A Harford County retailer as popular for its yard-sale atmosphere as its couture fashions is reopening next month more than a year after closing. But it will no longer carry the C-Mart name that bargain shoppers knew so well.
C-Mart once attracted a loyal following of frugal shoppers with high-end tastes from around the region until attempts by new owners to modernize in a bad economy forced it out of business in 2008.
Now a member of C-Mart's founding family is reopening the store Feb. 3 in its original location under the name The Big TARP Company Store.
Keith Silberg, whose uncle and father opened C-Mart in the 1970s, said his family no longer has the rights to the old name but that shoppers can expect the same quirky things they loved so much about the original operation.
"Organized chaos," is the way Silberg described it.
That means a no-frills store where shoppers rummage through clothes hung haphazardly on racks. A paper-and-pencil enterprise with old-fashioned cash registers. Some of the former employees also will be back. But perhaps most importantly, the bargain-basement prices that sometimes prompted people to camp overnight for Kate Spade purses will return.
"The only thing that is really different is that it's a fresh start for us, and it's a different name. What I have realized is the name at the top of the page means absolutely nothing," Silberg said. "People came to C-Mart because of the deals. Even if it takes a little longer for people to get used to the name, at the end of the day if I'm selling a high-definition TV for $300 when it was $700, people are going to come."
When C-Mart closed, Silberg said, he was ready to give up on retail and go to law school. But his old contacts kept calling with new merchandise. C-Mart would buy from insurance company salvage lots, which collect items from stores trying to get rid of damaged goods, as well as sample sales and liquidations. One called with a truckload of televisions, another with purses.
Silberg couldn't seem to get rid of the entrepreneurial bug, opening a flea market and auction company in the original C-Mart building, which his family still owned.
"It started becoming impossible to say, 'No,' " Silberg said, referring to inquiries from merchandise salesmen. "So we stopped saying, 'No.' "
The Big TARP Company Store - named after the federal government stimulus program designed to bail out big banks at the height of the recession - will pass on those deals.
There will be $30,000 worth of products from a Vera Bradley boutique, 3,000 pairs of shoes from two department stores, and books from a Barnes & Noble truck that didn't make it to stores because the front cabin caught fire.
The 30,000-square-foot space also will display electronics, men's and women's clothing, boutique merchandise, home decor and rugs. There will be new deals every week that are advertised with the handwritten newspaper advertisements that became a C-Mart trademark over the years.
The flea market and auction house also will continue to operate out of a small part of the store.
Local retail consultants said that C-Mart had a successful business model until new owners attempted to modernize by computerizing operations and trying to sell merchandise on the Internet.
"There's no reason why they should have failed in the first place," said Mark Millman, owner of Millman Search Group, a retail executive search firm based in Owings Mills. "Hopefully, they've learned their lesson."
Silberg acknowledges that modernization may not have been the right move for C-Mart. "It became organized almost corporately," Silberg said. "This is tried and true a family business."
Rene Daniel, a principal with Baltimore retail brokerage Trout Daniel & Associates, said C-Mart has a chance at being successful again by following its old business model. Daniel said he used to buy ski outfits from C-Mart at a steep discount.
"Their business was predicated on their ability to create fashion value for label-conscious people," Daniel said. "They had a tremendous ability to purchase goods at such a low cost to them that they were able to offer incredible savings to people who wanted to buy branded merchandise. I think they can be successful if they are able to again establish themselves as a tremendous value-oriented company."
Many shoppers were disappointed when C-Mart closed and were excited about its pending reopening.
Lisa Shenkle began shopping at C-Mart in the late 1980s and would go at least every six weeks, even making the trek from Laurel. Some of her thrifty finds over the years were Kate Spade shoes, Michael Kors pumps and a Betsy Johnson handbag. She once discovered a Lanvin couture dress, only to find it didn't fit.
Still, she said: "I got a little shiver when I found it."
Shenkle, who now lives in Pasadena and works in public relations, said she was "devastated" when C-Mart closed because she was no longer able to get a slice of high-end shopping similar to what's offered in New York. She'll be at the new store on opening day, she said. She even thought for a second about camping out the night before.
"I'm so excited, I can't stand it," she said.