As good as new at Penn Closet

The student-run thrift shop on the ground floor of Williams Hall gives clothes and other items a second life, plus offers donators and shoppers a simple way to practice sustainability.

Two people standing bewteen two clothing racks in a crowded thrift shop space. On the back wall, the word "U Lounge" hangs in brightly colored block letters.
Penn Closet, the thrift shop in Williams Hall, is run by eight students, including Marcela Gomez (left) of Guatemala City, who is director of operations, and Emily Yao of Taipei, who is director of marketing. 

If you didn’t know it was there, you might miss it completely. 

Above double doors in the back corner of Penn’s Williams Hall, across from Williams Café, hangs a simple green banner: “Penn Closet,” it reads, beneath the white outlines of a shirt, the world, and a recycle symbol—a hint at what’s inside.

Beyond the doors, the space is packed. Clothing hangs on racks and sits folded on an open shelving unit amidst plush toys and other miscellany. A mound of shoes—running sneakers and boots and high heels, some never worn—crowd the back wall below hanging shoes and a quartet of hats. A dollar rack showcases items newly reduced that week, and another offers free clothes, first come, first served. 

Many pairs of shoes in different styles, on three shelves and spilling onto the floor. A television is above them, and several hanging hats sit to the left. Clothes in the foreground are blurry.
Beyond shoes like those seen here, Penn Closet offers secondhand clothes, hats, and much more. Nothing in the shop is priced at more than $25. 

For anyone who enjoys giving second life to items that would otherwise be tossed, Penn Closet offers the University community a place to donate clothes, thrift shop, and do something beneficial for the planet all at once. The project, supported by Penn Sustainability’s Green Fund and Penn Student Agencies, was founded in March 2018 by senior Damien Koussis and alumna Zoe Weissberg. It’s still completely student-run, with the aim of fostering a reduce-reuse mindset on campus and making the community more aware of the waste associated with consumer culture.    

“Thrift stores have been around for ages, but here at Penn, the idea just didn’t seem to ring many bells for people at first. ‘Why would I go to Penn Closet when I can just order from wherever online?’” explains Marcela Gomez, a sophomore and the current director of operations. “Now that there’s been more noise and awareness about how detrimental the fashion industry can be to the environment and also to people, students and faculty are looking to buy secondhand.” 

Recent sales back that up: The store now brings in the same amount of money in a week that it previously did in a month, says Emily Yao, a junior from Taipei and Penn Closet’s director of marketing. “Even though climate change and sustainability talk has been around for a while, fast fashion and textile sustainability have only become buzzwords this year,” she adds. 

Anyone can donate to Penn Closet, and the shop leaves a box outside 24/7 for those who come after hours or who want to remain anonymous. The eight students who run the business—which includes senior Thomas Calder, sophomores Caitlin Ang and Erika Trevino, and first-years Aalia Rasheed and Adrianna Brusie, in addition to Yao, Gomez, and Koussis—do quality control and price each item that comes in. Everything is $25 or less, with most falling into the $5 to $15 range.  

Nothing is set in stone though, Gomez says. “We’re very responsive to consumer feedback. If someone walks in and is having a conversation with his friends about something being too much money, we’ll discuss it.” The team typically talks pricing and makes changes just once a semester, however, to keep it consistent for shoppers from one visit to the next. 

Penn Closet also hosts pop-ups outside Van Pelt Library and elsewhere on campus several times a semester, offering 15 to 20% discounts. Aside from drumming up business for the store, whose proceeds go mostly toward student-employee salaries and funnel back to Penn Student Agencies, the pop-ups aim to increase campus awareness about Penn Closet and the issues it represents. 

“We’re kind of like a counterculture initiative, at least here at Penn,” says Gomez, who feels a personal connection to sustainability.  

After watching the documentary “The True Cost” about the fashion industry’s impact on the environment and the people involved, she learned all she could about fast fashion, meaning clothes worn just a few times before they’re thrown out. She’s from Guatemala, a country where workers—mostly women—toil in harsh conditions to make such clothing and where the waste often returns. “I’m trying to raise awareness of all of this,” Gomez says. “I also really like the community aspect of it.” 

Yao has a slightly different take. She’s always been interested in the environment, but she’s also passionate about art. “I’m crafty,” she says. “I’ve always loved DIYing my own clothes.” Penn Closet became the perfect intersection of the two. “I thought it was such a cool way to connect my passion and a social-political goal of wanting to be involved. It’s been really great bridging the fine arts and environmental students.” 

A rack of clothes in the foreground says "Dollar Rack: Everything $1!" and "Small" up top. In the background is another clothing rack, blurred out.
At Penn Closet, items on a dollar rack rotate weekly. There’s also a free rack that includes items that don’t meet the team’s quality standards. “A lot of returning customers go straight for the free rack,” says Yao.

They both stress, however, that there’s no requirement to be an environmentalist to donate to or shop at Penn Closet. And Yao says they’re always looking for more of each. 

Even 18 months in, the store is still a work in progress. “As any startup would be, the first year was tough, both in terms of getting the word out because we’re in the back corner of Williams Hall and getting a wide variety of donations,” Yao says. “The first year we didn’t make a profit. This year it’s been really good.”

But even more than the money, the Penn Closet team is proud of the conversation they’ve started around campus and the awareness they’re raising about consumption and waste. “It’s not explicitly in our mission but we want to take responsibility for our community’s waste,” Gomez says. “We want people to choose to donate to Penn Closet to see how easy it can be to give a second or third life to a piece of clothing.” 

Penn Closet is located across from Williams Café in Williams Hall. The store is open Monday through Friday, noon until 5 p.m. The donation bin out front is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.