Revitalizing Baltimore with a new take on garage sales

May 19, 2011|By Aaron Chang and Shona Mitteldorf

What if a single idea could create jobs, offer low-cost goods to shoppers and creatively repurpose vacant property in economically depressed neighborhoods throughout Baltimore?

Not many new businesses are eager to open in such neighborhoods, although they are the very places that most need a shot of economic vitality. Our vision is to take an abandoned property and transform it into a store where community members can buy and sell lightly used items that they no longer need. If successful, the project could be replicated in similar communities throughout the city, increasing economic activity and strengthening neighborhoods.

At first, such a hybrid garage sale/retail store would need more sellers than buyers, thus necessitating an initial bank loan. To be clear: This would not be a pawn shop. A key difference is that pawn shops provide a way for people in need of money to get some quick cash. Our store would not seek quick profits from desperate people but would give low-income customers attractive shopping choices while promoting a "green" ethic, with customers selling items that would have otherwise been thrown away.

This business model will potentially help the community in several ways. The city benefits through redevelopment of vacant houses and the possibility of generating tax income. Local residents would have a chance to sell (or buy) used but functional items — electronics, clothes, furniture, books, etc.

To encourage customers to return, a point system could be established where people can accumulate points by selling or buying items. With a certain number of points, they can then receive a discount when buying an item. Additionally, our new business would generate jobs. Finally, it is hoped that this kind of store would help foster a sense of community. Not just individuals but organizations could also potentially benefit. For example, as the business becomes more successful and excess profit is generated, clothes or books might be donated to homeless shelters or schools.

Correct site location is essential to this project's success. A traffic volume study can be done, with the chosen remodeled vacant house located in a place that sees the optimal balance between traffic volume and neighborhood need. Traffic volume that is too low would cripple the store's visibility, while a street with a high traffic volume likely has many stores and establishments nearby already.

Since the store would likely be located in an area of relative poverty, prices that are comparable to or lower than those of thrift stores would ensure a relative advantage over the competition — but not to the point that it puts nearby, privately owned thrift stores out of business. We will aim to market our store as a supplemental niche store likely to contain unique items that are not usually available in conventional thrift stores.

After building awareness and support through paid ads, social media, schools and public figures, we hope the idea will spread, leading to a demand for similar stores elsewhere in the city. The various branches of our store, located in different neighborhoods of Baltimore, might be unified by a single, centralized Internet database, allowing to buyers to go online to see what items are available and also at which branch location those items are stocked.

While a garage sale/thrift store could cut into the profits of neighboring businesses, it seems just as likely to us that traffic to nearby shops and restaurants may actually increase as a result.

Hopefully, our store leads to an enhanced sense of community in Baltimore, a boost in economic activity and a decrease in wasted resources. It's worth a try.

Aaron Chang (aaron.chang02@gmail.com) and Shona Mitteldorf (shmittel@gmail.com) are Johns Hopkins University students. This article grew out of the authors' participation in "B'more Innovative: Studying Change Through Charm City," a class taught by Michael Reese, associate director of Johns Hopkins' Center for Educational Resources.

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