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New age for vintage shop

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Donna Reis, left, and Tish Coate check out comparable items online Tuesday to price recent consignment finds at the Treasure House in Santa Rosa. The nonprofit store raises funds for the YWCA’s Safe House program for victims of domestic violence.

The coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on many Sonoma County businesses, but the toll it took on Treasure House feels unique.

The consignment and thrift shop, run for nearly six decades entirely by volunteers with a lot of life experience under their collective belts, lost scores of folks who didn’t feel safe returning to a retail setting. Many used the health crisis as the moment to pull back from their duties.

So when the nonprofit Treasure House reopened its doors on Airway Drive in Santa Rosa, leaders of the operation knew things were going to look different. They had to.

“Our volunteers did not want to come back. They were afraid,” Treasure House interim president Robbin Montero said. “We opened back up with 15 out of 55. Many of them won’t come back, and I don’t think they’ll ever come back.”

“The average age of our volunteers is 75 or 76,” she said. “We have three that are 90-plus. I’m one of the young ones at 66.”

By necessity, daily hours were reduced from six to four. Social media for both sales and marketing are newly at the fore — Treasure House is on Facebook, Instagram and Craigslist.

It’s working.

Sales and profits are up. Montero pointed to post-pandemic pent-up demand to browse and shop, as well as a revised focus on higher-end goods that move fast and pull in a greater profit.

That part, the profit piece, is where Treasure House feels truly different. This nonprofit organization earns money with the sole purpose to give it all away. Signs around the store trumpet to shoppers that proceeds benefit the YWCA of Sonoma County’s Safe House program for victims of domestic violence.

For years, about 80% of what Treasure House earns has been earmarked to support the operation of the YWCA’s eight-room, 32-bed safe house. It’s no small feat, said YWCA CEO Madeleine Keegan O’Connell.

“It’s a 4,500-square foot home,” she said. “Maintaining it … is a magnificent sum.” Treasure House has supported the YWCA Safe House since 2007 and moved to make the operation to nearly sole recipient of Treasure House profits since about at least 2014, Keegan O’Connell said.

“It’s remarkable,” she said of the sustained support. “It’s a nonprofit helping a nonprofit. It’s a revenue-generating business that they are reinvesting into social services in Sonoma County.”

So while the push to create a more business-centric operation at Treasure House is rooted in a post-pandemic strategy, it’s also done with a keen eye on its specific philanthropic mission.

“We are probably 90% female here,” Montero said of her volunteer roster. “Some of them have come from that (domestic violence) history in the past and all of us have a tie to that at some level, whether we experienced it ourselves or whether we saw it inside our families.”

But sustaining that support has prompted some changes in the operation, leaders said. This isn’t your grandmother’s Treasure House anymore.

“Initially it was started by wives … of prominent members of the community,” said longtime volunteer Maxine Noonan, 92. “I think it started as a social club in a way and was a way to give back to the community. These ladies needed something to do and this was the idea they came up with.”

It is described by veteran volunteers as social and altruistic, but not terribly businesslike in those early years. Today, the store focuses on furniture and high-end goods in both its consignment sales and the sales of donated goods.

“Over the years it has become more businesslike,” said Noonan, who has a bookkeeping background and has served as Treasure House president many times. “I like it the way it is. Even at my age, I have been able to evolve with it.”

Donna Reis, a seven- year volunteer who spends about 15-20 hours a week doing pricing and shop sales, said the change in that time has been extraordinary.

“Everything was manual. We made out little tags for every single thing. It took a day to two days to get it from the backroom out to the shelves,” she said of pricing new lots of goods. “Now. everything is computerized. Robin and I have the appointments done, everything entered, tags made and on the floor within an hour.”

The pandemic forced their hand in many ways, Montero said. And they have come out the better for it.

Judy Johnson came aboard as a volunteer 14 years ago. She had been doing some caretaking for an elderly man in Marin County. When he died, the family asked for Johnson’s assistance finding a new home for many of his things. She walked into Treasure House.

“Five seconds later, I was a volunteer,” she said.

Back then, Treasure House sold a different type of merchandise. There were masses of serving sets. Plates and saucers for days. Those don’t sell anymore, Johnson said.

It’s one of Montero’s duties to see those trends and adjust. Plates and saucers not selling? They won’t take them on consignment. But that list — what’s hot and what’s not — is updated in real time nowadays, she said.

“The list is fluid. I have changed it three times in six months,” she said.

Montero and the volunteers say they research their prices, do their best to put a fair figure on items. They also discuss pricing with consignors — something Montero said not all shops are willing to do. She figures if she blows a price and someone gets a steal of a deal, she’s got a customer for life.

On Monday afternoon, on a federal holiday, the shop was bustling. Someone bought an armload of jewelry the first hour the place was open. It took scarcely any time to get it on display.

On Monday afternoon, Reis walked around the front room checking prices of art hung high on the wall. It’s a job Reis, who stands 5-feet, 10-inches, laughingly said only she can do.

“I’m the ladder around here,” she said.

“We all have our own purpose,” Johnson chimed in from behind the counter, to easy chuckles.

The volunteers may have their own individual purpose, but they also have one common purpose: To serve.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.