Better bargains Designers have discovered affordable treasures at consignment shops, where the trend is decidedly upscale

Focus on design.

November 15, 1998|By Beth Smith | Beth Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On one of his occasional forays through furniture consignment shops in Annapolis, interior designer Gary Lawrik spied an impressive block-front chest.

"It was a cherry reproduction piece made by a well-known furniture house, and it was priced at $400," he recalls. He didn't hesitate to buy it. "A brand new chest would cost four times as much," explains Lawrik.

When designer Tina Wojtal has a client with a tight budget, she frequently browses consignment shops. She finds these stores particularly good for picking up traditional furniture like the classic, federal-style sofa she found for a couple who wanted one for their living room, but who had blown most of their money on new furniture for their family room. Wojtal is also intrigued with the unusual pieces she discovers.

For Joyce Griffith, co-owner of Papier Interiors, consignment shops are a great source for small, unique accessories. "I especially like to browse consignment stores when I am looking for objects to use in rooms like libraries," she notes. "You can often find interesting things that lend a little character to bookshelves, something more than just books."

Spurred by designer interest and growing public support, consignment shops have become upwardly mobile. Originally considered kin to junk shops, flea markets, garage sales and second-hand furniture stores, "the market is now definitely upscale and the customers affluent," says Cass Pappas, co-owner of the Consignment House Ltd. in Ellicott City.

"Of course, we still get kids outfitting their dorm room or newlyweds furnishing their first house," explains the Clearing House owner, Jan Wittenbach, with a laugh. "But we also get a lot of customers, including interior designers and antique dealers, looking for very fine household items." Dealers are often the first customers to arrive when estate items hit the sales floor.

To satisfy this growing demand for better merchandise, stores are carefully reviewing what they take to sell. "At the Clearing House, we are constantly improving the quality of the merchandise we carry, and we are very selective about what we take," adds Wittenbach.

Selectivity is the word echoed by many of today's consignment-shop owners as they seek a tonier image. They admit they are picky. "We don't guarantee to take every item that is brought to us," says Camille Quillen, co-owner of Great Finds and Designs. "We will say no to some really great things simply because they don't fit into our concept of our store," which she describes as geared to the traditional, high-end market.

Consignment stores - establishments where the owner (consignor) of an item contracts with an agent (consignee) to sell the consignor's merchandise - have been around for years. The Turnover Shop in Roland Park opened in 1943, making it the granddad of furniture-selling consignment stores in Baltimore. Owner Alice Ann Finnerty has seen generations of the same family buying and selling "stuff" in her shop.

The benefits of consignment are mutual. The consignor has a clean, safe (items are usually insured) place to sell his or her household goods at a mutually agreed-upon price without the hassle of a yard sale or the uncertainty of an auction. For the loan of floor space, advertising and sales help, the consignee gets a percentage of the selling price of the item and a store full of inventory without a major investment.

This arrangement has become very appealing in recent years, a trend that is predicted to continue, according to Entrepreneur magazine. "And, people are much more informed than they used to be," adds Finnerty. "They have done some research and are much more aware of the value of items."

Interior designers Tom Williams and Robert Hale have shopped consignment for at least 11 years for both themselves and their clients. They like the eclectic decor where a fine antique can be discovered right around the corner from a vintage modern piece. "In Baltimore, most people search out the traditional mahogany pieces in consignment shops," says Williams. "But I say keep an eye out for the oddball piece, especially something contemporary."

Like all consignment shoppers, Hale and Williams are excited when they discover a real bargain. "When we first moved to Baltimore, I saw this wonderful settee in a small consignment shop," recalls Williams. "It was a Louis XV reproduction piece made by Trouvailles. I realized that the frame alone was probably worth $2,000." Williams paid $225.

So who sets the price? "At our store, and in most stores, the price is determined by the store," says Leah Deane, co-owner of Echos and Accents in Annapolis, "but we always take into consideration what the seller thinks the price should be." The negotiations can be delicate.

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