Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bargain Barn ~ eBay, Part 8

It seems that I’ve completely lost track of my eBay story.

Here’s what happened so far if you’re in the mood for a marathon blog session.

At the end of my last eBay post, I was selling an increasing amount of bras, underwear and organic cotton socks. It was January 2008, and there were a few months left before I had to get serious about job searching. Boxes of things like handmade quilts and bamboo cutting boards were stacked in my garage. I reordered lingerie and socks as needed but couldn’t gamble on too many new wholesale orders until I moved the stuff in my garage. However, it was also important to continually offer new inventory to bring new customers to my eBay store. Customers might come for a wall frame but leave with a wall frame and two bras. Fresh inventory also kept the old customers checking back.

Where was I going to get the new inventory? I had the vague feeling that I was forgetting something. I tried garage sales, flea markets, secondhand stores, Craigslist. No dice. I was in the car one day when I remembered Bargain Barn. Of course! Bargain Barn is almost a mythical place in my town . . . some people don’t think it exists. I drove to the industrial area where Bargain Barn is located and couldn’t find it. I hadn’t been there since college.

I found Bargain Barn on my second try a few days later. It is a warehouse next to a Goodwill processing plant, where all the donations are sorted and shipped off to retail outlets. The overflow from incoming donations and merchandise pulled out of Goodwill stores is thrown into bins and hauled to the warehouse twice a day. About half of it is clothes and accessories, which sell for $1 a pound. Then there are the glassware, record, and book sections as well as a few rows of assorted household goods. It’s $5 for whatever you can stuff into a standard paper grocery bag. If something is too big for a paper bag, it’s $10 for the individual item, unless you are good with the Boss of Bargain Barn.

When I was going to Bargain Barn regularly, the Boss was a tall man with glasses and dreads. I thought he might be from Jamaica, but the accent didn’t seem right. It's hard to say because I only heard him talk in a very low tone or at full shout. He spent most of his time standing by the register with arms crossed, blasting reggae that he turned down to yell at workers or customers. I made a point to be friendly, follow his rules and not shove anyone back when he was watching. Pretty soon my rate for the $10 items was $2 to $5. It seemed like every week or so, there would be New Rules that he’d declare to the eager crowd before opening up the gates at 10 a.m.

The core Bargain Barn heads started lining up at the gates around 9:30 a.m. They had shops in town and as far away as The City. Some sold stuff online or at flea markets. They traded gossip and talked business as they waited in the front of the crowd. When the gates opened, the crowd rushed in. The Boss yelled at everyone to walk, and if anyone ran, he'd send them outside the gates to the back of the crowd. The bouncers physically removed the people who didn't comply.

Most of the regulars returned day after day to one of several filthy areas in Bargain Barn. There were all the vintage clothing shop owners who went through the piles of rank used clothing. One of the more successful local vintage clothing shop owners brought in a team of men to sort clothing for him while he paced behind them. At first, I spent most of my time going through the dozen bins or so of miscellaneous housewares. I found things such as baskets, trays and kitchen tins that sold quickly on eBay. But then, I found the accessory bins. Oh. My. Goodness. There were heaps of purses, belts, wallets – unbelievable things. Of course, there was junk too but I could easily pull out a dozen accessories that would sell for $10 to $40 a piece, and they cost roughly a dollar each. You never knew what you were going to pull out next. A vintage purse from the 50s in excellent condition with the original receipt? IT WAS SO MUCH FUN! But it also could be violent . . . there were several fights around the purses. I was so bummed the day the Boss announced that the accessories would no longer be separated out from the disgusting clothing because of all the fights. It was the New Rule. I poked around in the clothing a couple times but saw no more amazing accessories.

I moved to the books. The book area was also competitive. Most of the Book People sold online or at flea markets. There were usually six to ten bins of books. When Bargain Barn opened, people rushed in to claim a bin and might body block anyone else who tried to look in their bins, for the first few minutes at least. The Book People used to make stacks of books on the ground as they moved from bin to bin, then there was a New Rule that you couldn’t do that . . . you had to hold your books . . . but that rule changed because there was no way the booksellers were going to be able to hold all their books. So THEN the New Rule was that you could stack your books in a suitcase or duffle bag that you brought from home. I have no idea what that was all about. The serious booksellers had scanners they used to determine which books should be thrown back into the bins before heading to the register with their suitcases. I could never figure out exactly what the scanners did, and I did not get the you-are-free-to-ask-me-questions vibe from any of the Book People.

There were some run-ins around the book bins. I generally gave people room if they got physical . . . honestly, if you’re desperate for that, please take it. If I was having a bad day, I might push back a bit. Eventually, I carved out a book niche that didn’t seem to concern anyone else and I was allowed to peer in the book bins over the hunched-over shoulders of the Book People. My niche was mainly three types of vintage books: cookbooks, children’s books and anything in the Sunset series. A couple of the Book People started to hand me stuff they knew I’d want. I was so happy when I was accepted because before that, it was hard to find a place to set my duffle bag.

The books sold OK for me until eBay changed its book condition rating system and automatically set every book listing to the lowest possible rating, which could only be corrected by editing each individual listing. I had hundreds of listings and I didn’t know why none of my books were selling for a couple months. Before the stupid eBay glitch, I sold books for up to $40 each, although most went for $6 to $10. I paid about twenty cents per book.

The downside of selling stuff from Bargain Barn on eBay was that it required a lot of time. I did enjoy the research . . . I found websites dedicated to verifying everything from a first edition Dr. Seuss to a genuine Kate Spade bag. Figuring out how to describe and list each thing was like solving a puzzle. But with most everything from Bargain Barn requiring an individual listing used one time only, it burned up time.

Bargain Barn was very helpful to my eBay store. I found my customers were often eBay sellers. I could sell a vintage Dr. Seuss book at my shop of randomness for about $20, but someone who specialized in collectible books with a well-established rep and customer base could sell the same thing for $75. There was someone in the Midwest who bought boxes and boxes of books from me. I also had customers who were vintage purse dealers and collectible glassware dealers. I was excited at the time because I was seeing my sales grow a little every week.

I do have to say that of everything I’ve done since being unemployed, Bargain Barn was the thing that I felt the most self-conscious about. My town is fairly small . . . it’s unusual to go anywhere without seeing familiar faces. One of my old students worked at Bargain Barn. I felt a little awkward, having gone from a leader-type in the community - as a vice principal and long-time teacher - to someone who was trying to make money off the community's cast-off junk. My doubts were heightened by the concerned looks of friends and family members. But I got over that. It's good to get your hands dirty once in awhile.


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