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.
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 nextdoor.com/join/kwkseh.
"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.
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