From little shop to big business
Volunteers at Next-to-New continue to bring something fresh to consignment shop 60 years later
"They were tired of baking cakes to raise money," says Barbara Watt, a 52-year volunteer with the Next-to-New consignment store.
"They didn't want a rummage sale," says Susan McKinnon, estates coordinator volunteer for the store. "But they wanted to shop."
Sixty years ago, the women's group at St. David's Episcopal Church started Next-to-New using a cigar box as their cash register in their small store on Lavaca Street downtown. They held teas and garden parties to gather volunteers. They set price lists and printed them in the church's newsletters, and they traveled to people's homes to run estate sales.
Now, the store is on its sixth location, its fourth on Burnet Road, and will celebrate its 60th birthday on Oct. 19 at the store. Martha Shepperd, who is one of the store's longest volunteers, remembers when they decided they had outgrown the second location on Lavaca Street in 1989. "When we decided (to move), people said, 'No one is going to go out to Burnet Road.'"
But they did and they continue to come. While the nature of the store is essentially the same as that first store on Lavaca Street, the size and sophistication of it has grown, as has the number of people on staff and the number of volunteers.
Today the nonprofit gives back between $80,000 and $200,000 a year to local charities. About 40 percent goes toward restoring St. David's Episcopal Church's sanctuary. Another 40 percent goes to outreach grants of $10,000 each to nonprofit groups in Travis County. The rest goes toward the maintenance of the building, including the mortgage that remains on the former hardware store they bought in 2008.
The store also donates goods it doesn't sell to local nonprofit organizations. Some of the higher-end items get routed right to an auction house for sale to benefit Next-to-New's causes.
Items come into the store in three ways:
Consignment, in which the consigner comes up with a price and they keep 50 percent of the sales price if it sells within the first 30 days. After that they can take it back or donate it to Next-to-New. There's also a limit on what Next-to-New will take on consignment based on what it already has in inventory. The store posts on its website and Facebook page when there are limits on what it will take. Sometimes they have to break it to the donor or consigner. "We stick to facts," Miller says.
Estate sales, in which a family is offering up many items, and Next-to-New is managing the sale. With estates, it takes a special touch in talking with the family members. McKinnon will share the story of Next-to-New as well as listen to the stories of each item. "We want to make it easier to give it up," says Pam O'Conner, the president of the board.
"We get to be counselors," McKinnon says.
Donations, in which a person is giving the items to the store to sell and not setting the price or sharing in the sales.
"A lot of the collectibles are one of a kind," Little says. "We can sell something for $5 or $1,500."
The trick is to know how much something is worth, and volunteers do a lot of research and consult with one another to come up with a good price. They'll also let customers know when they are off-base with the price they set. Sometimes, people don't understand the value of what they have, but often they think it's more valuable than it really is.
Burnet Road is home to many thrift stores and antiques shops. Next-to-New is different because it's consignment, says Vic Little, the executive director of Next-to-New. "The main difference is the quality of the merchandise," he says. "It tends to be high quality."
None of the current volunteers and staff members know why the women's group of St. David's named it Next-to-New 60 years ago, but Ulrick Miller, the assistant manager and volunteer coordinator, says, "Next to new means something."
If it's not good enough quality, they won't take it into the store, or they'll turn around and donate it elsewhere.
Next-to-New doesn't keep items forever. They often get processed within 24 to 48 hours, and they don't stay more than 90 days. After 60 days, a consigner can reclaim the item. If he doesn't, Next-to-New will spend 30 more days trying to sell it, but the consigner will no longer get a cut of the sale. After 90 days it gets donated. After each 30-day period, the price goes down.
Each item only has one tag. When it's initially priced, a tag is created that has the prices and dates those prices are in effect. That way, volunteers don't have to change tags midway, and shoppers can take a chance on whether they want to wait to see if it is still there when it hits the reduced price. That's a big gamble, because about 60 percent to 70 percent of items sell at the first price.
Even with all the checks and balances, the pricing isn't always uniform, but that's part of the fun. You never know what kind of deal you might stumble upon.
"We have folks that are in here daily," Little says.
Whether customers are regulars or there for the first time, Little says, the goal is to greet each customer every time.
"We treat everyone like family," Miller says.
Little tries to get to know people by their names and a sense of what they might be interested in.
Shoppers sometimes find hidden things inside items, and often they'll let the cashier know. "People are so good," McKinnon says. They will take what they find and put it in the donation jar at the cashier's station.
"A nickel goes a long way," Miller says.
Volunteers also don't know what they might stumble upon. Sometimes they find cash or things of value in pockets or purses.
Volunteers remember some memorable things that have been donated, such as President Lyndon Baines Johnson's monogrammed swim trunks. It was part of Gov. Allan Shivers' estate that was donated to the store. The two were friends, and LBJ must have left his trunks at the Shivers' home. They've also had University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal's estate.
The items that the store stocks change with time. Crystal and china used to be more valuable but will still sell. Sometimes it's the nostalgia of what buyers' mothers or grandmothers had that tugs at them. Sometimes the buyers are movie set decorators looking for period pieces, from furniture to decor.
Furniture, especially midcentury modern, goes quickly. Miller says they also sell a lot of lamps and mirrors, surprisingly, as often students and recent graduates are trying to quickly outfit new apartments.
Just as the items that are stocked changes, so have the volunteers.
Watt, who has volunteered for 52 years, remembers how volunteers used to be recruited. She was approached by Mrs. Summers, one of the women who started it, after she had just moved here. "Barbara, what day would you like to work at Next-to-New?" Watt remembers Summers asking her. "You were expected to," Watt says, but the good thing about Next-to-New was "I met wonderful people," she says. "You get to know people."
By the 1980s, the main caretakers shifted from just the women's group at St. David's into congregants from all groups. Now, only about 25 percent to 30 percent are congregants.
"The community spread of the volunteers is wide," Miller says. "New people get to know us and become volunteers."
Little says sometimes shoppers turn into volunteers once they learn what the mission is. He'll tell them about some of the grant recipients, such as Saint Louise House.
"This grant helped us serve three more families," says Katie Montgomery, community outreach coordinator at Saint Louise House, which provides housing and essential services to women with children who are experiencing homelessness. "They know they have a future at Saint Louise House."
The grant also helped Saint Louise House organizers get their name known among Next-to-New volunteers as well as receive items such as clothing for their families from Next-to-New donations.
A grant committee picks the recipients for the year.
Recently, Next-to-New started a program to include more teens working alongside adults. "They're quick learners, and they're good listeners," Little says. "They do a good job."
Next-to-New asks volunteers to take at least one three-hour shift a week, but some do more. McKinnon volunteers about five days a week. "Lucky me, really," she says. "I think when I do this, I'm not at the salt mine trying to make a living. I have some money, and I'm able to do this."
Miller says Next-to-New is fortunate because whenever they are short on volunteers, "I will send a note out that there is no one here, and we'll have 10 people show up."
Today the store has four employees and about 165 volunteers. O'Conner says the volunteers are like a family. "When someone gets sick, we take meals to them; we take them to the doctor."
Miller has improved the store by cross-training volunteers to be able to work in all areas, but there are some volunteers who love to create miniature rooms of furniture on the showroom floor, or they'll create scenes with figurines or set dining tables with china and crystal.
"I have a great time," says Linda Walker, who was setting up books. "What keeps me coming back are the people that work here."