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Terri Thompson is bringing the sexy back to thrift stores.

The Frugal Design Showcase — her brainchild fundraiser which features a home decorated with thrift store finds —debuted to raves last year, bringing in $40,000 for eight local shops, catching the attention of National Public Radio and earning her and the project Habitat for Humanity International’s 2008 Clarence Jordan Award for Creativity and Innovation.

The Showcase returns for a second year June 19th and 20th at Mountain Building and Development Inc’s CreekSide development just outside Hendersonville, promising bargain-hunters and design enthusiasts another eye-opening look at the best area charity thrift stores have to offer.

Thompson herself is a little surprised at how big a success the Showcase has become. A lifelong thrift store shopper, she wanted to find a way to let people know that thrift does not equal junk: a lot of great quality merchandise makes its way into thrift shops — some with the tags still attached. Some of the stuff you find may not look like much at first, but with a little creative re-envisioning, she says, it can really shine. These are the lessons she learned from her mother — an inveterate thrift store decorator who outfitted 27 different homes in as many years, all the while repainting, refinishing and re-imagining items others had cast aside.

Thompson, a Carolina First bank marketing manager by day, was confident her idea of decorating a model home with thrift finds and selling off the contents would greatly benefit local charity shops. All she had to do was find someone to donate a model home for the event and get buy-in from the local stores.

“They kind of looked at me like I had six heads at first,” she jokes about her first meetings to pitch the idea to shop staff and developers. “But I could just see it. I knew it would be successful.” Thompson’s passion for the idea (and her great marketing skills) eventually won over the skeptics. “I bulldozed them,” she says.

From there, she assembled a team from eight area stores to decorate a three bedroom, two and a half bath home in just six weeks. Representatives from each store — no interior designers allowed — helped Thompson assemble a range of goods from sofas to bookshelves to curtains using only what each store had in stock. From there it was a process of trial and error — could this lamp work in this room? No? How about this one? The group didn’t stop at furniture and accessories — there were plates in the kitchen and linens in the closets. A 30-foot wall in the great room was decorated with an assemblage of mirrors — an idea Thompson picked up from a decorating magazine.

When the crew arrived to open the house on the first day of last year’s event, there were already 75 people lined up outside. Over the course of the three-day event, 800 people toured the home and purchased 80 percent of the merchandise on the first day. Thompson was struck by the comment of one particular guest: “I have never shopped at a thrift store before, but after this I’ll be a regular customer.”

Thompson emphasizes that the event’s message goes beyond thrift and encompasses repurposing and recycling. “It’s the whole package,” she says.

To that end, this year, the showcase includes the Special Artists’ Projects, which brings area artists together to create one-of-a-kind works incorporating thrift store finds. Hendersonville artist Mona Groban of Mona! “upcycled” a 1980s brass chandelier for the showcase, transforming it with her signature bright colors. The concept of re-envisioning thrift store items is nothing new to Groban, who frequently “recreates” purchased items as part of her retail business MONA! Artwear. Mona’s business neighbor Kathy Skomsky of Tessara Mosaics will also contribute a piece, as will nationally known quilt artist Georgia Bonesteel and several other area artists. The artists’ projects will be available at auction, both at the Showcase and online, extending the reach of the event beyond those who actually tour the home.

Early buzz about this year’s showcase has centered around a baby grand piano from the Habitat Store, a unique side table with a Victorian-style birdcage as a base from Hospice, an arts and crafts hall tree from the Council on Aging store, and a roll-top desk from Housing Assistance. Prices for items are fixed and reflect the amount you’d expect to pay in a thrift store. Everything is sold on a first-come, first-served basis, although larger items that sell on the first day will remain, to be picked up after the event ends. Smaller items such as books will be continually replenished.

Maybe it’s the economic downturn or maybe it’s Thompson’s powerful marketing skills, but somehow she’s hit upon an idea that really strikes a chord. The chance to find a “treasure” and get a bargain has a powerful draw, both for yard sale enthusiasts and those tired of paying retail.

But Thompson sees the effect of the showcase going even further. The week after last year’s showcase, staff at area thrift stores reported customers coming in looking to recreate some of the decorating ideas they’d seen at the showcase in their own ways. Thanks to the Habitat award and the interview on NPR, she’s received requests from groups all over the country for information on how to start their own local showcases. Far from their frumpy reputation, thrift stores finds have taken on a new kind of cachet as the smart source for housewares and furniture that you can’t find anywhere else. It sounds like Thompson has proven her point.

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