LONG BEACH — There's a downtown thrift store offering a pair of Tony Lama cowboy boots for sale, almost new, for $12.50. Anywhere else, the stylish boots would probably cost up to $300.
Recently, a customer paid $2 for a Gucci sweater that, when new, would have commanded several hundred dollars in almost any boutique on Rodeo Drive.
A hip-looking purple bomber jacket in mint condition can be taken home for just $10, a fraction of its price at a regular store.
"We get some pretty fashionable stuff in here," said Norm Halbert, a volunteer at the Project Ahead Thrift Store on Long Beach Boulevard.
One reason, he said, is that many former owners of the clothes were gay men who had relatively high expendable incomes and tended to buy nice things and take good care of them. And a lot of them died from acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"We're learning that we don't have to dwell on the sadness of the situation," said Danny Johnson, manager of the store that raises money for Project Ahead, the city's major provider of social services for AIDS patients. "Instead we want to create something positive."
The plan for the store was developed last year when officials of One in Long Beach Inc., the AIDS project's parent organiza tion, encountered increasing difficulties raising the money to care for the city's burgeoning population of AIDS patients. Since 1982, according to health department statistics, 825 cases have been reported in the city. Of that total, 288 patients are still alive.
Officials decided a regular funding source was needed to operate a program to provide destitute AIDS patients with such vital items as toilet paper, toothpaste, soap and shampoo.
Early in 1989, the organization, which spends about $250,000 a year on Project Ahead, had created the city's first annual AIDS Walk, which has since become the project's major source of income. By opening a thrift store, agency officials figured, they could help bolster that income and expand the program.
Scouring the city in a donated van, store volunteers collected men's and women's clothes, furniture, knickknacks, shoes, toys, books, cookery, lamps, a 1959 Vespa motorcycle--anything that seemed remotely salable.
While donations from any source are accepted, Johnson said, many have come from the estates of dead AIDS patients--which occasionally puts off would-be customers.
Yet today, eight months after opening, the store nets $2,500 to $3,500 a month, which makes it the project's second-largest moneymaker next to the AIDS Walk and helps to provide services for hundreds of local people with AIDS and AIDS-related complex.
In addition to personal necessities, the money helps pay for counseling, support groups, referrals, hospital visits, direct financial aid and transportation to and from doctors' appointments. Various donated hospital items include crutches, wheelchairs, beds and commodes, all given to destitute AIDS patients.
Working at the shop can be an emotional experience, according to volunteers, some of whom have AIDS themselves.
"It bothered me at first," said a woman who began volunteering last year after her 27-year-old son died of AIDS. "Every time I opened a box, I thought, 'Here's someone else who isn't here anymore.' Now it's easier. Coming down here gives me a good feeling."
Volunteer Halbert said: "I see a lot of love in each garment. It's good to be around that. I'm getting a real emotional high."
The project seems to have captured the hearts and imaginations of many donors, as well.
Richard J. Black, an unemployed Long Beach teacher, recently donated a couch because, he said, several friends have died of AIDS and he wanted to help other patients.
Richard Tenney, a Federal Express courier who has tested positive for the AIDS virus but has no symptoms, said he frequently gives clothes and other household items, in part because he foresees a day when he might require some of the services the agency provides.
And a frequent contributor who has AIDS said he supports the store because it helps fill a major gap in the local support system for people with the disease.
"I've run across a lot of people living with AIDS who really have nothing," said the contributor, who asked to remain anonymous. "Maybe they're living with a friend and all they've got is a bed in the corner. Things are tough; these little quarters and dimes make a big difference."
Many customers do not speak English and live downtown. Most go about the business of selecting items for purchase seemingly unaware of the store's mission. Except for a bulletin board containing brochures about AIDS, the cluttered, 1,000-square-foot building--dominated by the dank smell of the items for sale--looks like any other thrift store.
When asked about the store's mission and its main source of goods, most shoppers express support for the project.
"AIDS doesn't come from clothes," said Norma Fortune, a regular customer who has bought dozens of used books from the store. "And I don't think I've gotten it from a book yet."