Gary Sullivan walked into Martin’s Mart looking for a specific watch. He had been in the venerable downtown Las Vegas thrift store the day before and was hoping the watch would still be available, but it wasn’t.
Instead, he bought a leather glasses case, a baseball hat and a brand new pair of white socks. The total for his shopping trip? 50 cents.
“I probably come here twice a week,” he said. “I’ve known about it for a year and a half, and they know me, that’s for sure.”
Sullivan is a regular at Martin’s Mart, which isn’t unusual — many customers are. The Main Street store was started by a group of women who attended Lutheran churches in 1971. (The store was named for Martin Luther, a key figure in the Protestant Reformation.) Its original location on Stewart Avenue across from the post office was purchased by the now defunct Lady Luck hotel in 1983 to become a dealer school.
“We know we’ve got guidance from above, because there’s a lot of quarters that we need for a $780 rent each month, but we’ve never had a problem,” said Judy Schacht, president of the nonprofit thrift store’s volunteer board.
Operated solely by volunteers who work four-hour shifts Monday-Saturday and one three-hour shift the first Friday evening of each month, the store hasn’t changed its prices in nearly 30 years. Each December, profits are donated to local charities; most recently $12,000 was split among the Women’s Resource Medical Centers, Three Square food bank, Family Promise and Safe Nest.
Martin’s Mart relies on donations from people, churches and other charities to stock its racks and shelves, but it also depends on staff, most of whom have been volunteering for more than a decade, to maintain relationships with people in the community — a community that struggles with poverty.
“As long as we can pay our utilities and our rent, we try not to raise prices,” Schacht said. “We want to give everybody a deal, and there are a lot of people out there who can’t even pay those (prices).”
“We have a lot of regular customers who come to see us on Thursdays, and they’re all like family,” said Nettie Miller, a volunteer at Martin’s Mart for the past 20 years. “We enjoy kidding with them and joking and having a good time. We call this our outing, a social outing.”
When Ernesto Roberts walked into the store on a Friday night to check out the latest selection of vintage clothes and toys, he immediately waved to the friendly face behind the counter.
“They’re really friendly and warm when I come in, so I like coming in to see them,” said Roberts, who has been a regular for about two years. “They only work one day a week, so it’s cool just getting their different personalities.”
Janice Waldrip, who has been volunteering at Martin’s Mart since the store’s inception, no longer drives but still works each week.
“I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of customers I’ve had a really good time with,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I can stay at Martin’s Mart, and I can’t really run the register anymore because I can’t tell the difference between quarters and nickels, but I’ve enjoyed it.”
New volunteers are always welcome, Schacht said, and there is one important requirement: an affinity for serving others.
Beyond simple conversation, Martin’s Mart volunteers offer assistance without strings. If someone needs a pair of socks, they give them away. If someone is sleeping outside and needs a blanket, they give a blanket away, Schacht said.
It’s that action by volunteers, going out of their way to help someone, that makes Martin’s Mart special, she said.
“I try to encourage people to try it. It’s not for everyone but it is so thrilling and so rewarding,” she said, recalling a time when a man was struggling to get around with a broken walker.
“I said, ‘Would you like a new walker?’ and he asked, ‘I can get a new walker?’ and I said ‘You give me yours and I’ll give you mine.’ He went out with the biggest smile on his face, and you just tingle all over thinking that you made him happy that day.”