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Bargain Box outlasted other Palo Alto thrift stores

Menlo Park second-hand shops hanging on despite hot real-estate climate

When Bargain Box closes on June 25, Goodwill Industries will be the last nonprofit thrift store in Palo Alto.

Bargain Box, which raises funds for the Children's Health Council, once received so many donated items that staff held occasional $1 brown bag sales. Customers could fill the bags with anything they wanted, and they would dismantle appliances and fight over the merchandise in a free-for-all, volunteer Carol Phy recounted in the organization's 50th anniversary book.

Bargain Box opened in the Midtown Shopping Center in 1956. It moved in 1962 to a barn-like building painted battleship gray at 318 Cambridge Ave. where the $1-per-bag scrambles took place, Phy said. The store moved to its present, more visible but smaller location on California Avenue in 1996.

Other longtime nonprofit thrift stores in Palo Alto disappeared in the 1990s. Peninsula Volunteers' Turnabout Shop opened in 1949 and closed in 1998. Its final Palo Alto location was at 2325 El Camino Real, according to the organization's executive assistant, Cathy Duhring.

Members had felt that operating the store was taking too much time away from other projects, including providing low-income housing. They sold the property and invested it in other programs, she said. A smaller, reincarnated Turnabout Shop now resides in Little House in Menlo Park, she added.

The Market of the Flea, associated with the Community Association for Retarded Inc. (now Abilities United), opened prior to Bargain Box in the 1950s. The two shops were careful not to sell the same merchandise, with Market of the Flea sticking to home furnishings and Bargain Box to apparel, according to the CHC anniversary book. Market of the Flea closed its Emerson Street shop in the early 1990s. Its lease ran out and there was no renewal option, said Abilities United's retiring executive director Lynda Steele.

"I believe they were unable to find anywhere else they could afford," she said.

Menlo Park has three longstanding nonprofit thrift stores on Santa Cruz Avenue: the American Cancer Society's Discovery Shop, Goodwill and the Junior League of Palo Alto-Mid Peninsula's The Shop. So far, those stores have not been affected by rising retail rates, managers of the stores said. But Menlo Park's 2012 downtown/El Camino Real specific plan could become a game changer. Investors, including two potential hotels, are eyeing the city. A proposed 8.43-acre redevelopment of defunct El Camino Real car dealerships by Stanford University and developer John Arrillaga and the seven-acre Greenheart LLC mixed-use development proposal at El Camino Real and Oak Grove Avenue could affect the look, land usage and affordability of the downtown district. A grassroots November ballot initiative will attempt to limit that impact.

Retail lease rates "have definitely gone up. The retail market is pretty hot," said Jim Cogan, City of Menlo Park economic development manager.

Currently, downtown Menlo Park's rates generally run $4.50 to $5 per square foot, triple net, he said.

Managers and corporate spokespersons for the three stores declined to say if their current leases are at below-market rates. But managers said they felt comfortable with their situations and the support they receive from the parent organizations. Goodwill enters into long-term leases in locations where people have an affinity for Goodwill, said Tim Murray, vice president of brand marketing and communications for Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin Counties.

"We hope to stay where we are and continue to improve the store experience over the next couple of years," he said.

The stores are lucrative, managers said. The Shop takes in $200,000 per year on average. The Discovery Shop grossed more than $600,000 last fiscal year -- a 67 percent increase from the year before -- following updates to the store, former manager Joyce Imprescia said.

Assistant Manager Holly Bohin said the store has three special events per year. It recently held a two-day jewelry event featuring 700 pieces of costume, fine and vintage jewelry. Sometimes the events center around designer clothing and accessories, she said.

Having a variety of resale stores on the same street has made Menlo Park a destination for thrift buyers, Imprescia said.

Each store has found its own niche, with the Discovery Shop focusing on furnishings, home accessories, jewelry and clothes, and Goodwill mainly carrying clothing and shoes along with a smattering of other items, including prints, paintings and glassware. The Shop carries a range of items, from clothing to china and jewelry.

The approaches to staffing also vary.

Until 20 years ago, The Shop used to require active Junior League members to volunteer. Now all staff members are paid, manager Robbie Mellows said.

Goodwill, which has been in Menlo Park since 1996, also pays employees and offers job training and job-placement services for people with high barriers to employment, including single mothers and persons in recovery from substance abuse. Last year, 600 people who did not have resumes or work histories got jobs through the San Francisco area chapter, Murray said.

Bohin said the Discovery Shop has two paid staff members, but it is a volunteer organization.

"We need more volunteers. It is hard to find people who are willing to commit the time or who fit the store's needs," she said. Unlike other places, the store does not require volunteers to commit a minimum number of hours, she added.

Like Bargain Box, the stores have become a social venue for regulars and volunteers. And sometimes, they offer a little therapy for both, said Goodwill store manager Johanna Ayala.

At the Discovery Shop, "almost everyone has been affected by cancer," Imprescia said, and that is one reason they come to the shop. People donate to and purchase from the store to support cancer research. Many who work there know someone who has had cancer, or they have survived it themselves, she said.

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