Holiday shopping and much more at Grey Bears

by Betsy Herbert
Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/19/2014

If you need to do some last-minute holiday shopping and you like to shop green, you should visit Grey Bears on Chanticleer Avenue in Santa Cruz. Until my visit earlier this week I didn’t realize what great bargains and good cheer can be found here at the nonprofit operation.

What’s remarkable is that all the proceeds from goods donated to Grey Bears support its Brown Bag Program, which delivers 4,500 bags of healthy groceries to seniors every week. “The heart of what we do is really the connection part,” said Tim Brattan, Grey Bears executive director. “Every time we deliver a bag to someone, no matter where they live, a connection is made and the stories that come back to us are really powerful. Sometimes the seniors we deliver to don’t have support systems, and we can help provide that.”

So, with some guiltfree shopping in mind, I set out to explore the several small stores operated by Grey Bears. The thrift store was humming even during last Monday morning’s downpour. If you need holiday decorations or party glassware, you’ll find a huge selection here.

Next, I wandered over to the furniture store. Some 500 volunteers work at Grey Bears, including cashier Jerry Devine. He told me the big sellers in his department are lamps (which are all tested before they go on sale) and artwork, which lots of folks buy just for the frames.

At the computer store I found Chris Fields, a staffer who manages Grey Bears’ computer repair and sales. Chris started out as a volunteer, refurbishing old computers. He first came to Grey Bears after being ordered by the court to do community service for a traffic violation.

“Grey Bears is a house for second chances,” Fields said.

Shoppers can find some great deals in the Grey Bears computer store.

“When a computer is refurbished, the engineers rebuild and replace parts, add memory, wipe the drives clean, sanitize and re-install a new operating system,” said Brattan, adding that Grey Bears is a licensed refurbisher for both Mac and PC.

Volunteer Roland Law, a sculptor, dismantles old computers. He said his favorite part of the job is entertaining curious gradeschoolers, who occasionally tour the Grey Bears facility with their teachers. He enjoys showing them what’s inside of a computer and how the parts work.

Volunteers Cal Olson and Greg Brackett are both former Lockheed engineers who rebuild computers for Grey Bears. They are the resident “laptop gurus,” according to Brattan.

Finally, I visited the bookstore, with its thousands of titles, plus DVDs, CDs, VHS movies and vinyl. Volunteer salesman Jon Backstrom takes pride in the neatly organized stacks of books for sale, most for 50 cents apiece. A surprising number of books are thrown away at the landfill, and volunteers like Sara Rajan retrieve and sort them. If they find especially valuable books, they sell them through Amazon.

According to Backstrom, Grey Bears used to sell old books as recycled paper at 2 cents per pound. But now, he said, there is a better market for used books, and “reuse is so much better than recycling.” Since the inventory is constantly moving, the bookstore has many return shoppers.

While Grey Bears is partially funded by donations from individuals, government and foundations, its life blood are its members, according to Brattan. For $30 a year anybody who believes in the mission can join. Members who are 55plus may have a bag of food delivered once a week. For more information, check out