Marblehead schools pull $100,000 out of the hat

Vice president of the board Marianne Dunne, left, and general manager Diane Worth stand in front of a $100,000 check that was given to the Marblehead PTO at Magic Hat Thrift Shop in Marblehead. Photo by Libby O'Neill

Walk into the Magic Hat Thrift Shop on a given day and you will stumble upon any number of brand name items. Last week items ranged from Brooks Brothers, Michael Kors, to Fossil available for purchase nestled next to less- glamorous fare in the ever-growing thrift store, located inside the Veterans Middle School on Pleasant Street.

Magic Hat, named for the Marblehead Magicians, opened its doors in 2005, with the aim of supporting Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO) at the town’s schools.

The shop was modeled after a similar one in North Carolina that Marblehead teacher Frances Tully visited during a trip to the state to see family. When she returned to Marblehead, Tully convened a volunteer group of moms, set up a 501(c)3, spent hours researching retail thrift shops, recruiting volunteer legal advice, finding a small space in one of the schools, asking the community for donations, and building shop fixtures.

Twice each year, the thrift shop donates a sum of money to the PTOs — and, in 2022, that meant two $100,000 donations, essentially providing each of the five schools in town roughly $20,000. Board of Directors Vice President Marianne Dunne said the growing value of the donations. In April 2021 the shop donated $35,000 to the PTOs — is a direct result of the growing success of the store, which has drawn customers not just from Marblehead, but also surrounding communities.

“When I first started here 10 or 15 years ago, it was really mostly just Marblehead folks and schools and now it’s really reached out to other communities nearby Lynn, Swampscott, Salem, we have a good working relationship with a lot of other people from other communities coming in,” Dunne said.

“Social media definitely helps,” added Magic Hat General Manager Diane Worth. “We can put some stuff on there, I’ll come in the next morning, and [people] are outside 20 minutes before we open [saying] ‘I’m early, I wanted to get that thing.’ It’s good.”

Magic Hat has grown steadily since its inception, and now pays six part-time employees, including Worth. Both Dunne and Worth credited some of the store’s growth to the growing quality of the items donated, and the markdowns offered at Magic Hat.

“Social media’s really helped us as far as donations go,” Worth said. “We have wonderful people that save us really nice stuff.”

Worth said items are typically priced at about a third of their worth — she offered the example of an item selling for $60 at another retailer that would sell for $20 or $22 at Magic Hat.

“We have really good stuff at really good prices,” she said, succinctly summing up what she sees as the reason Magic Hat has developed a sort of cult following, with regulars who arrive when the store opens and stop in again before it shuts its doors.

With limited space inside the school building, and the store’s popularity only growing, Magic Hat has had to place limits on donations. The store is currently only accepting winter clothes for donation with the winter season rapidly approaching. When summer time rolls around again, summer clothes will be for sale in the store and winter clothes will be turned away.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced some adjustments to the donation schedule, Dunne said, explaining that “people used to come at the end of the day on Saturday [and] dump all the stuff they didn’t sell at the yard sale.”

“We didn’t even look at it. Now we screen at the door . . . we don’t have the storage space.”

Inside the store, items are now color-coded, in an effort to streamline the shopping process, Worth said. That effort represents broader upgrades made around the store in recent years as it has grown.

When asked what the most popular item at Magic Hat is, both Dunne and Worth immediately pointed to LEGOs.

“We love LEGOs,” Worth said, explaining that LEGOs are collected in big bins before being doled out into storage bags that are then sold for around $25 per bag. “They’re expensive and kids like them.”

Dunne added that teachers will often come down to buy books, and Worth said those sales frequently feature a heavy discount since the money spent would wind up being reinvested in the schools anyway.

One of the initiatives Magic Hat undertakes each year is working with guidance counselors to identify students who may need winter boots and jackets and then going through the items in the store to see if any of them might fit the students in need.

Magic Hat is only open four hours each day Tuesday through Saturday and closed on Sunday and Monday, but Worth said those limited hours have not put any kind of damper on the business, with huge crowds flocking to the store on Saturdays in particular.

“It works out well, we make the best of it,” Worth said.