Shoppers who think the biggest surprise about Towson's Surprise Shop is that it's been in business for 50 years — which admittedly is a long time for a consignment shop — haven't met the group of volunteers that run this eclectic and community-oriented business.
First, step inside: Two floors of treasure fill the store, which used to be the rectory for Trinity Episcopal Church, at 120 Allegheny Ave. Here, shoppers can buy anything from greeting cards for 25 cents to scrubs for work to china candlesticks to brand new wedding dresses left over from a salon that closed.
In the front window on a landing next to the staircase, stuffed chicks and lambs nestle with embroidered flower pillows and other spring-themed merchandise. On the floor above, yellow table linens and flowered scarves sunlight the space on this March morning. Debbie Pazda, of Hamilton, a six-year volunteer, is one of two women responsible for the fun and seasonal display.
Long before she volunteered at The Surprise Shop, Pazda was a regular customer who liked the store's prices and the items it carried: "You really can find something that is a surprise. It's really true to its name," she said.
In calligraphy signage above each room entrance is a cue to what shoppers will find inside: "Dresses & Suits," "Housewares," or "Brand Name Room," which includes clothes from Lily Pulitzer, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Anthropologie and other labels. Along the wall toward the staff room are pictures of the shop's volunteers, a monthly schedule for workers and a signup sheet for the shop's 50th birthday party to be held on Tuesday, April 1.
On that day, shoppers can check out the wares as usual, but also enjoy a bite from the many goodies cooked by volunteers.
That's a great example of why this business, which was originally started to fund Trinity's benevolences, is still operating and still helping out the community today, said Erin Woodward, of Anneslie, the shop's full-time volunteer director and one of only two paid staffers.
"It's because of the dedication of the women that started this shop and the tradition that continues," Woodward said. "Even with all the different personalities of 58 volunteers, the main, main focus has always been keeping this shop going."
Quarterly proceeds from the shop fund Trinity's outreach, and the shop also contributes about $1,800 a year in housewares and clothing for clients at the Assistance Center of Towson Churches. In addition, shop volunteers cook a monthly meal for clients at Prologue, a Pikesville-based group which serves homeless persons and those with mental illness. The group has a small outreach center in Towson.
Bonnie Dabrowski, of Ruxton, started shopping at The Surprise Shop when her children were babies — they are now in their 30s. She liked the store so much, she began consigning there. Then, when she retired from Towson University five years ago, she began to volunteer at the store, handling appointments with consignors on Thursdays.
"The problem with volunteering there is that I never come home empty handed," Dabrowski said. "I am really proud of myself when I do come home without anything after spending a couple of hours there."
Mary Pierpont Hall, has been with the shop since it opened in 1964. Carol Lee Hensyl, Ann Eder, of Timonium, Dorothy "Ebbie" Wheeler, of Lutherville, and Judy Weber, of Timonium, are second-generation volunteers whose mothers worked at The Surprise Shop.
Hensyl's mother Naomi Schulz started volunteering at the shop after her husband died in 1998. She worked every Tuesday, organizing the clothes in the men's room, buttoning the shirts and making sure everything on display looked neat and clean — sometimes even bringing home items to launder.
When Schulz died in 2002, the family asked that donations be made in her name to The Surprise Shop, and some of the volunteers asked Hensyl if she wanted to take her mother's place at the store. Hensyl, who was working as a preschool teacher at the Church of the Good Shepherd, couldn't then. But when she retired in 2004, she found herself on The Surprise Shop's Tuesday shift.
"I took one look at the men's room and I thought I can't do what she did," said Hensyl, who lives in Timonium. She decided to work in the back room, pricing and putting donations onto hangers.
At Christmas, her mother had a tradition of giving each grandchild a check, plus a gift from The Surprise Shop. It might have been a shirt, it might have been something comical, Hensyl said. Now she carries on with the tradition, shopping throughout the year for holiday gifts for her family, "But I don't give the check," Hensyl laughed.
The Surprise Shop, located at 120 Allegheny Ave., Towson, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Consignments are taken by appointment on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as every third Saturday. The Surprise Shop's birthday party will be held on Tuesday, April 1 during store hours.