessing.
Sifting through all those items adds to a charity's costs -- especially when, in the end, those broken chairs and filthy couches end up at the local dump. As a result, charities have gotten more careful about what they will pick up from homes.
The local Goodwill stopped all home pickups for a time, and now has started some runs in targeted neighborhoods. Those collections are limited to clothing, for now.
The Baltimore-area Salvation Army has a "wood doctor" who repairs wood furniture, but must turn away couches with ripped upholstery. "Sometimes people think we have a tremendous capacity to repair things, and we don't," Smith says.
Not every organization has come out ahead from the accelerated donations.
At the Disabled American Veterans Department of Maryland, thrift-store sales were down by about 5 percent last year, even though donations were slightly up, says executive director Tom Johns. Johns says he believes the good economy is keeping shoppers out of his thrift stores, though he acknowledged the relocation of one Baltimore store, from East North Avenue to Bel Air Road, contributed to the decline.
Charity officials say that even though they are awash in donations, that doesn't mean they can't use gently used items. Smith's Salvation Army branch, for example, relies totally on donations of materials to do its work.
"We're so fortunate that we've seen such a good response, [but] we don't want to have folks think we're OK and don't need any more," Smith says. "This is the lifeblood of our program."