Photo by Leah Olds

Q&A with Danny Johnson, Executive Director of the AIDS Assistance Thrift Store

By Leah Olds

AIDS Assistance Thrift Store is a nonprofit charity that has operated in Long Beach for over 30 years. Daniel “Danny” Johnson, the store’s manager and executive director, moved to the LBC from Huntington Park in 1987 and helped found the organization five years later. Despite grappling with a pandemic shutdown, break-ins, rent hikes and multiple location changes, AIDS Assistance Thrift Store continues to serve customers on a near-daily basis.

On April 27, 2022, I spoke with Johnson about the store’s past, present, and future.

Q: I would love to know a little about you and your experience with AIDS Assistance. How did that come into being?

A: I used to work for the Gay and Lesbian Center here in Long Beach many, many years ago. Many moons ago. And I worked with Project Ahead, which was a case management agency that at one time was servicing almost the whole South Bay. It was before APLA [AIDS Project Los Angeles] was even founded. Anyway, we did case management and I worked with them for a while. And then, in 1991 is when we put the store together. And I was one of the founding members of it. We put it together, we were on Seventh Street, and we did it to form an agency that would help clients directly. So we put in a program, what we call our “voucher” program. As it exists now… there used to be more they used to send to us, but now, it consists of St. Mary Medical Center, the Health Department, [and] APLA, which is now in Long Beach. And they send their clients to us with vouchers, and they get free clothing and free household [items], that sort of thing. So that’s how I got started, and that’s how this place got started.

Q: Do you feel proud of that legacy?

A: Mhmm. Yeah!

Q: What has working with a non-profit been like?

A: Working for a nonprofit is good. Especially if it’s small. I don’t know if I could work for one that’s huge, you know. ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth,’ as they say. But this has been satisfying, and we just stick to what we do. What we do best. So yeah, I enjoy it.

Q: Is there anything that you think people don’t know about the store, that you think they should know?

A: People should know that we founded it with a purpose to help clients directly, and we’ve stuck with that. We just do it, and no other store does it. A lot of times people have the misconception that there people are getting rich off of this sort of thing, and we don’t. We’re making it, you know, paying the bills and that kind of thing. And that’s about as far as it goes. So that’s why we’ve always had people bringing things in, we love the donations. Everything is donated here. And so, we keep going just so we can serve our clients. That’s it, they just need to know that.

Q: Do volunteers usually come in on a daily basis?

A: We don’t schedule volunteers. We get all of our volunteers through the Volunteer Center here in Long Beach – people doing community service [for] traffic tickets and things of that sort.

Q: What role, in your opinion, does the store fulfill within Long Beach, the queer community, and for people living with AIDS?

A: For greater Long Beach, it's a great place to come find stuff and buy stuff. And it's a place to donate. So on that broad scale, when you narrow it down to our clients, the clients have various backgrounds. Whatever pronouns are out there, you know, we serve them all. We don't ask any questions. And I've had people call and say, “Can I come in and shop?” And they're shy, you know, they say, “You won't make fun of me?” And I go, “No, we don't make fun of anybody in here. This is a safe place to shop and we don't have any opinion one way or the other. Be yourself.” I treat everybody the same. We're all the same species.

Q: What does the future hold for this location?

A: We don’t know. Since COVID has hit and stuff like that, it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster ride – up and down, up and down. And we’ve had a few break-ins and stuff, and we keep remedying that with better security. We have a mean junkyard dog that’s here at night.

Q: Really?

A: [Laughs] No, we don’t.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Our main goal here is to be put out of business with a cure.

AIDS Assistance Thrift Store is located on 2782 E Anaheim Street, in Long Beach, California. For information about hours and services, call (562)-987-5353. You can also find the store on social media: @lbaidsassist on Instagram, and AIDS Assistance Thrift Store on Facebook.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.