New beginnings for NCJW

Anne Stockham of Glendale browses on Tuesday at the National Council of Jewish Women’s Resale Shop, which recently moved to 295 N. Lindbergh Boulevard. The shop (pictured below) opened at the new location in October, but its grand opening is set for Thursday, Nov. 10. Photo: Agatha Gallagher

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Ellen Alper looks out at a parking lot framed with a backdrop of passing cars on Lindbergh Boulevard and finds herself hoping for a mild winter.

“I’m going to pray that it doesn’t snow,” she laughs, “because now I have to pay for the snow removal.”

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It’s a minor annoyance but it’s one the executive director welcomes as yet another sign that her organization, the St. Louis Section of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) is ready to experience all the joys and worries of property ownership. The group has purchased the former Hopper Furs location on busy U.S. 67 just south of Olive Boulevard, having departed a rented space in Olivette. Most recently leased by JoS. A. Bank Clothiers, the $960,000 tract will, Alper hopes, be a boon as home to the group’s resale operation, long a mainstay of its funding.

The shop sells a variety of new and gently used donations-everything from sterling silver tea sets to men’s clothing. With an average item cost of under $5, Alper said the establishment remains an affordable option for shoppers seeking quality merchandise.

In fact, though NCJW’s fundraising has suffered along with other non-profits during the convulsions of a seemingly endless series of global financial crises, the resale business has been a sea of calm. During hard times, bargain hunting is the one type of shopping retailers find an easy sell for shell-shocked consumers.

“Resale business is up all across the country. The economy has actually helped that a little bit,” Alper said. “People are looking for more bang for their buck. If you can get a like-new sweater for 10 bucks at a resale shop that would cost you 50 at the store, why wouldn’t you do that?”

The resale idea has long predated the present recession however. It’s been a key part of the organization since 1940 when NCJW first opened the enterprise as the Council Shop. Later, the store would move through various locations before coming to a strip mall on Olive Boulevard just east of Interstate 170.

But now change has come once again and Alper said she feels that the latest move, completed last month, will be even more beneficial, drawing customers from the thoroughfare’s heavy traffic and its site in the heart of the county.

“It’s a high-profile, easy-access location,” she said of the spot at 295 N. Lindbergh Boulevard. “Our members love it because it’s a little bit closer for those that live further out west and it’s central for our membership, which stretches from the Central West End all the way out to Ballwin and Chesterfield.”

It will also be easier on the pocketbook. Despite her jokes about snow removal worries, Alper said that the mortgage payments will be less than the various rental expenses thus keeping the organization lean and competitive with roughly the same amount of retail square footage.

It also means the group can continue to focus dollars on its core community service mission. This includes signature activities such as the Back-to-School! Store. Started a decade ago, the initiative provides school supplies, clothing, and personal care items to children heading back to classes. Other programs include Wife Widow Woman, which impacts more than 600 widows, and a voucher initiative associated with the resale shop that helps natural disaster victims.

Then there’s the Kids Community Closet, which provides emergency supplies available to 2,700 children in area school districts where 80 percent of families live below the poverty line.

“We stock the closet with whatever supplies the school tells us they need,” Alper said, “whether it’s clothing, school supplies, backpacks, winter coats, socks. We hear of kids who don’t go to school because there’s one coat and three kids share it so the kids come to school every third day when it’s cold.”

She said she also hears of teachers reaching into their own pockets to purchase items for students. It’s the kind of gap NCJW aims to fill.

“This becomes a safety net for these kids so they can stay in school and get an education,” she said. “We know that if you are going to help kids rise out of poverty, they’ve got to get an education.”

But that safety net doesn’t come cheap. The Back-to-School! Store alone, which has outfitted more than 8,000 children during its existence, can run over $100,000 a year-a big expense for a not-for-profit with a roughly $825,000 annual budget.

That’s where the resale shop comes in. With average annual sales topping $330,000, the shop typically nets as much as $60-$75,000 after expenses serving more than 20,000 customers annually. Nearly 4,000 people a year bring in donations, Alper said, some by the carload or even the houseful.

Some money does come in from dues and other fundraising events but the single best source of revenue on an ongoing monthly basis remains the resale shop.

Alper said business is booming at the new location.

“A lot of people come in because they are resale shoppers,” she said. “They know where all the resale shops are. Typically, if they frequent one, they frequent multiple.”

The new digs aren’t just retail, either. The 17,000 square foot facility provides space for storage and the NCJW offices, formerly housed in the Gladys and Henry Crown Center for Senior Living off Delmar Boulevard. It’s the first time the NCJW store and administrative functions have been in the same spot.

“Just having everything in one location is going to make things so much easier,” said Farilyn Hale, president of the organization.

Hale has been involved in NCJW since the 1980s but that’s only a fraction of the time the local branch of the organization has been around. Started in 1895, the St. Louis section is only two years younger than its parent group.

It’s also spawned offspring since then. In the 1980s, the organization started Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) to help abused and neglected children and Legal Advocates for Abused Women (LAAW) to assist domestic violence victims. Both now exist as freestanding groups.

“These are independent organizations that have spun off from NCJW and are on their own right now but NCJW got them going,” Hale said.

Jessica Means, manager of the resale store, said that’s part of the organization’s charm. She said customers at the Resale Shop enjoy the fact that they are helping others and hunting bargains at the same time.

“They love that their money goes to a good cause and they usually donate here because of that as well,” she said. “It’s one big recycling program.”