It’s not easy for the average consignment shop these days. Owners often sell the really good stuff themselves online. Or they keep it—if they know what it is. Thanks to the internet, there’s been an uptick in knowledge of what’s old and valuable.
For those who haven’t caught on, the moral thing is to tell consignors what they have, then everyone can profit. That’s always been the policy at Wayne’s Neighborhood League Shops. Former NLS board chair Jan Andersen points out a pair of late-1800s polished brass wedding candlesticks with umbrella caps. “I have a pair at home that were my mother’s,” she says.
It’s the first time Andersen has seen a pair arrive here. She estimates a value between $700 and $1,500. Here at the shop, the original $325 price has been slashed to $81.25—a “prize,” she says.
The nonprofit NLS is comprised of three ever-changing, largely volunteer-run consignment shops within a block of each other on Lancaster Avenue. The shops offer a well-curated selection of clothing, jewelry, small furnishings, antiques, housewares, artwork and collectibles. There was once an upstairs tea room. “Anything to support charity,” says Andersen about the proceeds, which are donated to nonprofits geared toward health and social services and women in need. The home shop closes for the summer on June 18, begins consigning again in mid-August and reopens after Labor Day. The clothing shop and the Alley Door donation destination remain open for three days a week during the summer.
Like most things on the Main Line, the shops have a long history dating back to 1912, when nine women began the Neighborhood League of Wayne. In 1925, they began selling donated clothing from a small rented room on North Wayne Avenue, eventually founding one of the first consignment shops in the country during the Great Depression. Initially, they worked with the Chester County Visiting Nurses Association, a relationship that ended in the 1990s. “We wanted to give locally,” says Andersen, who lives in Radnor. “We’re in Delaware County.”
The shops take 40-percent off all consignment sales and donate every penny to charity, leaving an almost-unheard-of 60-percent for the consignor. If an item is donated, then 100-percent off the sale is donated. “People like the fact that part of the profit is going to charity,’” Andersen says. “The money stays local.”
Recent recipients have included Ardmore’s Saint Mary’s Food Bank, the Great Valley Food Bank and Wayne Methodist Food Bank, though there are no religious affiliations. Philabundance also benefits. “There’s nothing more essential than food,” says Andersen.
The women in the 1940s had enough foresight to buy the buildings. “Or I don’t think we’d still be here,” Andersen says, “not with what others charge for rent these days and if we had to pay our help. This is so labor-intensive.”
Andersen has been largely responsible for keeping the buildings in good shape. All three have been recently reroofed, and she’s currently converting the hot-water boiler into a heat-exchange system. She credits the women before her for doing a tremendous job of saving money to keep the buildings going. Next up: a power washing and repointing of the facades.
Right now, NLS employs one full-time person, a business manager, a half-time manager and a half-time cashier. The organization is trying to revert back to all volunteers, of which there are upwards of 75, with a dozen boardmembers. Many stay involved for years, including the shops in their wills. The younger ones help with the Facebook and Instagram presence needed to keep NLS relevant.
The more consistent consignors tend to be older folks who are downsizing. “There’s enough stuff for everybody,” says Andersen. “We’re a nation of excess. What other countries have garage sales?”
But NLS turns down plenty. It has standards to maintain. “It must be something of quality—whatever it is,” she says. “If it was made in China yesterday, please don’t bring it in here.”
Raised with antiques, Andersen credits a trip to Copenhagen in the mid-1960s with her conversion to mid-century modern. To stay trendy, the shop keeps up on Facebook and Instagram, attracting buyers of all ages.
Andersen emerges with another example—an Eiffel Tower votive candleholder with a back panel mirror that begs the question, “Why was this even made?” If it survives its 30-day shelf life, it can be yours for $10 (plus 6-percent sales tax, unless you hold a re-sale tax number).
New NLS board chair Cathy Sauerwald took over on July 1 for a two-year term. Now, she takes on the task of boosting its online presence—though not necessarily for the reason you’d think. “We’ve definitely moved into the future, but all the selling is still at the shops,” she says. “Customers still like the brick-and-mortar experience, especially to view the expensive jewelry. And with clothing, they want to try it on.”
Success for shoppers and collectors rests largely on reputation. “The regulars know us and trust us,” she says. “It’s a great neighborhood, and so they know we get great donations. Consignors are cleaning out their own houses or their parents’ houses, and there’s such a wonderful established socioeconomic status of this immediate neighborhood.”
At the Alley Door, off hours are a must, as the donation bin fills up quickly and regularly. Much of it has to be cleaned, washed, polished and organized before making it onto a shelf. Volunteer Carol Zionce sets aside one donation—an older clock—as a possibility for the home shop. “What we have here is amazing,” she says.
The home shop has two floors and a basement full of art, furniture and discounted items on a discount carousel. The clothing section features $1 red tag sales, and the Alley Door’s basement includes children’s clothes for $1. “Some weeks, great stuff leaves in an hour,” Andersen says. “I’d venture to say it’s the most attended shop in Wayne. When we open, people are lined up on the pavement.”
Andersen recalls a conversation she had with a gentleman in his 90s at the Wayne Senior Center. If it wasn’t for the kids clothing at the shop, he told her, he’d never have been clothed as a child. “This place is an institution in the neighborhood,” she says.