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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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The mannequins of St. Vincent de Paul
Strappy tops, white pants
In the thoughtfulness of all its collections, not just the women's clothes, the Willie Street St. Vinnie's is a rarity among thrift stores.
Credit:Kenneth Burns

When you think of thrift stores, you sometimes think of chaos. The clothes, toys and appliances sold by the second-hand shops are from various eras and manufacturers -- and, often, in various states of wear.

But the windows facing the sidewalks at the east-side St. Vincent de Paul thrift store (1309 Williamson St.) are vibrant and orderly. The Baldwin Street windows, especially, are a pleasant tableau, thanks to the long row of nine headless mannequins that, week after week, display matched ensembles of clothes, all in a theme.

This week the theme is pink tops and white pants. Last week it was pretty pastel-colored sundresses. Sometime before that, animal prints. As it happens, the mannequins often are wearing -- appropriately enough -- what stylish young Madison women wear, though past configurations also have featured Packer and Badger jerseys, and crisp men's shirts for Father's Day.

The window dressings are always quietly lovely and cheering. But who goes to the trouble to create these arrangements?

It is Diane Smith-Melloy, the bespectacled store manager. "I noticed we had a lot of strappy, flowery tops," she said last Friday of the current arrangement. That is the essence of her method: If a pattern emerges as she scans the racks of new arrivals, then it becomes the next theme. Her guiding inspiration, she said, is the New York Times' On The Street column, for which the fashion maven Bill Cunningham photographs similarly dressed Gothamites.

On Friday she and two employees, Todd Smith and Erin Skopfofski, were finishing putting the pink tops on the mannequins. They hung from a clothes rack on the floor of the shop, which has been open since the 1940s.

"We have these great traditional windows," said Smith-Melloy, gesturing proudly at the expanse of glass facing Baldwin Street. "New stores don't dedicate their windows this way, not even in the malls." Before coming to St. Vinnie's, she worked at Neiman-Marcus and Saks department stores in various cities.

Even as the trio put the ensembles together, passing shoppers scrutinized the pink tops and examined the price tags. That was a good sign, since the purpose of putting the clothes on the mannequins is to sell them.

In the thoughtfulness of all its collections, not just the women's clothes, the Willie Street St. Vinnie's is a rarity among thrift stores. The retro-clothing racks are reliably good for funky finds, and the astonishingly well-stocked and well-organized book department would give any dusty used bookstore a run for its money.

And thanks to Smith-Melloy and her employees, the mannequins in the windows are a tasteful, often playful beacon to bargain-hunters.

As she walked me out, Smith-Melloy gestured to a row of bikini-clad mannequins at the back of the store. The mannequins were, she said, a welcome donation. "They're so expensive!" she said. "Very exciting."

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