She finds happiness as Belle of thrift shop Saleswoman brings uptown experience to mission store

January 07, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

M. Belle Holt has gone from riches to rags, and she couldn't be happier.

After 30 years of selling Gucci and Armani at Miller Bros. in Baltimore, Ms. Holt is turning "trash into cash" at the Rescue Mission store in Westminster. These days, the only designer labels she sees are faded and dangling from a discarded dress.

Ms. Holt, 71, once the sales leader at the expensive North Charles Street shop, is now the purveyor of donated castoffs at a store that draws the needy and the persnickety to Westminster.

She began working at the shop at the request of a friend soon after she moved to Carroll Lutheran Village. For 40 or more hours a week at minimum wage with no overtime, the sales pitch that made her a favorite peddling haute couture to Baltimore's elite, works as well with the walk-in traffic strolling in from Main Street for a glimpse at the latest in secondhand merchandise.

"I used to sell to the rich and famous," she said with a hearty laugh. "Now, I can tell what is going out of style by what we get here."

She no longer buys the latest fashions, but she still dresses with flair. A little jewelry, a colorful scarf, understated makeup and neat hairdo create a look that says, "Ask me how to put it all together."

Ms. Holt's management has brought obvious benefits to the mission store. Sales hover at about $5,000 a week and topped $7,000 one week in October.

The store is expected to break last year's record $300,000 figure, the highest in its 30-year history.

Ms. Holt credits hard work, alluring displays and sales skills. She begins each day with "thanks to the Lord for everything we get and a hope that we can sell it," she says.

No stranger to success, Ms. Holt had "many $1,000 days" at Miller Bros., says Michael Miller, her former boss, who called her "the kind of gal who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos."

Three years after she retired from the shop, his customers are still asking for her.

"The way she helps people stays the same," Mr. Miller said. "She treats people the same way whether she sells to rich or poor."

The right touch

Shoppers who don't have to know the price are often more work than those who can't buy unless the price is right, she said.

"You had to save dresses you knew they would want, call them about promotions and help them plan extensive wardrobes," she said of her work at Miller Bros. "Here you don't have to remember nearly as much."

At the mission store recently, a young woman preparing for a job interview asked for help. With a glance and not one question, Ms. Holt guessed size and suitability. Within minutes, the woman had a choice of several ensembles. The right clothes can build confidence, Ms. Holt said.

The store attracts the needy, but also bargain-hunters, antiques dealers and vintage-clothing dealers.

Nicknamed regulars include Dapper Dan, a 77-year-old retiree who is usually shopping in a well-matched outfit he purchased at the mission.

"I am so poor that I can't afford to look poor," said Leonard Detweiler. "It's amazing what you can do with a little money."

Thrill of the hunt

Ms. Holt quickly recognizes what will sell as she rummages through donations, rejecting anything soiled or damaged.

She still feels the thrill of the hunt when she stumbles onto a fine piece of china or a delicate carving among piles and piles of cast-offs.

The store receives tons of clothing and household goods each week, usually a large truckload a day, the Rev. Clifford Elkins, mission director, said. Monday mornings, the drop-off area behind the store is full of goods that didn't sell at weekend yard sales.

To sell castoffs, it takes "a very fine saleslady like Belle, who works so well with customers," he said.

"The secret is display," she said as she brushed her hand against a long row of dresses arranged from bright reds to soft pastels.

A place for everything

When Ms. Holt took over at the store two years ago, disarray ruled. Now, each item has its place in a Belle-designed grouping.

"Good books, toys, antiques -- dealers buy them up, but first they have to find them," she said.

Once in daunting piles, clothing is now folded on display tables for optimum eye appeal.

"I come up every morning and make a different display and sale," said Ms. Holt, as she took out her trusty marker. "Eight is too much; let's make it a $6 table today."

Furniture, once scattered through the store, is arranged in room settings, which often are sold in their entirety. Cleanliness replaced clutter.

Customers who venture into the basement find luggage, sports gear, and health equipment, mostly discarded crutches. Ms. Holt knows where everything is.

A soft touch

Whatever doesn't move becomes a mark-down or part of a quirky sales gimmick. Ms. Holt can haggle with the best.

"Most of the time, she suckers me in," said Rick Farver, an antique dealer with a keen eye.

Ms. Holt can also be a soft touch, especially with college students.

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