‘Upscale resale’ shop thrives through volunteers
By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT – On its face, this business plan should not work. Somehow, it finds a way to absolutely rock, as the volunteer team behind a store called Bizarre Bazaar annually manages to generate six-figure sums that are routed right back into the community.
The shop – which specializes in “upscale resale” – is the primary fundraising machine for the Community Assistance League, raising money each year for CAL’s grant and scholarship fund. The store makes that happen by selling donated goods in a setting managed and operated solely by volunteers.
And yet, the merchandise, the shop itself and the people who work there have you feeling like you’ve entered a high-end boutique in some bohemian quarter of a metropolitan area.
According to co-managers Cherie Warber and Diane Arrants, the secret ingredient behind’s the store’s popularity comes with the more than 90 CAL members who volunteer for shifts there.
“We let people do what their passion is,” Warber said. “We foster that.”
“The volunteers come first,” said Arrants. “They’re the focus of making Bizarre Bazaar what it is.”
To date, CAL has donated more than $1 million to the local community through grants and scholarships. Started in 1979, the organization has been responsible for many of the educational programs and cultural events we now almost take for granted as fixtures of daily life.
The earliest project was to sponsor the first ever girls’ state volleyball tournament held in Sandpoint. CAL charter members then helped launch The Festival at Sandpoint and threw their shoulders to the wheel of its production for the first two years.
Afternoon Academy classes in art, music and science, as well as S.A.T. readiness classes at Sandpoint High School owe a tip of the cap to CAL for getting them going. The same is true for Kaleidoscope Art Enrichment Program in Bonner County schools and local involvement in Special Olympics, which CAL developed in partnership with Schweitzer Mountain Resort in the 1980s.
And while some of the original members are now in their 80s, the group sees a steady influx of interested women.
“In the past 10 years, we’ve been growing consistently and we get a lot of new people moving here who are looking for a way to connect to the community,” Arrants said, adding that working at Bizarre Bazaar has become an attractive option with members.
“It’s like a clubhouse,” Warber said. “It’s a magnet.”
The shop takes its name from the CAL rummage sale that raised money for the group until about 2005, when member Joyce Spiller approached the board with the idea of opening a brick and mortar store that could sell merchandise year-round. Not only did the board approve of the concept, they handed the wheel right back to Spiller and asked her to drive the project forward.
From the time the shop opened at the corner of Fifth and Church in 2006 until 2016, CAL members Spiller and Cindy Chenault managed the business and laid the groundwork for future growth.
“Joyce and Cindy had been here exactly 10 years and they left big shoes to fill,” said Warber.
Since the transition, the store has further refined its merchandising strategy, focusing on the strengths of its volunteers to create compelling displays and distinct departments throughout the space. Shoppers are greeted with brand names in women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, along with an assortment of household goods, furniture, books, jewelry and crafts.
About the only donations not accepted at Bizarre Bazaar are appliances, TVs, computers and exercise equipment.
Augmenting the passion of volunteerism is the “reactive merchandising” approach favored by the co-managers. According to Arrants, the store is the only place in town where shoppers will find clothing for all seasons available all year.
“So, if you happen to be going to Australia in the wintertime, we have shorts and tank tops,” she said.
“We’re not like a department store, where you have to put out your summer stuff in February,” Warber added. “We have the capability to be agile.”
Open six days a week, Bizarre Bazaar requires a fairly deep level of staffing, as shown by the shift schedule hanging at the entrance to the stock room. Each shift bears the name of a volunteer department head, as well as a team leader and a manager. Staffing requires a minimum of three people per shift, Warber noted.
“But the more the merrier,” she said.
Filling the ranks hasn’t been a problem, in large part because of the straightforward business plan behind the store. Put simply, it states that volunteers should be happy and taken care of, should be given opportunities to gravitate to things they love to do and that there is no such thing as a mistake – just another chance to learn.
“The people who started this gave us a very good foundation,” Arrants said.
“They had a very simple business plan,” said Warber. “And it just works because it’s so simple. Some big businesses could take note of that.”
Results show that something must be working, as both customers and sales figures have continued on an upward trend. Now at the mid-point of its fiscal year, CAL has watched as the shop performed several thousand dollars above the prior year for the year-to-date period.
“This past year, we have been getting more traffic,” said Warber. “And we love it.”
Higher traffic numbers also generate more repeat customers, leading to a necessity for constantly fresh merchandise, the co-managers said. Once a month, the shop has a markdown, followed by a new floor set. The entire store usually turns every two months or so.
In keeping with the spotlight on “upscale resale,” Bizarre Bazaar is picky about what items make it to the sales floor. Those that don’t make the cut are donated to other thrift stores in the immediate area, where they raise money for those organizations. Which brings up another point of differentiation – where most thrift shops use sales to support their cause, giving money back to the community through grants and scholarships is the cause at Bizarre Bazaar.
Approximately 60 percent of CAL’s annual support for the community comes in the form of grants, with the balance distributed through scholarships. Once again this year, the organization plans to award about $120,000 through those two channels.
The shop has emerged as the “little engine that could” when it comes to funding the group’s good works, but CAL members – there are 240 of them at the most recent count – decided a couple of years ago to think longer term and establish a lasting legacy that could also be depended upon as a funding resource. In that light, they started the process of creating an endowment fund with the Idaho Community Foundation, setting an initial goal of meeting the ICF’s required $50,000 as a starting point.
“”We figured it would take us five years to get there,” Arrants said. “We made it in two.”
Comparing CAL membership to being in “a sorority without the cattiness,” Warber said that volunteers have become shameless promoters of the store that funds the group. Locals, too, have taken up the cause, often recommending it to tourists looking for a cool place to shop.
When a team of Sandpoint filmmakers was setting up a scene across the street, Arrants walked over and asked them if they would consider changing the camera angle to include the exterior – and the sign, of course – of Bizarre Bazaar in the shot.
“Anything we can do to help the community, we’ll do,” she said.
Bizarre Bazaar is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at 502 Church St., in Sandpoint. For information about making donations, call 208-263-3400.
To learn more about Community Assistance League and Bizarre Bazaar, visit online at: www.calsandpoint.org