It sounds like landing at Out of the Closet was his destiny when I hear Steven L. Davis explain why he has the gig he does, being group store manager for the legendary sidewalk-facing fundraising arm of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) for the past 23 years.
He’s a retailer. It’s in his DNA.
Davis, 64, was with now-defunct KB Toys, a for-profit company, before he began to sell previously owned items to raise funds for those in need. “My family has always known that this is what I would want to do,” Davis said.
“I love to buy and sell,” he added. “I was one of those kids who could go to school with a nickel and come back with a dime.
That’s a good return. “Yeah, I know how to do it,” he said. Then, dead serious and confident, almost spooky, he added: “People are very easily separated from their money.”
Don’t Forget the L
Upon asking him to spell his name so I get it right, he made a point of including his middle initial. “I use the L, actually,” said Davis. “It’s a very common name [and] the L helps.”
Today Davis manages two stores, the one in West Hollywood and one in Atwater Village, though at one point he managed five. (Currently, there are 22 locations Out of the Closets throughout the U.S..)
A Midwesterner born in Xenia, Ohio, West Hollywood is close to Davis’ heart. He has lived on North Hayworth Avenue for 34 years, and he met Robert, his current partner (of 20 years), while on the job at the Out of the Closet that used to be in the Fairfax District, a block north of CBS Television City. “He shopped too long,” Davis said. “Gave me an opportunity to talk to him.”
Davis laughed when I asked what his key duties are. “Keeping it open,” he said, “Your basics: You open it. You close it. You staff it. You make sure there’s product in it.”
About 75 cents of every dollar he makes comes from the sale of clothing, and perhaps up to 300 shoppers traipse through each weekend, especially on Sundays.
Mostly, it seems, he chats. “Just customer stuff. How are you?” Davis said there’s nothing better than talking to people in his stores, and “now I have people’s children” coming in. The parents “remember coming in [and] they remember me.”
Marco Colantonio, a friend and fellow West Hollywood resident, has his own way of putting it. “When Steven Davis is at WeHo’s Out of the Closet, it’s akin to Harvey Milk at his camera store.”
There have been changes to the location over the years. “When I first started, it was one piece of the furniture side,” he said. “Everything was crowded together, and it was just kind of whatever we could actually get onto the floor.”
But after spaces on either side of the thrift store became available, as well as some strategic merchandise moves, the much larger emporium of today was created.
Outside of Work
When he’s not at one of his stores, Davis stays busy. He reads and plays bridge, but a true passion appears to be keeping mail carriers in business.
“I like the postal system,” he admitted. “I actually write full letters to friends and family. I’ve been doing that since I was old enough to understand what it was all about.”
Which is? “Oh, I just like to tell people they’re being thought of,” he said. “I have a couple of aunties who are still living in their nineties … I send them an occasional card to remind them [that] somebody’s thinking about them.”
Colantonio confirmed Davis’ retro communication style. “Steven isn’t even on Facebook,” he said. “He’s accessible, returns calls and responds with handwritten notes and holiday cards.” (Davis said that this past Christmas he mailed out about 120 season’s greetings.)
You probably didn’t need to wonder, but, yes, Davis handwrites “everything.” And his plume of preference is a Sharpie. “I like felt tip, flair type…a very fine point.”
Service With the City
Davis has also felt a need to give back. “I’ve been a human services commissioner for the city since November of 1993,” he said, which involves attending a monthly meeting.
“I’m HIV positive,” he admitted. “I had lost my partner…and I wanted to do something to help people.”
“We used a lot of the organization’s service providers while he was ill. So he kinda wanted me to, like, make up for” all that they did for him.
“(Davis’) impact on the community is immeasurable,” said Colantonio. “He represents the best of public service.” Colantonio, who is HIV positive, added: “If not for Steven being there, and his friendship, I might not be here today.”
Why He Stays
Davis is passionate about why he remains at Out of the Closet. “It’s because who it works for,” he said.
The journey he and his late partner went through made him aware of AHF’s work. “I knew the founder [Michael Weinstein] had stood up for us a long time ago.”
So for him, it’s a no brainer. It’s Out of the Closet’s nonprofit mission itself that attracted him.
“I like the idea of going home and knowing that the amount of work that I do went someplace other than somebody who is living in another state and has 12 cars,” he said. “Not that I’m against that, but that’s where my money normally went.”
Grateful Customers but No Haggling
What sort of comments does he hear from customers? “Most of them are grateful that we’re here,” he said. “They like the idea of being able to buy stuff that…will fit something that they need, which I like to sell. I’d rather sell need than want.”
But he doesn’t bargain. So don’t even try. “I was highly insulted the first time because I came from regular retail where we didn’t haggle about anything.”
“If you say this table should be $100 and I have it priced at $150…I’ll go to $175…I go the wrong way.” He said he’s been told that he’s “difficult” in this regard.
His defense? “I know where the money goes…I have to pay employees. I have to make sure other things are done. This is the only table I have in the store right now so I just can’t let it go for amusement.”
All About Stuff
What is the most interesting aspect of his job? “The stuff,” he said as gleeful as a kid on Christmas.
“We get some very interesting things. People part with some very valuable things, as opposed to just junk.” Then he laughed. “People part with some really dumb things,” like underwear. “Some people I’ve come to understand cannot simply throw anything away.”
As for interesting, “A couple of women came in and donated their auntie’s place,” he said. “She had passed away” and left the entire apartment. “The woman had lived there many, many years so had donated everything.”
Wait for it.
“They also donated the uncle. He was in a crema—like a box. His cremated remains were inside.”
“There was no way of going back and telling the two women, ‘You know, your uncle was actually part of the donation’.”
Yet it didn’t stop Davis from selling that uncle’s remains for $900. “It was a beautiful urn,” he said.
Hollywood of Yesteryear
Two of the most valuable items were “a pair of movie cameras that were old-fashioned 1920s…silent movie cameras.” Davis “stuck them in the window, put $10,000 a piece on them.”
He got offered “a dollar” at first as a joke. Then they sat in the window for a month before a “gentleman” came in.
“This was a retired cameraman. He knew what the two machines were…knew what they were worth.”
The result? “$10,000 for the pair.”
So, he does haggle, albeit under very special circumstances.
Davis turned philosophical. “There’s a person for everything. Just like there’s a person for every person.” The store just has “to hold onto it long enough.”
If you ask Davis what’s most important about the thrift store’s work, he’ll hit you with AHF’s impact.
For him, it’s still significant, and not just in the U.S. “We’re in, like, 30-plus countries” he said, including South Africa. “When I first started you could fill the room with our employees. And now there are 5,300 of us,” including AHF overall.
And while many Americans, if they obtain access to protease inhibitors like Truvada or Biktarvy, are not dying from HIV like they once did, Davis said the global AIDS crisis is now often about simple economics.
“Truvada is very expensive,” he said, “so you have to be able to afford that. We still pay for people’s medicines. So that’s important. Because not everyone can afford it.”
Therefore, every item that gets sold, customers are contributing “to the mission.”
What Lies Ahead
Davis believes Out of the Closet is still “needed.” There are fewer stores, but “more people know about Out of the Closet than AHF.” It is the thrift store’s brand that is used “in conjunction” with a clinic, HIV testing and pharmacies. “So I think we’re still viable.”
But it’s more than. “There’s a need for people to second hand,” he said. “There’s a whole class of people who love to second hand. And there’s a whole class of people who love to get rid of it, like, donate it. So I think there’s still a nice match.”