Shopping for a future

Cancer-fighting resale store may close if donations don’t pick up

SHOP TALK <br>The Shop manager Krista Robinson, shown here with three-year volunteer Wanda Chirichigno, said it’s exciting to see the donations as they come it. “We have a good time; we really do. It’s like Christmas every day.”

The Shop manager Krista Robinson, shown here with three-year volunteer Wanda Chirichigno, said it’s exciting to see the donations as they come it. “We have a good time; we really do. It’s like Christmas every day.”

Photo by Tom Angel

Crusaders: The first American Cancer Society shop was started in 1965 by Denise Noel, who envisioned a group of upscale boutiques that could serve as fund-raisers for the causes of cancer prevention and treatment. There are 44 such shops in California, including stores in Chico, Redding and Yuba City.

Krista Robinson, manager of the American Cancer Society’s resale store in Chico, doesn’t mince words: Donations of pre-owned clothing, jewelry and other goods have slowed, and The Shop is in danger of closing.

That would mean the loss of $100,000 a year now going toward cancer research, education, advocacy and other programs.

“It really seems like the cards are stacked against us right now,” said Robinson, who was hired as The Shop’s manager just a month and a half ago.

It doesn’t help that donors and shoppers have to find their way through the maze of construction surrounding The Shop in Mangrove Avenue’s Park Plaza, where Safeway is being transformed. And when the project is done, the improvements may bring a new problem for tiny tenants like The Shop: higher rents.

The Shop just started to rebound from a series of management changes and times when volunteers essentially ran the store on their own. The store is not even in the phone book this year, because when the print deadline came, it looked like closure was eminent. (It’s 343-6178, by the way.) “They even sent out letters saying we’re closing. They sent everything in our store to other shops,” Robinson said.

Now The Shop is going for a fresh approach. Robinson, the only paid worker, believes the store could bring in much more than its current goal of $510 a day in sales. “It’s so feasible—I know it is,” she insists, leaning forward energetically.

Armed with a public-relations degree, years of retail experience and an eager personality, Robinson has taken on the task of redefining The Shop to suit the spirit of Chico.

Throughout its 13-year history, The Shop has relied on a dedicated volunteer workforce of about 50, mostly women. Their average age is 80—a sharp contrast to Robinson’s 25 years, trendy dress and pierced tongue. Her retail experience included a manager stint at Frederick’s of Hollywood.

“At first when I came, they probably thought I was going to change everything,” Robinson laughed. Instead, they’ve become like family. “We’re good for each other—that’s where the diversity comes in.”

Gladys Couch, who’s been volunteering at The Shop since 1989—the store opened the month after her husband died of cancer—said, “It’s a friendly place and a fun place to work.”

One 80-year-old—a 30-year breast cancer survivor—does all the banking and accounting. Most work a half-day a week and are there because cancer has affected them or someone in their lives. The senior volunteers, Robinson said, “have done a great job, but times are always changing.”

At The Shop, a bigger profit would mean more money to buy wigs for chemotherapy patients or transportation to and from treatments. The mantra of the American Cancer Society is “2015": to reduce incidences of and mortality from cancer by the year 2015. In Butte County alone, 1,150 new cancer cases are diagnosed and 520 people die from the disease every year.

Robinson’s own brother died of cancer when he was 14 and she was 11. She lost a grandfather to the disease, and her stepmother is a survivor of both breast and cervical cancer.

After graduating from Chico State in May, Robinson took a job with a corporation but quickly became disillusioned with the profit motive and the people her work was going to benefit. When she heard about the American Cancer Society job, she knew it would be a match. “Here, I’m doing something positive for people in need,” she said. “It’s just such a positive environment.”

The Shop is branching out. Robinson is recruiting volunteers through Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE) at Chico State University, in high schools and at sororities. She’s also asking students to donate clothes, furniture and other quality goods. Variety is the goal, as The Shop has a great selection of older ladies’ clothing but little in the way of furniture, men’s wear and baby stuff.

“We have to form to Chico,” Robinson said. “The merchandise is what will bring people to our store.” She doesn’t want to forsake the current clientele, which ranges from people on a fixed income to those who come in and spend hundreds of dollars on jewelry.

The Shop shies away from the words “thrift store,” considering itself an upscale resale boutique instead. “We want them to see it as upscale, one-of-a-kind merchandise,” Robinson said.

The racks are as orderly as a women’s dress shop. Coats, blouses and dresses are meticulously separated and organized. There’s a corner with baby clothes and gear, and a book nook. Each display is set up like a little scene: paper in the typewriter, craft items arranged attractively in a basket. Videos of the Roots TV series are stacked neatly next to a faux potted plant, while across the room a pair of Barney slippers peers out onto the sales floor.

“We really strive for Nordstrom quality merchandise at Wal-Mart prices,” Robinson said. Screeners and experienced pricers pick through donations, putting out only the best.

The Chico store has found itself confused with the Discovery Shoppe, a thrift store on Flume Street, with which it has no affiliation. All of the other American Cancer Society stores are called The Discovery Shop, but here the name was already taken, and volunteers aren’t sure how much that may confuse donors and shoppers from out of town.

“Basically, I grab everyone I can and give them a donor bag,” said Robinson, who has taken bags to her daughter’s preschool and to social events. “You’re not leaving here without one.” One day last week, she fired off 70 letters—one to every interior decorating and furniture shop in Chico. She’ll follow up with a phone call and personal visit.

Her eyes lit up when she mentioned the recent offer of a piano; all she needs is someone to pick it up. “The day we get furniture in, it’s gone,” she said.

They get gold jewelry, artwork and fur coats, although, Robinson said, “You can’t charge a lot of money for a fur coat in Chico.”

And when Robinson wants to call sale, there’s a sale. For St. Patrick’s Day, everything green will be discounted. Once, someone donated her collection of 3,000 bells, so there was a special bell promotion. “It’s just up to us. It’s really our store, and the personality is whatever we want it to be.”

“We cherish our donors. We send them Valentine’s Day cards and Christmas cards and invite them to our events,” Robinson said.

She just wishes there were more of them.