Secondhand News: As Thrift Stores Close, Can Old Stay New?

June 17, 2015

The storefront of the D.C. Bargain Center has been shuttered for months. Photo courtesy Lauren Flynn Kelly.
LAUREN FLYNN KELLY —

LAUREN FLYNN KELLY —

On a recent trip to the beach, I was disappointed to see that one of my favorite little back road antiques stores was closed. Like a farewell scene on a soap opera, a montage instantly played in my mind of all the things I’d seen there during past visits: Fisher Price toys from my childhood, a poster from the movie The Lost Boys, an incomplete set of vintage cocktail glasses. Rest in peace, Treasures in the Attic.

I had a similar reaction upon learning that Hyattsville’s Sarah’s Treasures closed in December 2014 after a year of business. Sunshine Thrift on Hamilton Street and the D.C. Bargain Center on Route 1 in North Brentwood closed shortly before that. So what happened? Was the competition from larger outlets like Value Village and Village Thrift too much? Was it odd business hours? Too much inventory? Not enough?

All three local shops closed for different reasons — a lack of air conditioning, a rent increase and a personal loss, respectively — but all had something in common: they made you hunt for your treasure. About a year ago at the D.C. Bargain Center, my husband had to climb a ladder and move dusty old furniture around to uncover a beautiful set of vintage dining chairs from a Pennsylvanian estate. All they needed was some reupholstering. We bargained and paid about a quarter of the $795 starting price on eBay.

Such finds made me a repeat visitor. After we found the chairs, I went back again and again hoping to find the store open, but it never was. Recently, I connected with the wife of the owner and learned that her husband, Mr. Cherry, had passed away. Mrs. Cherry explained to me that he’d been in the antiques and moving business for 62 years, with locations at one time in Annapolis and Washington, D.C. She said she “turned the store over” to someone about six months ago, but the inventory is still sitting there and the store remains closed. According to the landlord, the lease is paid but neither he nor Mrs. Cherry have any idea what the current lessee has planned for the space.

Sarah’s Treasures, formerly located at 5307 Baltimore Ave. was “doing great” until the air conditioning broke last summer, according to owner Sarah Petrus.

“It saddens me about my store,” said Petrus. “I do miss it and I miss my customers, but we are having yard sales here and there.” She continues to maintain the business’ Facebook page, which people can follow for sales in the area.

The store had potential with a neatly organized space and a well-traveled location near Yes! Market. Parking was somewhat problematic however, and the merchandise was a mish-mosh of gently used newer items and outdated furniture. That said, Sarah’s Treasures really didn’t get a chance to carve out its niche and attract loyal customers.

So what does it take to keep a small secondhand store going when you’re competing against stores with high turnover, ample parking and a large customer base? Sue Older-Mondeel, who runs the upcycle art project Tanglewood Works out of Community Forklift is a self-proclaimed “dumpster diva.” She says survival is about “creating the story or environment that represents your business” and pricing items appropriately for that story and the location.

The story behind much of the upcycled furniture at the retail space on 4641 Tanglewood Drive, Edmonston, which opened in August 2014, is that it was obtained for next to nothing and lovingly refinished by local artisans. And the environment is fun and vibrant; it helps you look at old furniture in new ways.

Older-Mondeel said it’s imperative for any retail business to “keep things fresh.” She tries to rearrange items and give the store a different look every two weeks, and switches out pieces that aren’t selling.

“People notice things. It’s all new to them if it looks new to them and we try to keep it interesting, so it’s always a new experience,” she said.

The store has just expanded its retail space into a third room and opened a production space in Mt. Rainier. It’s a concept that works, and one that speaks to me. But as someone who rehabs a lot of furniture myself, I’m sad to see that our local options to dig for abandoned treasure has grown smaller.