Keeping charity in stock


The Surprise Shop looks like a vintage home, with white and green paint that is chipped and dull and large windows that wind up the three stories of what used to be a rectory for the Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson.

Inside, however, there are no bedrooms, no kitchen, no parlor - instead, there is a store that for 40 years has welcomed bargain shoppers and others seeking to buy cheap housewares, used clothes and toys.

Those who tend to customers are another small surprise: The average age of the shop's mostly female staff is 80. Some have worked in the shop since it opened in 1964.

The staff manages the store, takes inventory, works the cash register and hauls merchandise up and down flights of stairs.

Today, they'll celebrate the store's 40th anniversary with a party at 10:30 a.m., complete with cake and refreshments. The public is invited.

The not-for-profit store - which puts most of its proceeds into the church and the rest into shop maintenance - is happy just to be afloat.

"No one gave this marvelous, marvelous thing that we're doing a chance," said Elsie Tyrala, 81, a volunteer at the store. "Even the rector didn't think it would be a go, and that was forty years ago."

That same rector, Kingsley Smith, will be celebrating with them today.

At its conception in 1964, the women's ministry of Trinity had several goals for the store - including the cultivation of what they called "women power."

Now, the store is staffed mainly by what Tyrala calls "a bunch of tough women." She believes that the longtime workers are the reason for the store's endurance.

"It's because of some very dedicated volunteers," Tyrala said. "I don't know where you can get a group of women who've stuck together like this."

On any given day, the thrift shop carries an eclectic assortment of merchandise, from antique brass candlesticks to designer clothing. Used toasters, picture frames and children's toys also make their way into the inventory, either by donation or consignment.

Betty Bonsall, a regular customer, said she needed new heels for her shoes recently and turned to the Surprise Shop for help.

"The man I first went to wanted $7, so I came up here to the Surprise Shop," Bonsall said.

She got her heels - for $4.

Bargain hunters like Bonsall aren't the only ones who have benefited from the store.

Community members in need come to the shop nearly every day, referred by the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, which is conveniently located across the street.

About 40 people a month receive free clothing from the Surprise Shop, which has been working with the assistance center since it opened.

"They are very good about providing our clients with what they need," said Kathy Burgess, the center's director.

The shop's volunteers believe this service is another reason the store has stayed afloat.

"People know that we support the community," Tyrala said.

Also in the works are a celebratory dinner and fashion show to be held at the church April 24 in honor of the shop at the corner of Baltimore Street and Allegheny Avenue.

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