If you head to the Outer Banks through Currituck County, you’re likely to spot a thrift store in Barco that deserves a stop: Brother's Keeper.
The expansive shop carries everything from beads to beds, toys to tools — and after working in thrift shops for 35 years, founder Bonita "Bonnie" Schuster has become astute at sizing up her shoppers.
First you have the treasure hunters and the collectors, she says. Then there are the nostalgia seekers — and this Currituck County destination, even a few vacationers make it a part of their annual visits.
“We have people come by and say, 'This is my therapy',” says Schuster, who founded Brother’s Keeper in 2001. “Some will stay for an hour-and-a-half. One lady comes in while visiting her husband in the nursing home next door. The nurses and caregivers pop over when they get off work.”
Brother’s Keeper thrift shop is Bonnie Schuster’s ministry.
While not affiliated with any church or denomination, Schuster offers Care Share, where she gives away medical items they gather, such as wheel chairs, walkers, and canes, to Currituck County residents. She supports a Panera Bread ministry, partnering with Teen Challenge, a group from a church that goes by at closing to pick up any leftover baked goods, to distribute to soup kitchens and food banks. When a family has a special need, perhaps a fire or flood, Schuster is there to help in whatever way she can.
“Years ago, while I ran a consignment store, I saw a need to give things to people who needed them. I asked a friend how to do that, and she said I should set up a nonprofit. What do I call it? She said ‘Brother’s Keeper’ off the top of her head, and that’s how it came about.”
Today, the shop fills 5,000 square feet and is open seven days a week. Schuster doesn’t take a salary, and the business depends on volunteers for “just about everything.”
The store’s main source of stocking is donations from the community. She loves to receive clothing and accessories such as purses and jewelry, which prove perennially popular. Her son, Tom, who is learning to take over business when Schuster retires, works the online listings for furniture and larger items.
That’s how she comes up with deals like the $600 cowgirl boots that someone wore twice and just wanted to get out of their house.
“It’s a good business to be in right now,” she says, noting she is looking to open a second store in the near future. “Why go out and pay $150 for shoes, when you’re just going to get rid of them? Our customers would rather pay 20 bucks.”
Schuster is clear what Brother’s Keeper is not.
“We are not a garage sale, flea market, or consignment sale,” she insists. “We’re not stinky, and we’re not junky. We look more like a boutique but with better prices. Who wouldn’t want a Coach look-alike bag for $30 rather than paying the full price? It may not be real, but they like it.”
Back to those categories of shoppers that frequent Brother’s Keeper:
These are shoppers who are seek that one find "hidden gem" will put them in the local news.
The things they collect are varied and fascinating, but all very focused.
“They want to look for that special thing they are collecting — T-shirts, glass, marbles,” she says. “There are some weird things that people collect.”
“A lot has to do with nostalgia, and finding that special find. Oh, my grandmother had this, or I had this as a little girl. I hear that a lot. It connects us with a better time.”
Stopping at thrift stores seems an unusual activity to do on vacation, but apparently not.
“We get a lot of tourists from Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and Maryland,” she points out. “Other people pop over from the Outer Banks when they have doctor appointments. There are regulars from out of town who come by twice a year and stop in to see what’s new.”
Most of all Schuster looks to her locals to keep the business thriving. Her favorites might be the ones that just drop in to touch base. They say it’s to see what new items have come in. But Schuster knows they are really there for the companionship. Many have become family.
“One older gentleman came in because he wanted to tell us about his girlfriend who had just died. You just listen.”
Yes, Brother’s Keeper is a business. But that is not what is most important for Schuster.
“It’s my ministry,” she says.