Little Shop with a Big Mission

For 65 Years, The Society Boutique Has Supported the Work of MSK.
Entering The Society Boutique, the well-appointed thrift shop operated by The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering, is like walking into an upscale home where you have a standing invitation. People know each other — most of the customers are clearly frequent visitors, greeted warmly by staff as they browse through the shop’s latest offerings and exchange casual chit-chat near the cash register. The space is light, airy and filled with potential “finds,” but the deals to be discovered aren’t the only reason people stop by. 

The Society Thrift Shop Committee in 1951, surrounded by inventory.
The Society Thrift Shop Committee in 1951, surrounded by inventory.

Since its founding in 1951, when it was located at 1410 Third Avenue, The Society Boutique has been a fixture on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Over the decades, it has changed and thrived just like the neighborhood and the city around it. But it has always remained focused on its mission: raising funds in support of Memorial Sloan Kettering by selling donated, new and “gently used” clothing, furniture, glassware, books and more. 

A Storied History 

  • Today’s Boutique grew out of a booth at the Stuyvesant Square Thrift Shop, which was operated by the Social Service Committee from 1933 to 1951. The average net annual income was $5,000In May 1947, a year after The Society of Memorial
  • Sloan Kettering was formed, members of the Social Service Committee, which was founded in 1918 as the first volunteer group at Memorial Hospital, began to lay plans for their own shop. Recognizing that the project was more than they could take on themselves, they proposed a joint venture with The Society. The Social Service Committee became a standing committee of The Society in 1952. 
  • The thrift shop opened on December 14, 1951, under the name Trifles and Treasures, selling small things — clothes, handbags, vases, etc. 
  • In 1960, a second shop that sold only furniture was established at 1418 Third Avenue. When it closed after several years, its inventory was transferred to Trifles and Treasures, which was then transformed from a clothing store into a mini department-thrift store. 
  • Shortly before celebrating its one-year anniversary, Trifles and Treasures turned a tidy profit of $19,000 and staff realized they were almost out of merchandise. Panic ensued. To help maintain a consistent inventory a truck was purchased in 1953 to travel the city, picking up donated merchandise and ensuring a constant supply of new stock. While the shop no longer has its own truck, the Boutique goes regularly to private residences and estate sales with the help of a long-time pick-up service, All About Service, making it easy for people to donate large pieces of furniture as well as smaller items. 
  • The shop was closed for renovations in 1980 at the urging of Shirley King, the Society president at the time. The design and look of the shop was reconsidered and greater emphasis given to a more artful presentation of merchandise. Sales immediately grew. 
  • In 1986, the shop moved to its present location at 1440 Third Avenue. The move was a gamble – with two floors and 4,300 square feet, the space was much larger and came with a significantly higher rent — but it paid off in additional sales and revenue. 
  • By 1988, the shop grossed more than $1 million for the first time. 
  • The shop was renamed The Society Boutique in 2013. 

Affordable Luxury 

Hilary Dick, Chairman of The Society Boutique Committee and a Society Board member since 2006, has seen some spectacular items come through the Boutique’s door, which were then resold at substantially discounted prices. “We’ve seen it all — diamond rings, fur coats, artwork. Our biggest sale last year was a Fernand Léger painting, which was very exciting.” 

Some donations are enhanced by the aura of celebrity. “We were given a quantity of Manolo Blahnik shoes last year that were rumored to come from Madonna, who lives nearby,” says Ms. Dick. “And Paul Shaffer (the former bandleader and sidekick on the David Letterman show) donated some very interesting suits with pianos on the lapels.” 

Over the years, the Boutique has benefited from many extraordinary donations that have provided customers with “the fun of the find” as Ms. Dick calls it. “Regular shopping, whether it’s in a store or online, can be a very ‘vanilla’ experience,” she says. “When you come to the Boutique, there’s no telling what you may discover.” 

Changing with the Times 

More recently, the need to develop new sales strategies due to an increasingly challenging retail environment, combined with the ongoing task of securing the high-quality donations the shop is known for, led the Boutique to try creative approaches to reach new customers. 

The Society has worked to expand the Boutique’s footprint by taking the shop offsite. Melanie Holland, a former chairman of the Boutique Committee, came up with the idea of doing pop-up shops — temporary installations that brought the Boutique’s merchandise to people in new locations or somehow altered the customary experience of shopping in the Boutique. Examples include the Boutique pop-up at the opening of MSK’s facility in West Harrison and the pop-ups that have become staples of Staff Appreciation Week at MSK. Other pop-ups have been located at the Park Avenue Garage Sale and many have been mounted within the Boutique itself, transforming the space into a collection of temporary shops. 

Part of the attraction of the pop-ups was their special inventory, which often included new merchandise donated by prominent designers, including J. McLaughlin, Tory Burch, Madeline Weinrib, Halsbrook and others. The Strand Bookstore even created a special art and rare books pop-up shop at the Boutique, integrating their books into the Boutique’s eclectic mix of home furnishings and fashions. 

Innovative collaborations have also played a part in extending the Boutique’s reach. For two years, the Boutique has partnered with the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), providing students with a new creative challenge as part of their coursework. Students were asked to come up with a concept and build a store onsite at FIT that sold the Boutique’s merchandise. These mini-shops were evaluated by Society Board members who chose a winner. The winner was then invited to create a display in the Boutique’s windows. 

“The FIT initiative was wonderful,” Ms. Dick remembers. “The kids were so talented and this gave them a chance to use their skills in a situation similar to one they might encounter in the real world.” 

Closer to home, The Society has also asked its own members to support the Boutique by holding fashion shows at the shop. Board members have donned vintage dresses and Chanel couture — all donated for sale at the shop — and bravely walked an imaginary catwalk, giving their colleagues a chance to see some of the beautiful outfits available for sale. 

Because the Boutique offers more than just clothes, however, in-store events have also catered to those in the market for furniture. In recent years the shop hosted a “slipper chair event,” a cocktail party with a DJ, starring — what else? — a wide assortment of slipper chairs designed and donated by dozens of top interior designers. The following year, the party featured an array of fabulous lamps scattered around the store and available for close perusal while guests sipped cocktails and socialized. Interior designers, as well as regular customers, frequented these types of events, all searching for that one item that would take their breath away. 

Reflections on a Long Run 

The Boutique has served The Society – and MSK — very well. It has raised millions of dollars in support of MSK’s mission and been a neighborhood extension of the MSK brand. At the same time, it has given customers, including many MSK employees, myriad opportunities to scoop up designer merchandise at a fraction of the retail cost — all in support of the best possible cause. 

“The Boutique has always been a place with a very strong sense of community,” says Ms. Dick. “For 65 years, it has connected people from all over the city — it essentially brought donors and customers together and connected them with MSK. Its spirit will continue in the critical work of MSK that the Boutique has helped make possible.”