By Martha Barksdale

When Bonnie Kallenberg needed a little white shirt for her baby girl, she headed to Rich’s, as Atlanta shoppers did 26 years ago. The prices shocked her. “A shirt was $23; there was no way I was going to pay $23 for a baby’s shirt,” she recalled. “On the way home, I stopped by a consignment shop and found exactly what I was looking for – for $6. From that moment on, I was hooked.”

Hooked, indeed. Later, Kallenberg, who holds a business degree from Georgia State University, began working part-time at the Finders Keepers in Avondale Estates. She purchased the business in 1990. The Finders Keepers empire has now grown to three stores – the original Finders Keepers Fashions, along with Finders Keepers Boutique and Finders Keepers Furnishings, both in Decatur.

Linda Morado’s epiphany came while she was sitting on a beach in Costa Rica in 2008. As one of the city’s top real estate agents, it was tough to get away from work, so she logged into her e-mail and discovered the world was crashing down around her. The e-mail detailed many types of loans she would no longer be able to offer her clients. Morado said she knew it was time for another career.

She kept returning to a scheme she had often thought of before, when getting ready for the many industry galas and events she attended. Why not open a consignment shop and sell some of these dresses that she and her colleagues would wear only once? Morado asked her friends what they thought, and Le Dress Boutique was born.

In the months since, the Buckhead shop has become the place to go for weddings, proms and formal occasions, selling new and gently used designer gowns for between 30 and 60 percent of their original price.

At 15, Melissa Baxter had to find a job for her summer break – mother’s orders. So she began working for Kallenberg at Finders Keepers. She had found her calling. Throughout high school and then into college, Baxter stayed in the consignment industry, and when Back By Popular Demand in Lilburn came up for sale, Kallenberg encouraged Baxter to buy it, even though she was only 20. Baxter did, and eight years later, she’s still in the business of helping women find and sell previously owned clothing and accessories.

Just what is consignment shopping? A consignment shop accepts merchandise from owners, and pays them a percentage of the price when the items are sold. Don’t confuse consignment with thrift stores. Consignment items must be in new or like-new condition. They can’t be old – usually two years is the cut-off point. Store owners carefully screen what they will accept. “We don’t have space to take things that won’t sell,” Morado said.

But, oh the bargains to be had! A $3,600 evening dress may sell for $700 at Le Dress. Designer shoes and purses go for a fraction of their original cost at Back By Popular Demand. “Once you get a taste of the bargain, you’ll never go back to retail,” Morado proclaimed.

Baxter, Kallenberg and Morado, along with 40 or so other members of metro’s consignment community, have a new mission. They are utilizing the power of numbers through Atlanta Consignment Stores (www.atlantaconsignmentstores.com), an alliance of consignment store owners throughout the metro Atlanta area.

ACS is Baxter’s brainchild (Kallenberg called her a Web and marketing “genius”), but Kallenberg and others have been heavily involved as well. Baxter said she was discouraged when her shop didn’t show up on Google searches for Atlanta consignment stores. She realized that by uniting under one name, her store and other Atlanta area consignment businesses could pop up high on a search.

ACS officially organized in September and has been growing ever since. Members are as far flung as Woodstock, Lake Oconee and Stockbridge. The ACS Web site includes a listing of member stores, profiles of the owners and tips on consignment selling and shopping. Baxter is working on a new map with all the members and their locations. Also in the works are bus tours this spring. Shoppers will pay $25 to $30 for lunch and transportation, allowing them to park their cars and visit six or seven stores.

The ACS members see themselves more as community than competition,  Baxter said. They plan to gather for meetings on a regular basis, and already refer customers to each other if they don’t have what the customer is seeking. “It’s a very niche market,” Kallenberg said. “Each store has its own flavor.”

Kallenberg knows the power of community. She has long been a member of the National Association of Retail and Thrift Stores and is the group’s vice president. She said the current economy hasn’t hurt the resale industry as badly as some industries, but it has had an effect.

“We’re weathering it pretty well, but we’ve lost that middle layer,” Kallenberg  said. “Maybe some people who used to shop retail are now shopping with us, but we’ve lost some of the people who used to shop here. They’ve had to move down a notch or not buy at all.”

For tips on consignment shopping, see Page 21 of our new e-Edition!

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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