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Laid off, now pinning hopes on the thrift-shop biz

When times get tough, the tough need to find a new game plan. Barbara DeNero learned that the hard way.

Owner Barbara DeNero assists Julie Singh at Treasure Chest Thrift, in Berlin, Camden County.
Owner Barbara DeNero assists Julie Singh at Treasure Chest Thrift, in Berlin, Camden County.Read moreJOHN COSTELLO / Staff Photographer

When times get tough, the tough need to find a new game plan. Barbara DeNero learned that the hard way.

It was gut-wrenching enough watching her retirement money evaporate over the last 15 months. But coupled with the loss of her job as a human resources specialist in March 2008, her hopes for a fast-approaching retirement faded. DeNero knew she would have to move fast and be smart.

For the 57-year-old from Voorhees, Plan B was opening Treasure Chest Thrift in Berlin, Camden County, in November.

DeNero had more than a hunch that the thrift-shop business would work in this new economy of rampant unemployment and tight money. She understood about survival tactics and she built her business around those: Prices needed to be kept very low, and more important, stock must be turned over quickly.

"Keep it cheap and make sure it comes in one door and out the other quickly," said the soft-spoken DeNero.

It's been a proven recipe for success.

According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS), resale stores are a multibillion-dollar business. Generally recession-proof, they seem to thrive in bad times. A recent survey showed that about 63 percent of 149 industry respondents saw first-quarter sales figures for 2009 rise, by an average of 32 percent over the same period last year. DeNero has seen a 10 percent increase in sales each month since opening.

Treasure Chest Thrift, a nearly 4,000-square-foot space, is packed from floor to ceiling. Even the walls are valuable real estate. Half of the store is filled with clothing, shoes, handbags, toys, antiques, and bric-a-brac. The other half holds furniture, major appliances, computers, wall decorations, and lamps. You could stumble onto an antique Elvis plate ($15), a vintage kitchen set ($50), a saddle for a camel ($20), or a box of new pink birthday-cake candles (50 cents).

Clothing, a top seller, DeNero says, is tagged at $1 a piece, making it the ultimate bargain. And the merchandise changes daily.

DeNero runs the business with the help of her husband, John, 64, a printer, and her five grown children - four sons and one daughter, ages 25 to 32. She works long hours, seven days a week. The early part of the week is spent mostly on cleaning, sorting, and pricing the incoming merchandise, while the latter part is spent selling it.

DeNero gets most of her goods buying truckloads of closeout stock and shopping at home clean-outs. DeNero also snaps up merchandise from yard sales, frequently getting calls to take the remains nobody wanted that day. For these reasons, resale owners say they help the environment by keeping a lot of unwanted stuff out of landfills.

"We once filled our car with 386 pairs of new shoes that an older couple was selling when they had to downsize their home," she said. "We could barely open one window on the ride home."

DeNero says her customers range from the incidental shopper to people who are unemployed and unable to afford retail prices for clothing or furnishings. Some people, she said, have lost their homes and possessions and need to start over. She also sees customers, many older, who stop by to sell their possessions to get extra money to "pay bills and make ends meet."

Jose Pena, 32, and Claribel Rosado, 21, are expecting their first child next month and found a sturdy car seat for $5.

"The economy is so bad," said Pena, a warehouse worker from Pennsauken, "so why should I pay $80 for a new car seat when I can get it for so much less? I have to save for what can happen in the future."

Julie Singh, 59, a Waterford Township widow, works part time as a nursing assistant and struggles to make ends meet. She has been a repeat customer since the store opened because the prices fit her tight budget. On a recent Saturday, she purchased three almost-new baby outfits and a pair of socks for a friend's new infant. She says she gets pleasure from buying for others and Treasure Chest Thrift has allowed her to do that. "You do the best you can," she said.

Alice Harris, 57, who became disabled in 2003 as a result of a car accident, says the store gives her the opportunity to have nice things - designer jeans, even a sofa - that she otherwise couldn't afford to have.

"Shopping here means a lot to me," she said. "I can make my house look better and get the better things that other people have."

The demand has prompted DeNero to expand the business to the back of the building's property, where patio furnishings, tools, and gardening and auto supplies are sold.

While her new gig doesn't deliver the same income as her corporate job, DeNero feels she's in a happier place.

"When the job market was drying up, I was frustrated not being able to help people find work," she said. "Here, I can still help people, but in a different way."