With neither warning nor explanation, the Air Force Academy has ordered its spouse club thrift shop to close, leaving its former staff bewildered and demanding answers, a former staff member tells Military Times.
A spokesman for the Academy didn’t provide a specific reason for closing the shop permanently, but stated the installation commander has the authority to do so. The shop will permanently close on March 31.
“After evaluating emerging mission and space requirements and upon review of a request by the Academy Spouses Club to pause operations at their thrift shop, the installation commander exercised his authority to cease thrift shop operations in order to best serve mission needs,” Air Force Academy spokesman Dean J. Miller emailed, explaining the decision by Air Base Wing commander, Col. Christopher J. Leonard.
The abrupt order has sparked hurt and distrust among some military families on base, who relied on the profitable shop to make a little money selling used goods, or picking up gently used items that help make ends meet. The shop donated roughly $20,000 a year in profits to fund scholarships for military family members, according to Patty Landon, wife of an Air Force retiree and the shop’s former assistant manager. Money also went to support charitable causes including a local school and the Air Force Academy’s fire department.
The thrift shop’s parent organization, the Academy Spouses Club, had asked the Academy to pause the shop’s operations, according to a statement from its Executive Board, while they did an overhaul of the policies governing the shop’s operations to comply with changes in Colorado law that apply to private businesses on military bases. Instead, they got the order to close, the executive board emailed Military Times. The board notified the thrift shop of the shutdown on Feb. 23, Air Force spouse Landon said.
The successful non-profit resale and consignment shop has been in operation for more than 50 years, similar to volunteer thrift shops that continue to thrive at other U.S. military bases. “We haven’t heard of this happening anywhere else,” said Kelly Hruska, government relations director of the National Military Family Association.
“The 10th Air Base Wing’s sudden decision to shutter the Academy Spouses Club Thrift Shop is robbing the U.S. Air Force Academy community of a long-standing asset, a place to volunteer, a place to consign items, a place to shop for reasonably priced items in a difficult economic time of high inflation, and a place to donate unwanted household goods,” Landon said. The shop has operated on base in a community center building with a library and other services. It will be hard to find an alternative shop site, as the Academy allowed them to operate with paying rent or utilities, Landon said.
The shop’s customers came from every part of the Academy community, Landon said. They were a mix of cadets, prep school cadet candidates, active duty members, family members, base employees, retirees, and visitors to the Academy.
“We were unique in that we could serve anyone who could get on base, even folks who were visiting the Academy as tourists, or those on a prospective cadet tour,” she said. “Also we were located very near the prep school, so those students were in the shop often.” There were arrangements to bring Academy students’ unwanted items to the shop before they graduated, rather than throwing them in the dumpster.
The imminent closure has sparked a “shocked” reaction in the local community, Landon said. The thrift shop’s Facebook page, which is operated by the spouse club, has been closed for comments about the issue. A petition has been set up on Change.org. As of March 8, there were 154 signatures.
“Most people I’ve talked to have been shocked and saddened” as they found out about the closing, Landon said, especially as base commander Leonard had spoken “very highly of our mission less than a year ago,” when he recognized one of the shop workers as “United States Air Force Academy Volunteer of the Year.”
Another Air Force retiree spouse who contacted Military Times said “people are upset because it was shut down with little notice and no real explanation. We’re hearing different reasons, but nothing makes sense.” She asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the spouse club.
Academy spokesman Miller conceded that there has been “a mixture of comments about the closure.”
The Academy Spouse Club Executive Board expressed “surprise” over the decision to close the shop but struck a conciliatory tone saying it “understands the installation commander’s decision,” and would expand fundraising activities and “try new adventures,” in the board’s response to Military Times’ questions.
The day they received the order to close, the thrift shop’s manager and its remaining three paid staff members resigned and left, along with three of the shop’s volunteers. The shop’s paid employees and its volunteers are retiree spouses, Landon said.
“None of us could imagine helping to close a long-standing community asset for no apparent reason, so our only option was to leave,” Landon said. “We weren’t going to be a part of destroying a community asset.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.