Second Chances

Greg Speech, now a team leader at Last Chance Mercantile, was homeless before landing at the Veterans Transition Center. “Without this program, I don’t know where I’d be,” he says.

It was not a linear journey for Freya Read to find herself managing a thrift store and a team of volunteers. She long ago left the world of Wall Street, where she worked as an equities analyst, for California, where she raised a family and became a product designer for Pottery Barn. It was a career job, but as her kids grew up it was time for a change. “I sort of got religion, or got tired, and I was looking around for more meaning,” Read says. So she moved from Berkeley to Carmel and opened her own consignment store, Perch Decor.

Then the pandemic hit and she closed the store. Divorced, unemployed and drifting during shelter-in-place, her interest was piqued when she heard from a former Perch customer, Kurt Schake. Schake is executive director of the nonprofit Veterans Transition Center, which offers programs to house and rehabilitate veterans struggling with challenges like homelessness or who are just getting out of prison. The nonprofit last year won a bidding process from the Monterey Regional Waste Management District to take over operation of the district’s beloved secondhand store, Last Chance Mercantile. Some clients of VTC could staff the store, but they would need a seasoned manager. Enter Read. She inherited a sprawling complex, including a yard covered with furniture, plumbing fixtures – rows of toilets and bathtubs were a mainstay. “It was pandemonium,” Read says.

But with a team of 13 staff and roughly 50 military volunteers, the group cleaned out the old inventory, much of which had been ruined after sitting out for over a year during the store’s pandemic-era closure. Read made mock-ups of a much cleaner, open retail space; she calls it “reuse Ikea.” The idea was to “make it very shoppable and clean – not frumpy, but trying to honor reuse and the items that we have.”

Today’s store feels more open and organized than the old version. Tents on the lot out back denote different categories of items (one for garden supplies, another for clothes; there’s a sporting goods area). A new cashier station outside with signage makes it obvious where to go. David Solorio, who worked for Last Chance for over 11 years before the closure, is back at the outdoor register. “I like that it’s more user-friendly,” he says. “I love this new crew.”

While there is still plenty of low-cost merchandise in questionable condition, including inventory that comes salvaged from MRWMD’s trash sorting facility next door, there are higher-end items that are priced accordingly.

Among the items available on a recent afternoon: a beautiful table with a marble top in perfect condition ($325); a pair of boogie boards in good condition ($3); intricate leather saddles ($150); a lamp shaped like a birdhouse ($20); a wooden wine rack ($1.50).

Some long-time customers have complained, a la “fancy at the dump now,” Read says, but inventory moves fast – both $3 boogie boards were gone within a 10-minute walk around the yard. And diversity of quality and price point adds variety. “That makes it more interesting to shop,” Read says.

Like Read, team leader Amos Johnson had a non-linear path to get here. A 14-year Marine Corps veteran who moved to Marina in February as a VTC client, he first landed a job at the MRWMD landfill. With his VTC case worker, he says, “They helped me get my driver’s license, an ID card – everything I needed to become a new person.” Now 62, he’s planning to get married for the first time, is about to get a hip replacement and has a job he’s proud of. “We try to make every area as neat as possible,” he says. “We are getting better and better.”

Inside, another team leader, Greg Speech, is also a VTC client. The Vietnam War veteran landed at VTC after he got out of jail in Southern California, and at 68, says he’s got a whole new lease on life. “Better late than sorry,” he says. “I feel so blessed and fortunate to work here. It’s like brothers and sisters.”

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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