After nine years of running the Bargain Box, Ally McIver retired late last year, confident new manager Emma Melbratten will build on her contributions.
“This is the kumbaya transition of all times,” she said. “Emma’s going to make the Box even better than I did. Emma will be infinitively perfect for the job.”
The admiration is mutual.
“I mainly want to carry on what Ally was doing,” Melbratten said of her approach.
McIver thinks otherwise.
“She’s got to make her own footprint,” she said.
Their boss, Rev. Mary Caucett of Christ Episcopal Church, offered praise of her own.
“I can’t say enough about how awesome Ally was,” she said. “Ally has such an incredibly positive attitude and carries such a can-do spirit.”
As an unforeseen bonus, Caucett noted, McIver found people with extensive retail experience who were interested in giving back to the community, resulting in an “incredibly gifted staff and little turnover.”
After the search for a new manager, Caucett said Melbratten emerged as one with a solid business sense and deep heart for hospitality along with fluency in Spanish.
“Emma is the perfect leader at this time,” she said.
The job involves overseeing two retail locations, the clothing store at 13th and Alger and the furniture store at 16th and Beck, “one store with two rooflines,” in McIver’s words.
“This isn’t just any old thrift store. This is neighbors helping neighbors,” Caucett said.
The entire net from the operation returns to the Big Horn Basin in the form of grants.
“All the profits are plunged back into the community,” Caucett said.
McIver emphasized that the Bargain Box has nothing to do with the grants and revenue at the store dooes not support the church. The money goes to the church’s Mission Committee, which reviews applications and disperses the funds.
The grants had totaled about $100,000 annually in recent years, until COVID -19 caused a two-month closure last spring. In order to retain the staff at full or partial pay, Caucett said the church dipped into several funds, which it’s slowly replenishing.
“The great news is that we applied for an Endurance Grant from the CARES Act and received $125,000 to replace lost income, so now the church can repay the money it borrowed,” she said. “I hope by the end of the year we can make grants again.”
The Box evolves
“As a little kid, I told my mom that the only thing I can’t do is retail,” McIver said.
After a career that included work as a dude rancher, teacher, travel agent and Realtor, she discovered that some sort of selling is part of every job.
“Retail, it’s hard to avoid it,” she said. “It is the most deeply satisfying job.”
That revelation came in 2009 when she decided it was time for a career change and, at the suggestion of a parishioner, applied for and landed the manager’s job at the Box. She found she enjoyed working the floor and greeting customers.
Her start coincided with several changes at the Box, Caucett said, beginning with McIver’s status as an employee of Christ Church with a paid staff. While the church has always owned the Box, it had initially been run by volunteers, then by a part-time manager with some paid help.
Caucett said the goal was to integrate the church with the Box, its manager and staff as “one team” and to position the church as a “just and equitable employer.” The rest of the Box’s mission is to provide a hospitable place to shop, offer high-quality goods at reasonable prices and reduce the waste stream into the landfill.
“I hope all who come to the Box feel this is their home, a place of welcome for shoppers and donors,” Caucett said.
Following the organizational change came the relocation of the clothing store, a “painful decision” to leave the long-time, time-worn location at Alger and 17th, McIver said. The building needed major work and was not big enough to handle the generosity of the community.
After considering several options, the clothing store moved in March 2013 to the larger space at 13th and Alger, which McIver called “perfect.”
That was the first of two big projects during her tenure. The second entailed installing new flooring in the 6,000-square-foot furniture store, a major undertaking that involved a labor-intensive system of storing and moving the contents three times. McIver said it was accomplished over just four days of closure. Many smaller “never-ending” projects keep going on to maintain both stores.
The donations are never-ending, too, McIver said, describing them as “blessings from the Basin for the Basin.” During her time as Box manager, she’s also seen more second-hand stores open, to the benefit of all such enterprises.
The Bargain Box attracts repeat customers in the form of tourists, Melbratten said, even some from Jackson.
A Cody native, Melbratten has patronized and volunteered at the Box in the past and joined the staff as a part-timer six years ago. She also teaches Spanish in Meeteetse four afternoons a week, a commitment she’ll fulfill until school ends. Until then, she’ll spend only mornings in the Box.
“I’ve been a pretty avid shopper of the Bargain Box since I was 16,” Melbratten said.
In 2014, she started in the clothing store and then graduated to furniture.
One of her goals is to create a welcoming environment, something she “truly believes” in.
“It’s a blast, interacting with customers,” she said. “I try to greet most of our customers by name. I try to pay attention to people’s names.”
When people enter speaking Spanish, she employs her language skills to help them.
“They’re very appreciative,” she said.
Although her office is in the furniture store, Melbratten occasionally visits the clothing store that’s run by an assistant manager.
“I do everything my employees are expected to do – lead by leadership,” she said.
Caucett called Melbratten a “creative thinker” who will maintain the interests of the staff and grow their gifts.
For now, the goal is to survive through the pandemic, to be “agile and innovative.”
Sorting and pricing remain ongoing challenges.
“We will not decline any donations,” Melbratten said. “People like to give to the Box because they know we give back to the community.”
The excess inventory becomes available outside the stores.
“People love the free bin,” she said. “People really need the free stuff. There’s a lot of poverty in Cody.”
For now, masks are required of customers and staff.
“The only reason we’ve been open since May is that we wear our masks all day long,” Melbratten said.
Since her start Dec. 1, she’s encountered no surprises, saying “It’s running like there was never a change.”