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No-frills, low prices are the fortes at quirky Ollie's Brooklyn Park discounter thrives on unpretentiousness


Two things become abundantly clear as you pass through the red-and-white striped storefront into Ollie's Bargain Outlet: This place is unpretentious and knows how to poke fun at itself.

That's good if you sell Igloo coolers one day, refrigerators the next and have little, if any, idea what's coming next.

At Ollie's in Brooklyn Park, you won't find snooty salespeople, clever displays or well laid-out departments.

You will find down-to-earth salespeople, hot coffee for free, and cases of dish-washing liquid bumping unceremoniously into patio furniture. Then there are the bargains -- on brooms, screws, sheepskin seat covers, spackling compound, wood shutters, clothes hampers, garage door openers.

"Confusion is our most important product," declares one handwritten sign on a wall, while another nearby says, "If you think this place is a mess, you should have seen it before we cleaned up!"

"There really isn't anybody in Baltimore similar to us at all," said Mark Butler, vice president of the Pennsylvania chain, which has opened its first Maryland store in Brooklyn Park Plaza on Ritchie Highway. "We are so different because the stores are generally messy, and the prices are cheap. We're not the greatest housekeepers. We're a no-frills slice of life."

Instead of housekeeping, store officials set their priorities on scouring the country, sniffing out bargains from fire, flood and surplus sales, buyouts, liquidations and bankruptcies. If a store closes a department, Ollie's buyers -- including two of the four owners -- usually know about it. Because goods might be slightly damaged, with even a stitch out of place, Ollie's can cut the price to the customer by half or more, thus the huge sign in the store that announces: "Home of good stuff cheap."

Since founding the chain 10 years ago, the owners have operated within the philosophy of buying cheap and selling cheap, said Butler. He works with partners Mort Bernstein, company president Harry Coverman and Ollie Rosenberg, the store's namesake, whose caricature is pictured in cartoon drawings throughout the store.

"We never met anybody who didn't like a bargain, and that's what we like to do," said Butler.

The concept has proved popular in Pennsylvania. Some senior citizens are regular customers who come in each week for entertainment, to drink free coffee and see the new merchandise, which is likely to change by the week, Butler said.

"If we don't have paper towels next week, it's because there wasn't a deal on them," he said. "If there's no laundry detergent, it's because we couldn't get it cheap."

When a Des Moines, Iowa, drug store had a fire recently, smoke damaged the merchandise.

"We bought out the entire store," Butler said. "Next week it could be a sporting goods store."

Another time, Ollie's bought out a West Virginia toy store also damaged by fire. The Mechanicsburg, Pa., Ollie's sold mostly toys for a year, recalled Bob Kashmere, manager of the Brooklyn Park store.

At the newest store, trailers bring in new merchandise, three or four times a week.

"Today I may not have a single refrigerator," Kashmere said. "Tomorrow a truckload of refrigerators may appear at my door. Lawn sprinklers -- I didn't have any last year, but this year they're available. My key word is change. You adapt to it."

The success of the first store in Mechanicsburg led to others in Pennsylvania (one in Harrisburg and two near York). For more than a year, the chain had considered expanding to Baltimore. It chose the 58,000-square-foot site of a former Channel Home Centers store in Brooklyn Park because "it looked like a blue-collar area where people want bargains," Butler said.

So far, the owners' expectations have been exceeded. They hope the store will be the first of several Baltimore-area Ollie's. And they've been encouraged by the abundant labor pool, especially after interviewing 800 people in one week for just 50 jobs.

The new store, which will always carry carpeting, books and sporting goods, keeps true to the Ollie's image.

"Quiet Please," reads one sign. "Do Not Wake the Employees."

Another sign says, "If you didn't buy anything, you must be even cheaper than we are. But thanks anyway, you made the place look busy."

And before they leave the store, customers are reminded to "Keep America Beautiful. Wipe Your Feet Before You Leave."

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