A bottle of hand sanitizer dressed in a child's vest, sits next to flyers about Martha's Outfitters. Photo by Fatima Haidari
Martha’s Outfitters, a store providing affordable business attire and children’s clothing to low-income families, reopened May 23 after operating remotely due to the pandemic. Street Sense Media caught up with Laura Grossman to ask her about the store’s reopening.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up in Martha’s Outfitters.

I have had a meandering career in several different fields. Prior to this, I was working in research, and I took a break from that to go back to school. I had all this free time to give back to the community that I live in. [In 2017] I started volunteering for a couple of organizations, one of which was Martha’s Table. I started volunteering more and more and I loved it, for the most part, because of the people. By the time I was finished with school, I realized I was not really looking for a job. I just kept volunteering and to my luck, a position became available. I got the dream job that I did not plan for and did not realize it was my dream job until I started it. That was three years ago in 2019. I have loved it. I love our organization, clothing program and the small piece of pie that I am a part of.

Tell us a little more about Martha’s Outfitters and how it works.

Our classic membership program focuses on the 20020 zip code, the community we primarily serve. Folks who register with us get a membership card, and it has its own barcode and everything. It is loaded in our system with a $40 credit every month. For kids’ clothing, tops and bottoms are $2 each, and for adults, the price is around $5. We have other items that are priced accordingly, so with a $40 credit, an adult can shop a few items for themselves as well as for their kids, nieces and nephews. It is about choice and ownership. We are also very careful about the clothing we put on the floor. We are not going to put anything that we would not wear ourselves. There is not much dignity in giving somebody a dirty shirt.

In the past couple of years that the shop was closed, we turned our shop to a phone and web program. So, while people were not selecting the clothes themselves, we would talk to them on the phone, and they would let us know their size, favorite colors or hated colors. We tried our best to accommodate. In the past, I have run into people who have asked: “I still have my card, can I come by the store?” Or “I have lost my card, what do I do?” There is a sense of ownership and community that comes with something as simple as a membership card.

Our second program, which is the “select program,” is designed for all other D.C. residents with slightly less amount of credit to make sure we can help as many folks as possible without running out of clothing.

Who came up with the idea?
It was the management before me. The former leadership collaborated and figured out what the fair prices would be, because we automatically think of monetary value while shopping. Many years ago, there was an older program where folks could get three pants or three shirts which took away a little bit of choice. They still made sure that people could get a whole menu of items. But what if you did not need any pants, you just needed all shirts? This made our leadership sit together and assign a monetary value to each clothing item which supports our customers in choosing what they want and need.

How was your re-opening on May 23?

It was a great feeling unlocking the door with a few people waiting outside ready to shop, and before COVID, we often had people waiting before 10 a.m. as well. It was great seeing a couple of familiar faces, a couple of kids running around and staff coming in and out. It was a great day. All our hard work, preparation and getting ready; we did well.

We are keeping the web and phone program to make sure we are as accessible as possible. Wondrously, we got inundated with donations during the pandemic, specifically in the first couple of months when everyone was home and perhaps, did nothing except cleaning out their closets. So, we had massive piles of clothes to the roof which we had to organize and sort through, and we have updated our inventory system to best serve the community.

What about the times when donations are not as generous?

I have noticed over the years that there is a cycle with donations. In the fourth quarter of the year, particularly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we do very well with donations because a lot of people are doing clothing drives. It gets quieter in March and April. We are lucky enough to be part of Martha’s Table, a wider organization that enables us to buy clothing items when needed. We also have other partners we work with. Sometimes people donate items that are not appropriate for the shop so we let our partners pick them up and when we need for example a white button-down in women’s clothing, they will help us out. Sometimes when our community members come for shopping, they bring a bag of clothes that their kids have just outgrown. We have some of these wonderful arrangements, but for the most part, we are donation reliant.

Out of curiosity, what is a popular item?

Obviously, when we put new items, they are the first ones to go. We do our best. There is sometimes a box with a clothing item that has never been worn before. This morning, I saw a bunch of adorable party dresses before going out of the door with a grandmother who was super excited. Very frilly, pink, beautiful, brand-new dresses. For adult clothes, women’s shirts and dresses are popular. In this time of the year in D.C. when it can get very hot, dresses are the only thing that are remotely comfortable.

Could you comment on the role with community-based solutions to community problems?

I am very excited to see what happens in the next four and five years because we are very committed to helping folks in the area right around where we are, to stay, thrive and be empowered and have all the tools to make their lives successful, happy, and healthy. If we are not helpful, we should not be here. If we are not listening carefully and understanding what is being communicated.

For example, in Martha’s Outfitters, we had always focused on business and professional items for adult clothing such as dress pants, suits, nice dresses, button-downs and skirts. We did not have jeans, sweatpants or anything more casual. But during the pandemic, no one was wearing suits. You are not going to sit on your couch in a suit, that is just not comfortable. As we reopened now, I do not think we will get rid of jeans since they are also more acceptable nowadays for office attire than 10 years ago. We have to change with the time, and we will keep doing that. I cannot say we will never have sweatpants and comfortable clothes, especially if people start telling us those are the helpful items they want to see in the shop.