Palo Alto's Bargain Box to close after 58 years

More a community hangout than store, customers and employees face closure

Bargain Box volunteer Gina Mastrantonio sat at the for-sale round table where customers sometimes gather to relax. Gazing at the vintage china, clocks, ceramics, jewelry, furniture, paintings and used designer clothes, Mastrantonio -- athletic and effervescent -- reflected on the relationships that for decades have been part of the thrift store's culture.

"It's where everybody knows your name," she quipped, reciting the well-known phrase from the 1980s television show "Cheers."

Operated by the Children's Health Council Auxiliary since 1956, Bargain Box's sales of memorabilia and treasures have generated millions of dollars for Palo Alto-based nonprofit Children's Health Council, which offers early-learning interventions for children with attention disorders, emotional challenges, learning differences and autism. On average, the store donates more than $100,000 annually, manager Chrissy Holmes said.

But the friendly social hangout-cum-bargain shoppers' bonanza will close its doors at 341 S. California Ave. on June 25. The store is the latest victim of the changing commercial landscape in Palo Alto's two retail districts, one that -- because of rising real-estate costs -- tends to favor offices and chichi restaurants over mom-and-pop retail establishments.

The building was sold earlier this year, and the new owner, 341 Cal Partners LLC notified tenants in April of its intention to evict them and redevelop the property. Given prohibitive lease costs elsewhere, the 58-year-old Bargain Box must fold rather than relocate, CHC officials said.

The building owner declined a request for an interview for this article.

Customers and volunteers alike say the humble shop has been a nucleus for people of all kinds: professionals looking for a home accent, collectors, hoarders, cross-dressers and bargain hunters.

"It's just one of those great little resources," Menlo Park resident Paul Gurnee said. "It's a landmark. I've been coming here for years."

Customer Charlotte Reissmann, attired in a smart dress suit and 1960s-vintage eyewear, said she comes every Tuesday after dropping someone off at the Caltrain station.

"Where else can you get an Armani suit for $20?" she said, motioning to a neatly arranged rack of clothes.

But Bargain Box fills an important social neighborhood niche as well, she said.

"I need something that will draw me in on a regular basis. It's not so much the value as the sense of community," she said.

People who don't quite fit into Palo Alto's mainstream have felt welcome here; it provides a place where they can go and belong, she said. It's that slice of small-town life where one can enter a store and jaw with the clerks, where no one is eyed suspiciously and where staff members worry about people's welfare when they don't stop by every day, customers and staff said.


For many Bargain Box volunteers, the store has been like a second home, a place of friendship and good finds.

In the back room recently, Holmes and volunteers sorted through the items donors had brought through the rear door. The staff members mend and repair, evaluate and appraise.

"I like things in good shape. I steam; I iron; I mend. Whatever it takes to keep things in style and nice, or vintage and nice," Holmes said.

There are iron baker's racks with legs that twirl up like handlebar mustaches; antique cut glass, paintings, furniture, crystal and jewelry. The store has good connections, often receiving whatever hasn't sold after estate sales, Holmes said.

Part of the fun has been that one never knows what surprise they'll find when opening that latest box or bag, Holmes said -- from kitschy cookie jars and angel fountains to paintings and high-end furnishings.

One time, a donated statue by an important artist once fetched many thousands of dollars after being sold by Bonhams & Butterfields Auctioneers, Holmes said.

"It was a woman holding up a star. It was signed and it was pristine -- it was wonderful," she recalled.

Equally surprising was a plastic bag containing a sheepskin rug.

"There was a petrified mouse in it -- it was pretty disgusting," she said.

Just then Mastrantonio burst in carrying a bird house she had found in the showroom -- a mosaic of colorful broken ceramics.

"Oh, Gina -- what are you going to do with that? You thought about it all weekend and you decided you weren't going to get it," Holmes said in a voice that indicated that staff members get as hooked as customers on the quirky, cool merchandise.

Mastrantonio was undaunted.

"But isn't it great? It's from Denmark and somebody made it. Look at the little Dutch shoe," she said, pointing to the Delft blue ceramic keepsake embedded on the birdhouse roof.

Volunteer Marcia Coy looked on appreciatively.

"Everybody has something they like. I like cut glass. I usually make myself wait a week so I don't cherry-pick," she said.

Coy has become an adept appraiser after years of volunteering, but that wasn't always the case.

"When I first started, I was afraid to put a price on anything," she said.

Each volunteer has brought specific talents: window dressing, appraising, customer service -- and a little therapy on the side -- including for some of the customers, staff said.

"She's the nurturer," one of the women said of Coy, giving her a hug.

Frenchie Perry sat at a long table examining the costume jewelry, her silvery hair piled high atop her head. A retired elementary school teacher, she valued items at Bargain Box for 15 years.

"I do a lot of the jewelry by looking at catalogs for the costume stuff. We take real gold to a jeweler and ask for guidance, and we look on the Internet," she said.

Perry will miss the camaraderie and the decades-deep friendships the volunteers have made, she said.

In the showroom, Mastrantonio reflected on the customers she has known over her 30 years at the shop. There was Ernie, a 91-year-old gentleman who came there with his wife, and there was the woman who visits daily in her wheelchair.

"We see her every day, and if she doesn't show up, we worry," she said.

On Fridays -- payday -- Bargain Box gets crowded with treasure hunters and socializers.

"We could've had a tea room in here. Everyone would come in and sit around the tables and chairs that were for sale," Mastrantonio said.

Customer Loie Johnson, a fan of Bargain Box's stuffed animals, said it's the shop's customers who live near California Avenue who have helped make it a lively and warm place, she said.

Now, residents of that neighborhood want to give something back.

Sondra Murphy, who lives in Evergreen Park, is throwing a party at Bargain Box to commemorate its special place in the neighborhood, she said. The event takes place June 24 at 5 p.m. Admission is $5 to $500 -- donations that will go to the Children's Health Council -- and there will be an auction and music, she said. Attendees are asked to bring finger food to share and RSVP to

"The Bargain Box has always been inclusive of everyone," Murphy said of her desire to honor the volunteers.

When the Woman's Club of Palo Alto and the Pacific Art League held their Painted Chairs fundraiser on March 28 and 29, Murphy got all of the vintage 1930s folding chairs at Bargain Box, she said. Members painted the chairs in bright colors and fanciful designs for the auction.


When the doors close, volunteers said, they don't know what they'll do to fill the void. Some admitted they feel abandoned.

"I find it flabbergasting that CHC couldn't knock down a few doors to get us into a new building. I am even more flabbergasted that CHC is disregarding this kind of fundraising," said customer and volunteer Mark Merritt.

A federally licensed helicopter mechanic, he came to Bargain Box looking for shoes and clothing two years ago and found a welcoming environment among the mostly older women who have become close friends.

"Nobody judged me. I first volunteered for this place when I found out that this was for kids with learning disabilities -- the same disabilities I had as a child," said Merritt, who has attention deficit hyperactive disorder and dyslexia.

But Rosalie Whitlock, CHC executive director, said the organization hired brokers to find a new space.

The closest potential locations were in Redwood City and Milpitas, she said. Bargain Box is currently paying $2.21 per square foot or $5,746 per month to rent 2,600 square feet.

In the California Avenue business district, leases on average go for $3.50 to $4.50 per square foot, depending on the location, said Thomas Fehrenbach, City of Palo Alto economic development manager. That rate is "triple net" per month, meaning costs for things such as taxes, utilities, parking, garbage and maintenance district fees, are charged extra by the landlord, he said. That can add on average a dollar per square foot to the cost, he said. Although less pricey than University Avenue -- those leases run $5 to $6 per square foot, triple net, and landlords demand more for premier locations -- the California Avenue retail district also has few available properties, Fehrenbach said.

Whitlock said CHC looked for spaces in the immediate area, locations with sufficient walk-by traffic. But they couldn't find a space both affordable and large enough.

"We faced disappointment after disappointment. It was very, very painful. The Bargain Box has always been our presence in this community," she said.

Charlene Chanteloup, chairwoman and board director of the Children's Health Council Auxiliary, said she hopes Bargain Box volunteers will help with one of the other fundraising projects the auxiliary is developing.

"It's my hope that those wonderful ladies will want to pick up where they left off and take up with some of these other fundraisers," she said.

She cited the Birthday Club, an ongoing fundraising project that enrolls loved ones in a club to receive a special birthday or anniversary greeting for a small donation, and RocktoberFest, a food, wine, beer and music event, she said.

In the last year, two other projects have begun that the auxiliary hopes will soften the loss of Bargain Box revenue: a designer-clothes gallery of wearable and home-accent items made from designer fabrics, which are sold at Allied Arts in Menlo Park, and the Esther B. Clark Garden and Courtyard, a space that will open in front of the Children's Health Council. Donors can purchase engraved bricks that will decorate the pathway, she said.

CHC hopes to garner additional funding through major donors. Some of the deficit will be made up in grants and foundation support, Whitlock said. The organization is trying to find ways to help the auxiliary remain engaged with CHC.

"They have enormous brain power and passion and ability," she said.

But the auxiliary has seen its numbers diminish.

"Years ago, they were humongous," Chanteloup said. Now, 125 to 150 people comprise the group.

The diminishing number, like rising lease costs, are a product of the times and reflect how people use their time, Whitlock said.

"They can't re-populate (the group). Their daughters are working full time," she said.

So the organization is strategizing. Perhaps there will be a raffle and auction that will involve the auxiliary, she said.

And there still could be another kind of store.

"We hope to have a group of volunteers to consider a different kind of store that matches with the vision and mission of CHC. One thing that people thought about is a store connected more to kids. We are targeting a different demographic -- people with kids in school," she said.

There are a few retail stores for children in San Jose and San Carlos that sell children's athletic equipment, for example, she said.

But Bargain Box as a symbol of the community won't be replaceable, she conceded.

"The saddest thing is that the Bargain Box is this incredible institution. But then there's the realization that change happens, and some changes we can impact, and others we can't," she said.

Related stories:

Bargain Box outlasted other Palo Alto thrift stores

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Like this comment
Posted by Jo
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 20, 2014 at 9:51 am

Sad to see this place close. Their customers are not the average computer-gazers of Silicon Valley, but everything in this article is true about the affectionate old ladies who have run the place always, with a sense of community. I first discovered Bargain Box when I arrived as a student at Stanford from half way around the world over 25 years ago. The meager student budget meant that anything I could not get at the Woolworths (at Stanford shopping center & University Ave -- yes they had bargain stores in these locations back then) I had to get at Bargain Box. I did not even have a car to get to Goodwill, so could only shop where Margurite shuttle would go. Over the years, I have always taken my donations to this store because it got me started when I did not have enough. It is a sad loss, not just of the thrift store, but more of the space for misfits to find welcome. The old ladies greeting me with a smile when I was a foreign student, conversing joyously and really meaning it when they said 'have a good day" to the old ladies who resemble me now and still offer up a healthy dose of warmth that makes me drive there simply to drop off whatever I don't need after my spring cleaning.

Like this comment
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 20, 2014 at 10:57 am

Palo Alto is becoming ugly. Ostentatious, condescending, snobby and alienating.

Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Jun 20, 2014 at 11:48 am

Sparty is a registered user.

Times change. The Rite Aid that used to be there on CA Ave was a lot more useful. Certainly more useful than the junky chaotic art store that replaced it.

Bargain Box did have some cool magazines in the free pile once in a while. But let's face it, overall a lot of the items were pretty oddball.

"Palo Alto is becoming ugly. Ostentatious, condescending, snobby and alienating. "

Becoming? The old hippy vibe that comes from the houses with 8,000 potted plants on the porch certainly has gone down a bit... but not every change is bad. Not every change is good-- some are a "push." Like the horribly dirty chinese restaurant near CA Av that became fast food "chinese." At least it is clean now...

And another Chinese restaurant right on CA Av--delivery only. I liked it...good chow fun. Good house chow mein. But if you ever went in for a pick up....really really dirty. Years of dust on most everything.

Christian Sci Reading Room...eternally empty...

Know Knew Books... eternally "going out of business"

People screaming all night outside Antonios on weekends ...and every year (yes, EVERY year) when a certain festival would come, their idiot workers THROWING the tent/canopy poles off the trucks on the asphalt til 2 or 3am--easily heard a few blocks away. So at least it was only once a year.

The weird day trading office that was around the corner from Keeble for a while.

The "special" massage parlor-- who remembers that? Palo Alto PD renting an office across the street for THOUSANDS of dollars to spy on who was coming and going... good times. I wish I had known about it, I would have done my own Code 5 just to see who was coming and going...

Some things I missed when they left. Some things I won't miss now that Ive left.

The cheap barber is still there

Like this comment
Posted by Lytton Gateway
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 20, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Bargain Box is the kind of non-profit that should have gotten subsidized GROUND FLOOR RETAIL space at the Lytton Gateway. Instead that will be GROUND FLOOR OFFICE space for the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. While the Chamber is a good organization, it doesn't deserve subsidized retail space rent that was a PUBLIC BENEFIT of building that project.

Like this comment
Posted by FundBuyingNotRenting
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 20, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Rising rent is one of the biggest reasons to try to buy rather than rent. Yes, it takes a down payment (more now than in years past). But at least some of your monthly payments are going into equity. And your rent does not go up. You can only evict yourself (when you cannot make payments). You do run a risk that property values will go down, so you do have to be careful. So perhaps we who bemoan "a group of rich investors buying property and booting out the renters", we should work towards creation of a (partly-charitable) investment group which provides or finds the down-payment for groups or small businesses to purchase their space. It would need a way to recoup its funding (perhaps refinancing as value goes up?). But until there is a way for organizations and small businesses to come up with down payments on property, they will always be at risk.

Like this comment
Posted by TimH
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 20, 2014 at 2:27 pm

@Sparty - Good comments. I DO remember as a kid, the so-called massage place across from Campus(?) barber shop and sometimes their "staff" would visit the barber shop at the same time I was getting a rare "modern cut". California Ave. was still more like Mayfield, then. It's true that Palo Alto is more about the new, shiny and rich; who would have thought that normal people would become "misfits" in their own city? This is a question for city government to answer but they never will (they apparently do not agree). For some reason, this all looks like an old movie that would have suited Peter Sellers, who, in his disgust from the shallow popularity of his town would invent a fake, even more disingenuous city of callow values to lure the bourgeoisie away, ala the Pied Piper. Perchance to dream, right? ;)

Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 20, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

Thank you very much, Sue Dremann, for painting such a lovely picture of these wonderful volunteers and their heartfelt work.

This is terribly sad. The Bargain Box should have been able to stay at that location, or somewhere close by. To see such places disappearing is hard to watch. Not all change is for the good.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 20, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

I share Nora's comments. I've loved the Bargain Box since I was a kid, and will greatly miss it. Thank you for the fun, funky, fruitful memories created for so many!

Like this comment
Posted by Larry
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 20, 2014 at 4:05 pm

As someone with a day job, it seemed to me like the bargain box is always closed when I was in the neighborhood.

I'm sad that people are sad it's going, but I cant relate, because the shop was never meant to cater to those of use who could only visit California Ave after working hours.

By contrast, I can stop by Goodwill on El Camino way, or Empire clothing in Mountain View, and they're open when I can shop.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 20, 2014 at 8:41 pm

That Goodwill was Rick's Swiss Chalet. Things have been going downhill for decades. My teeth, eyes, and other parts will attest to that.

Like this comment
Posted by Sondra Murphy
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 21, 2014 at 9:46 am

Sue wrote a wonderful article. I have one correction thought. The Bargain Box supplied one, not all, of the chairs for the Women's Club and the Pacific Art League's Painted Chair event. Most chairs came from under the stage of the Women's club. Beautiful!




Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 21, 2014 at 10:01 pm

We will have to pass legislation for our city to acquire commercial property and designate its use only for a percentage for non-profits like bargain box, art stores, Drappers Music Stores, used book stores, laundry stores, small theaters, non-chain coffee shops, and donut stores! Otherwise, we lose all the cool services that make for a community instead of a collection of high tech firms and overpriced boutique stores. It's finally come to that.

Like this comment
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 22, 2014 at 1:40 pm

ChrisC is a registered user.

Don't we have enough places targeting kids? Come on. Does anybody know of a similar charitable store that sells the quality of good that Bargain Box did? over the years, I've donated many rather expensive items I wouldn't give to GoodWill to be dropped in their bin with everything else. Unfortunately I've drug my heels on a few items for the Bargain Box that now I don't know what to do with. This is such a loss.

Like this comment
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 22, 2014 at 1:47 pm

ChrisC is a registered user.

Why is Bargain Box depicted as funky? Who said they only found old magazines. And there were open Saturday, so I don't see why working people could never go. This was a place people would donate entire sets of expensive China, vintage jewelry, beautiful furniture, antique crystal. I bought the most beautiful embroidered linen napkins, among other things, there for a song. I'm confused. Are we talking about the same place? I've donated Royal Copenhagen Xmas plates, a whole collection of antique salt and pepper shakers silver items very expensive clothing and shoes, and more. They requested clothing items be clean, unlike other places.

Like this comment
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Jun 22, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Tend to agree with Palo Alto Native that cities should buy commercial property to prevent change or lost of favorite retail shops.

Keep out new restaurants, trends and styles change so no new stores to reflect those changes.

I don't like change myself but I do understand someone younger then me wants new, trendy and exciting up to date. I was young too, desired new, trendy and exciting places.

Like this comment
Posted by Dorothy Black
a resident of another community
on Jun 23, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Working at the Bargain Box was a chance to meet other members of the community, wonderful people. A chance to chat with a neighbor who was looking for one of our bargains. An opportunity to learn how to work cash registers! We finally entered the computerized, digital world. Our manager Chrissy Holmes taught us the art of marking and much about maintaining a sense of humor through some difficult times. What a day of celebration it was when we moved to California Avenue proper from one a block away! I simply loved my volunteer time at BB. Where else could I, as a grandmother, a retired housewife, have found a place to shine in the working world! Thank you, BB and thanks to the Children's Health Council and Dr. Esther Clark. You made my day!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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