A guiding principle of real estate development is that a property should serve its “highest and best use”, typically pointing to maximum wealth creation. At the Big Lake Community Clothing Closet, the all-volunteer staff has created a unique arrangement. While its budget is bare bones, and funded entirely by community donations, the highest and best use of this secondhand shop cannot be quantified. The reason? Items are not for sale, but rather the doors are opened once a week, and everything is given away for free. To anyone. Shoppers are often facing dire financial circumstances. The Clothing Closet stands ready to help. “We have everything you need for a house, except the big appliances and furniture — we’ll take it all” explains co-manager Jeff Antill of the donated goods which come directly from area locals.

His partner in this endeavor, Christy Ward, a dynamic, weathered blonde whose energy animates the small space, is ready for anything or anyone who comes through the door. Her nail polish usually matches her tie dye or other accessories, and her measured warmth feels like a mix of Stevie Nicks and Mother Teresa. On a recent Wednesday she greeted me from her modest office, seated on the floor surrounded by a dozen white bags stuffed with clothing, like a pillowy cloud. As she sprung to her feet, a small dog tumbled out and skittered around the room before being contained. A larger dog loped through the gathering while clothing was sorted and stories were being shared. Christy credits landlord Casey Steinau with granting a lease to the organization seven years ago, when due to closure of the church which originally housed them, new space was needed. “She gave us three months, totally rent-free, which just made this possible when it otherwise may not have come together,” Christy said.

The bright green building in the center of town holds a happy hum of volunteers on Tuesdays, in preparation for its public hours on Wednesdays. This crew is not formally organized, simply trusting that workers will show up to process the donations. Many of the Tuesday regulars say they prefer to work behind the scenes, avoiding Wednesdays and its tendency for heavy traffic and crowded quarters. Even while closed to the public, the 600 square feet is being maximized, with a half dozen clothing racks, three bookcases, tables and shelves devoted to jeans, khakis, and childrens’ shoes. The perimeter of the room is stacked with baby clothes, and rubber totes line the floor, holding toys, scrubs, swimwear, and more shoes. Between the large windows are housewares and craft supplies. While this is not a curated boutique by any means, there is a surprising degree of order to be found. Workers know what’s available, often having handled each piece themselves. Longtime volunteer Dorothy Hilla says, “You might be surprised to know how often we have just what someone is looking for.”

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All of the volunteers came through word of mouth. When asked why she chose this outlet for her charitable labor, Miki Entwisle says wryly, “These people like me.”

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