Check out the goods at the new boutique thrift store

The Baltimore Sun

Psssst, have you heard about the Gucci Goodwill store?

I might be overstating it a bit - I didn't actually see anything from that particular Italian label when I dropped in last week at Goodwill's new "boutique," a fancier version of the familiar thrift stores that the nonprofit has been opening across the country. But in the couple of weeks that it's been open, everything from Dior to Coach to Oscar de la Renta has passed through the doors, so maybe a Gucci or two may turn up in the future.

The Baltimore shop, at 1 N. Poppleton St., has been a bit of an insider's secret since its "soft" opening on Jan. 21, although the buzz is growing, particularly among West Baltimoreans and the University of Maryland, Baltimore set (the boutique is in one of the campus' new biotech park buildings). But with a grand opening scheduled for Thursday morning, the competition for the Brooks Brothers jackets, the Enzo Angiolini pumps and the Faconnable shirts might get a little more fierce.

"Everyone's talking about it," Larry Barner, who lives on West Pratt Street, said of the neighborhood chatter. "They've been saying what a nice selection they have, and how clean it is."

Barner was among a group of shoppers on a recent afternoon perusing the racks and display cases. A woman in a fur coat and a man in Prada glasses joined shoppers in jeans and sneakers in the pink-walled, wood-floored store, designed by Rick Smith, who spent 20 years creating merchandise displays for Hecht's before joining Goodwill five years ago.

"It's designed to feel more like a small department store than a junky thrift store," Smith said. And indeed, the displays show outfit pairings - dress shirts next to the ties, casual tops next to khaki pants - rather than the random jumble of thrift stores, where you paw through a lot of trash for any treasure.

Still, it is Goodwill and not Nordstrom's, so there are bargains like $2 ties and the $7 pair of shoes, although in this store, they're likely to be labeled Jos. A. Bank and Doc Martens. And a lot are unworn - they still have their original price tags, so you can brag about getting, for example, a Talbots skirt with a $118 price tag on it for Goodwill's price of $17.

The boutiques have proved popular - some, like the one in monied Palm Beach, even rate mention in guidebooks - particularly as the economy continues to tank and fashionistas are turning into recessionistas as they search for cheaper chic. Some Goodwills, including those in San Francisco and Washington, now have bloggers who post about fashion trends and how to find versions at the thrift stores.

The boutiques no doubt helped Goodwill stores post healthy sales gains last year - as did Salvation Army outlets - at the same time that pricey retailers like Abercombie & Fitch and Neiman Marcus suffered losses.

"We've seen an increase in new people shopping in our stores," said Marge Thomas, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, "people who wouldn't have shopped in our stores before."

Still, some Goodwills are facing a challenge these days as the donations that stock their stores drop - as people stop buying new clothes or furnishings, they're keeping rather than giving away their old ones. Additionally, there's greater competition for used merchandise, from eBay to all those bins you see everywhere that allow you to drop off your discards anytime rather than waiting for Goodwill to open.

Thomas makes the pitch that, with Goodwill, you know your donations are staying here, so whatever they sell for in the stores goes toward the local job-training programs the organization conducts. And, in fact, the new boutique is also a new job-training program: It hires area residents - some from the nearby Frances M. Wood Alternative High School - to work in the store and train for jobs in retail management.

In a fairly retail-deprived area, the store has been embraced by both neighborhood residents and students and staff at the Maryland campus and its emerging BioPark.

"It elicits this camaraderie that I haven't seen before," said store manager Lynn Carmody, who previously worked in the Towson Goodwill outlet. "The other day, this woman came to the register with four items, but only enough money for three of them, so I asked her to pick one for me to hold for her, and another customer in line said, 'I don't know why I'm doing this, but I'll buy that for you.'"

The merchandise turns over quickly, particularly the kids' wear, and some shoppers have started to realize that they need to check in often because the shelves and racks are stocked daily, Carmody said.

Most shoppers had been clued in about the store by friends or co-workers.

"My boss had come in; she told me it was wonderful," said Saifa Bikim, an events coordinator at the University of Maryland medical school's public affairs office. "She's a very high-end shopper, so I thought it was going to be an expensive boutique, not like a regular thrift store."

Not to worry, Bikim scored a cute floral sleeveless dress for $6.

Kamila Swanson, who lives in Otterbein and scouts thrift stores for her antiques business, came with her husband, Ben, a retired Maryland dental school professor, and found a folk-art necklace by an artist she's familiar with for $35. "Plus I have a 25 percent coupon," she said, happily waving an invitation to the grand opening that included the discount.

But don't look for that necklace, marked up, at Swanson's store.

"This one," she said, "I'm keeping for myself."

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