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Nowhere to FISH

Goodbyes are never easy. That's especially so when you've given much time and energy for a charitable cause.

That's how it feels for Vera Wheeler. She's volunteered at FISH, 210 Lewis St. (corner of Lewis and Maple streets), for nearly 25 years. She also serves on the board of directors.

FISH thrift store closes next month. It's unlikely to reopen.

The store's located on the Ingram Center's third floor. The building's scheduled for demolition so a new City Hall can go up.

Ingram Center tenants, including FISH, got letters from the city this spring saying leases end in June.

"We knew this was coming, but I still woke during the night about two days after getting that letter and it felt like a kick in the stomach," Wheeler said. "It just hit me all of a sudden. I've worked at FISH so long and enjoyed it, especially the people, but now it's over."

FISH may be off the Main Street beaten path, has minimal hours (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday), but customers know where it is and when it opens.

They should. Where else can you pick up three kid's clothing items for a quarter? A pair of jeans for 50 cents? A winter coat for $3 or maybe, at the most, $5?

How about shoes for 25 cents or a dress for $3?

Donated, sorted and inspected, the merchandise is laid out neat and clean, and priced cheap to sell.

At FISH you can also find great buys on miscellaneous household goods, from toasters and dishes to bedding and towels.

For those who can't afford a few bucks, Wheeler said stuff's given away.

FISH, she said, always caters to the needy -- that could mean women and children sent from Turningpoint domestic abuse shelter; men from the Kinnic Falls Halfway House; and transients who come with vouchers from the River Falls Ministerium.

Some 40 volunteers keep FISH humming. Most are elderly, retired women.

"I don't think the men could stand us," Wheeler chuckled. "We're all like a family when we're here. We look after each other, even console one another. It's better to come have coffee together here in our break room than drinking down at the corner bar."

Wheeler said working at FISH is satisfying in several ways: "I like being able to help others who may not be as well off as myself. The work also keeps my mind busy, and I enjoy the companionship of the other women.

"There's a warm, cozy feeling working at FISH. It goes beyond what's sold. We're not hard-nosed sales people."

Polly Wymer, 86, has been a FISH volunteer for 18 years. She often arrives early. The store's closing is frustrating.

"I can't help people who come here anymore and that hurts," Wymer said. "And besides, now I'll have to go look for another job."

Wymer and other volunteers recall helping a young, desperate man who stopped by recently.

"He was living out of his car and had come from the food pantry," Wymer said. "He was clean, neat and polite but needed a change of clothing and shoes. When he left he threw out his old pair of shoes in our dumpster in the parking lot. It makes me sick to think I won't be able to help someone like that."

Chiyoko Penman, 73, has been a FISH regular since moving to River Falls 15 years ago.

"Where can you find $1 shirts except at FISH? That's the best price," she said. "I buy anything here -- shoes, jackets, sheets, bedspreads -- especially kids clothes for my grandchildren.

"I stay a long time. When I leave they let me use a phone to call for a taxi to pick me up. It's so sad FISH is closing. It makes me feel like crying."

Lori Fuller of River Falls is a music teacher in the Ellsworth School District and a mother of two. Years ago as a stay-at-home mom with younger kids, she came to FISH to buy them clothes. In more recent times she's become a FISH volunteer.

"I love to go to garage sales, and at FISH they have better prices," Fuller said about her discovery of FISH. "Their discretion is wonderful, the way they sort through what's brought in -- whether it's clothing, household things, board games, puzzles, books, movies -- to see if it's in good enough condition to sell."

Fuller said FISH, for some people, is a safety net. It could be for a family who's lost all belongings to a house fire.

"One never knows when that need will come," she said.

Fuller said FISH has donated clothing to the elementary school where she teaches. The piles for boys and girls come in three sizes -- little, middle and big -- and are used by students who may dirty or tear their regular clothes and need to change.

FISH, she said, has also donated white-and-black concert uniforms to Meyer Middle School for students there who can't afford to buy their own.

"It's a tremendous loss to the community," Fuller said about FISH's closing. "I'm one of the younger ones, but for me it's also been a fabulous place to volunteer because of the camaraderie."

While saddened by the city's decision to turn out FISH and raze the Ingram Center, Wheeler said it's the city's generosity that made FISH and its great bargains possible.

"We owe an awful lot to the city," she said. "I won't say anything disparaging about what they're doing. We knew with this talk of a new City Hall that this was coming. Everything has to end sometime. "

City Finance Director Julie Bergstrom said FISH, which takes up about a fourth of the Ingram Center space, was subsidized by the city for about $8,000 last year.

That subsidy comes in the various forms: Covering FISH's electricity, heat, water and sewer bills, plus maintenance, janitorial, garbage and building insurance costs.

And there's also the rent. While the original building is 70 years old, FISH pays just $77 a month to the city for the 3,200-square feet of space it uses.

That's why Wheeler says FISH can never replicate itself elsewhere. The deal with the city at the Ingram Center is too sweet.

"If we tried to find a place downtown somewhere, the overhead would by way too great," she said. "Then there would be remodeling costs at a new site, and making it handicapped accessible.

"To pay for that, we'd have to raise our prices, and we don't want to be in a position where we compete with Treasures From the Heart and other Main Street businesses.

FISH Volunteer Services began in 1969 as an ecumenical effort among local churches.

In 1983 it moved from the Congregational Church to a large room at the Ingram Center. By 1985 FISH had the whole third floor.

FISH's last day of business is Thursday, June 5. Before the doors close for good, the deals get even better:

  • The last two weeks FISH is open, Tuesday through Thursday, May 27-29, and June 3-5, every item left will be marked for a quarter. During those two sale weeks, the store won't be open Mondays.

    FISH Manager Judy Frey said the store's absence leaves a hole in River Falls.

    "A lot of people will be lost without us," she said. "There are bonds with our customers. It's not just about what we sell, we're here to listen to problems, talk and offer friendship and support. We give lots of hugs.

    "We've done a lot of good work at FISH, and the city is the reason we've been able to accomplish that. Our shoppers seem to appreciate us and all we've done. I'm just thankful for the many good years."

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