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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2001

Thrift store retail that wags the dog

Special to The Japan Times

WASHINGTON -- Jeanie Naumann, manager of Wagging Tails Thrifts and Gift, says she can hardly believe it herself. It seems she just had to open the store, and the donations, volunteers, customers and profits started rolling in.

"Just like in the movie 'Field of Dreams': If you build it, they will come," Naumann says. "I am still amazed that we are doing so well."

There are countless animal shelters in the United States, but thrift stores like Naumann's that raise funds for a local shelter's animal-welfare programs are still very rare, with the Internet listing just a few nationwide. So when the store opened in October last year in Montgomery County, Md., on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., word of mouth spread quickly and the volunteers just started showing up, just like the ghosts of the ball players who came to Kevin Costner's field in the movie. Today, Naumann operates the store with one part-time employee -- and more than 50 unpaid workers.

Donations have also been pouring in, particularly during the summer when many people seem to clean out their homes. People drive up in vans, SUVs or station wagons packed full of everything from brand-name dresses, shoes and bags to kitchen utensils, books and vintage records. Donations are accepted any time during business hours (10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tues. to Sat.), but Saturday is the biggest donation day, with contributions sometimes overflowing out into the parking lot.

Volunteers have also found other donation sources. Some started handing out Wagging Tails fliers at flea markets asking that unsold items be donated to the store. Another wrote to local dry-cleaners seeking donations of long-forgotten clothes. Others arranged contributions from gift and stationery stores in the area.

Naumann sets strict rules on items that the shop puts up for sale -- even on the new items, which make up 10 percent of the stock. Most of these new goods are handmade, animal-motifed crafts not readily available at other gift or pet stores, and are bought wholesale and sold at retail prices.

Donated goods, meanwhile, must be clean before they reach the shelves. Clothes, ties and scarfs with stains, however small, are rejected and either passed on to other charitable organizations or dumped if deemed unusable. Volunteers steam clothes, polish silverware, and wipe cups and plates as needed, then price the items, usually under several dollars.

"I love volunteering at the store," says Virginia Lichtman, a former gift shop manager who works at Wagging Tails twice a week. "You find such treasures! To me, it's exciting. It's like Christmas every day!"

Petie O'Brien, another volunteer, agrees. She says her best find was a highly sought-after Steiff teddy bear that had been buried in a big box of stuffed animals. The German-made bear, which would sell for at least a few hundred dollars on today's market, went straight to the store's display window and was sold a few months later at a bargain $85.

Sometimes, Naumann lists interesting donations on eBay. One '80s Darth Vader action figure with Spanish-language packaging did especially well. It was sold at $260 to a collector in Spain.

But O'Brien says that for every find, there are probably several items of value, priced cheaply and placed on the shelves alongside everything else. "If it looks unusual, we'll hold it and price later," she says. "But, yes, you could truly get a bargain in that shop."

Either way, the store is still profitable, even recording profits in its first quarter -- impressive for any new business. Today, daily sales average $600-$700, an important contribution to the local animal shelter's humane-society programs, including pet foster-care programs and vet expenses.

In addition to monetary contributions, Wagging Tails also offers the shelter support by informing the public of its services and the plight -- and types -- of animals it cares for.

"The store is great. It gives visibility to the shelter in a whole new way, because it offers a lot of shelter information," says Kerry K. Vinkler, director of humane education and public relations at Montgomery County's Humane Society.

"It's a great avenue to reach a whole new audience of people who may have not come to the shelter, thinking that we just get the abused and neglected animals of the world, not realizing that you can get the Pomeranian of your dreams!"

Of course, all has not been good for the store. There are customers who try to haggle down the already-low prices, even though the proceeds go to charity. And there has been some trouble with shoplifters, forcing the store to purchase security cameras.

All in all, however, Naumann is happy with what Wagging Tails has accomplished, and every day she is grateful and in awe of the volunteers who help her run it. "I had no idea that I'd be meeting so many wonderful people and making friends; I am having such a good time," she says. "They're loyal, responsible and giving up their time and energy. It's what is most overwhelming."

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