Getting by with a humble heart

Michael Modrow Jr. operates the Humble Heart Thrift Store on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Fairmount Avenue.

Michael Modrow Jr. operates the Humble Heart Thrift Store on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Fairmount Avenue.

Humble Heart Thrift Store in City Heights just celebrated its 5th birthday. Owner Michael Modrow Jr. sat down with Avital Aboody, economic development program manager at City Heights CDC, to share his small-business story.

Five years ago, Michael Modrow Jr., was laid off from his job as a manager at Midas, where he had worked for seven years. To get by, he started doing yard sales at his home, selling off a handful of personal things that he had collected over time. Modrow is an active member of his church, and it gave Modrow permission to sell a variety of donated items it had received that weren’t a good fit for the church to distribute to the homeless, such as old furniture. In return, he would give the church a small percentage of the proceeds. Modrow could see the potential for this business to grow, so he pulled together about $3,000 from tax returns and rented a space in the East Village.

Modrow and his father, Michael Modrow Sr., set to work building up their new family business, which donates much of its merchandise to the homeless. In fact, at Humble Heart, if a homeless person walks in and asks, humbly, for a shirt or a pair of pants, Modrow Jr. simply says, “Take what you need.”

Soon, Modrow began allowing homeless people to volunteer at Humble Heart, providing them with vital work experience to build their résumé and eventually get stable, paying jobs. He is now renting part of his store to the Stand Up for Kids Ministry, which runs a vibrant center for homeless youths, providing a place where they can shower, use computers, hang out and create art.

Everything at the Humble Heart Thrift Store is donated. And there is a lot stuff. Despite the abundant donations, the store doesn’t make a profit. Each month, they make just enough to pay the bills and maintain operations. Modrow said it keeps them humble. But ultimately, it’s all about sacrifice. Although he hardly gets used goods from the church anymore, Modrow continues to donate a percentage of proceeds to the First Presbyterian Ladle Fellowship.

Almost four years ago, Modrow and his father decided to open a second location to help increase their sales. They found a City Heights location, near the intersection of El Cajon Boulevard and Fairmount Avenue, and felt it was too good to pass up. The location allowed Modrow to dream bigger, to think about how the thrift store could grow. He imagines the back parking lot as an event space where he could have a café, and host auctions, fundraisers, and other community events. But staffing continues to be a challenge. Currently, all staff members at both locations are volunteers.

Modrow’s dreams, though, are now moving closer to reality. In May, the City Heights Community Development Corp. and the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association worked closely with him to organize a recent “Take Back the Alley” event in City Heights. Modrow granted the community permission to paint murals in the alley alongside Humble Heart, to repaint his sign, and host a temporary parklet, with live bands and seating, in front of the shop. The store’s staff even set up a barbecue in the alley and sold hot dogs on the day of the event. Modrow was thrilled about the community mural and hopes to carry this theme over to his outdoor space, the future site of the Humble Heart Coffee Shop.

Modrow has learned a lot in five years and he is happy and excited for the next chapter of this adventure.