The stench blew from the door of the storage unit like ammo from a cannon, cutting through the 22-degree Spokane morning into the nostrils of about 30 people gathered for an auction.
Cat urine. A surefire repellent for nearly all of the potential bidders. All, that is, except for Gary Stack. The owner of Walla Walla’s Pickers Paradise stood at the auction site, wrestling with his senses. His nose told him cleanup would be disgusting and require a lot of time, work and sanitation, including the loss of virtually any textiles that may be inside. But his eyes picked up on the heavy-duty boxes, stacked tightly and neatly. They said to him these were the belongings of a “collector.”
A shift to thrift
Throughout the Great Recession period more discount, thrift, resale and consignment shops have opened in the community, mirroring national trends in the retail sector.
He paid $300. Inside those boxes? Well, his instinct was correct. There were loads of horse tack, pink glass, 1940s-era pixies all in green, a set of hand-carved jade horses that appraised for $600. “I made five times what I paid for that unit in two months,” Stack said from the rear doorway of his warehouse at 37 W. Poplar St.
Treasures come from what might seem the unlikeliest of places at the Valley’s resale shops. And there are an ever-growing number of them. Throughout the Great Recession period more discount, thrift, resale and consignment shops have opened in the community, mirroring national trends in the retail sector.
Nestled among the traditional thrift shops that seem to always have been part of Walla Walla’s retail mix — Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul come to mind — have come more discount retailers offering bargain prices on castaway clothes, furniture, shoes, books, electronics, small appliances, toys, tools, home decor and much more.
Ask anyone who operates one what makes each special and you’re likely to get answers as diverse as the inventory.
YeeHaw Aloha, for instance, uses revenue from its Isaacs Avenue thrift sales to support youth programs and faith-based charities. SonBridge Thrift & Gift Store in College Place exists to support the SonBridge programs, from a free clinic to English-as-a-second-language classes.
There are for-profit resale shops that specialize in pre-owned and brand new items and bristle at being categorized with traditional thrift stores, as well as consignment shops, antique stores and rental spaces within bigger shops for individual sales. The owners of Ace Hardware on Wilbur Avenue added a Discount Corner with Amazon return items. Facebook is blowing up with virtual yard sale sites where local people can hock their castaways.
No matter the model or the cause, there is a singular common thread for consumers: bargains.
In 2012 the National Association of Resale Professionals reported an increase in the number of resale stores of 7 percent a year for the previous two years. Last year it reported more than 25,000 resale, consignment and nonprofit resale shops in the country heading up a multi-billion dollar industry. Annual revenues in the U.S. are estimated at $13 billion, according to the organization.
The economy and consumer spending habits are only pieces of that success, said Gordon Comfort, executive director of Goodwill Industries of the Columbia.
“What Goodwill has historically seen is that it’s been a recession-proof model. In good times and in bad times — I think there’s definitely something to the recession piece of it,” Comfort said.
“But there’s also a cultural piece. It’s kind of cool to shop at thrift stores now, and it didn’t used to be.”
Another piece, he said, is that many people recognize the value of repurposing donated goods.
Some of the most sought-after items at the downtown Walla Walla Goodwill store are name-brand clothes — jeans and shoes, in particular.
This is particularly noticeable with moms shopping with their kids for school clothes, he said. Comfort counts them among the five most prominent thrift store shoppers.
The others: Treasure hunters, looking for collectibles; the resellers scouring for items they can post on eBay or in their own yard sales; high-end shoppers on the lookout for designer duds at discount rates; and college kids looking for the weird and wacky.
“All of them are welcome,” Comfort said.
The Goodwill store is, itself, evidence of Walla Walla’s profound discount market. In early 2011, Goodwill announced plans for a roughly $1 million expansion on Alder Street. The floor space was expanded by about 60 percent. But that’s only part of the change.
Inspired by the industrial makeover of the neighboring Charles Smith Wines tasting room, operators brought in the same architect for the job and opened the new retail space in an industrial chic environment with exposed beams, pendant lights and sidewalk-to-near-ceiling frontage windows. Going that route ended up saving money, Comfort said. It also resulted in a one-of-a-kind store.
“I’ve been to numerous Goodwills throughout the country. Honestly, it’s the coolest Goodwill store I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s really spectacular.”
The added retail space allowed operators to showcase more of the local donations, he said. “The reality is that store is self-sustaining because of the great generosity of Walla Wallans. We’ve seen an increase in donations there.”
If you think you could spend hours and hours sifting through the contents of your neighborhood thrift store, you should hear what the operators go through to get it.
During the summertime at the SonBridge Thrift & Gift Store, 1200 S.E. 12th St. in College Place, volunteers and staff can hardly keep up with donations, said Executive Director June Christensen.
“The economy has made people aware of how they can help,” she said. “With the economy the way it is there are more people who thrift-store shop.”
Donations come through a warehouse at the property. They are cleaned, repaired if needed and staged in meticulously arranged sections of the store. A team of volunteers mend and iron clothing for circular rack displays.
The operation has housewares, furniture, children’s items — all painstakingly organized and staged for convenient shopping. Every dollar spent there goes back to the SonBridge mission to provide services for those in need. In early June, the organization held a ribbon-cutting for its latest expansion, a new space for SOS Health Services Clinic and the new SonBridge Dental Clinic.
At Pickers Paradise, Stack has turned reselling into a fine art. The store’s inventory comes from storage unit auctions, estate sales, bulk buys and other such transactions.
Stack, who spent 20 years at an auto wrecking yard before starting the family business, is approaching his store’s second anniversary. It is a big one in the resale sector.
According to the National Association of Resale Professionals, “Many resale shops don’t survive that critical first year because the owners did not do their ‘homework’ and had no idea where to begin or what to expect.”
The lessons in resale are numerous for Stack. He now operates with a long list of guidelines for himself. When he’s sizing up a storage unit — typically landing on the auction block because of default either due to divorce, death or jail — he has to see enough potential to make the cleanup work that’s part of the purchase worth his time.
“If I don’t see enough items in there to double up (the price he’s paying), I quit bidding,” he said.
He’s been doing it long enough to recognize what seem to be staples of every storage unit: a crock pot and a microwave. The latter typically run $15 apiece in his store. But if it will take him longer than an hour to clean one up, it goes to the trash instead.
He has supplies of brand-new furniture closed out from a major retailer that he sells at a fraction of the original asking price. Because the store features so much of that and other new items, Stack is uncomfortable with the perception of his business as a thrift store.
But he’s also overrun with items that might be easily found on the shelves of such businesses: board games, coffee mugs, trading cards, dishes, decor.
As his warehouse has filled, he’s gotten more selective about what he resells. “A lot of plastics are tossed,” he said. “Anything scratched, dinged or dented goes.”
He said he’s happy to supply a regular team of Dumpster divers, who can use the clothing themselves or know someone else who can. Anything made with pressboard typically gets moved to his back alley with a “free” sign on it. Units that have pet items and baby furniture allow him to donate back to some of his favorite charitable organizations. He’s also contributed weight benches, a cargo parachute and jute rope to Jubilee Youth Ranch.
When the organization needed a new leather couch, leaders went to Stack, who traded for three wall mounts. Two small ones have sold. A South African kudu mount will go quickly once it’s out of the warehouse, Stack said.
It’s a dirty job at times. “We find stuff in these units that nobody is ever going to want to deal with,” Stack said. Stained mattresses, smut, piles and piles of clothing. In one unit, he found two crack pipes and syringes. But he’s been approached with as many treasures: Civil War-era swords and bayonets, German oil paintings, man cave accessories. “Nascar’s been very good to me,” he quipped as he sifted through items at the front of the store.
Staging, he said, is essential to the resale shopping experience. But more importantly — and the pillar of success for a growing sector in the market — is the knowledge that everything, from the bear trap to the saw vise and the Coach purses to the antique rings has value.
“As soon as you have somebody that wants something, a second person will want it, too,” he said. “Suddenly it has value.”
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.