A very Unique Boutique

A Victorian glass bowl sitting on a silver-plated pedestal is priced at $600, a quarter of its value. Watches, old and new, lay next to each other, ticking away in a display case. Contemporary etageres of all widths divide the floor space into welcoming home store-like vignettes and there is a cushy chair in front of bookshelves stocked with best sellers and rare editions.

As you can see, the Hospice Unique Boutique on busy Ashland Street stocks much more than clothing.

Carefully, selectively, the boutique has grown from an idea five years ago into a stylish shop with loyal customers who come by to see what's new — jewelry, furniture, gallery-quality artwork — and to help the Southern Oregon Friends of Hospice raise money for end-of-life programs, from bedside music therapy and last-wishes day trips to bereavement support and grief counseling training.

On Friday, June 15, volunteers at the boutique will distribute $30,000 in funds to four hospices and other local groups that help families at the end of a loved one's life.

But shoppers inside the cheerfully decorated, 24,000-square-foot store aren't reminded of the mission.

"People come in here and do not hear about hospice," says Nancy B. James, a retired occupational therapist who volunteers at the boutique and serves on the Southern Oregon Friends of Hospice Shop Committee. "We are a business and we're here to sell quality items, from $1 to hundreds of dollars."

Returning customers include antique dealers, bargain hunters and other resale shopkeepers. But no one can really predict who will show up.

A few weeks ago, a high school boy raced in before the doors closed to find a tux for the prom. He did. Recently, a man who spilled coffee on his pants on the way to work found a replacement, then continued on his way. And this past Tuesday, Nancy McLeod of Ashland bought the exact pair of black pants she was looking for. The price: $5.

James says some regulars come in to browse and socialize. One of them is Donna Stuart, who on this day isn't looking for anything specific, but she's still looking around. That's because items are placed in the shop daily.

"They have style here," says Stuart, sharply dressed in a periwinkle jacket with a matching necklace. "They do things with flair and fun, and the cause is a great one."

Stuart, who is downsizing her Ashland home and donating items to the boutique, says if something catches her eye — and something always seems to — she can put it on hold for 24 hours and think it through. "Sometimes I need to measure to make sure it will fit," she says. "I'm downsizing, but I'm also replacing the things I'm giving away."

Other donors are cleaning out storage units, moving, remodeling or managing estate sales. Boutique volunteers are able to make house calls for large items.

But most of the time, people who want to donate knock on the back door of the boutique. One of the volunteers or store Manager Melanie Alvarez will evaluate the offerings and carefully select suitable merchandise.

"We have to be picky," says James to a woman who pulled up in a Toyota truck on Tuesday morning, "because we're a boutique, not a garage sale."

James looked into the back of the truck and asked to receive two table lamps with hand-thrown pottery bases. She suggested medical equipment be given to ACCESS Inc. in Medford and other items — kids' toys, appliances, worn clothes — be donated to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or another local organization.

Some selected items are held before they are placed in the store to group them into holiday themes — such as Fourth of July, Halloween or Christmas. "We don't put pumpkins out now," says James. In September, volunteers have a special housewares and bedding sale that they promote to Southern Oregon University students who are setting up a room or an apartment.

Items are sorted, inspected, repaired and cleaned. "We are all compulsives," jokes James. A sweeping look of the backroom proves this: A tidy row of wooden hangers are lined up near the clothes steamer. Cabinet drawers are neatly labeled "Pens/Markers" and "Pins/Tags."

Not seen are the volunteers who work on the items before they're put in the shop. One watch shop owner has donated more than 100 watch batteries. Volunteers with expertise in evaluating specific merchandise help price the items, usually 70 to 80 percent below value.

To maintain the boutique's "integrity," as Southern Oregon Friends of Hospice board president Sarah Seybold calls it, experts who price the goods agree that they will not buy the items. "Although it has never happened here," says Seybold, "some groups have had people set a price that is very low and then they buy the item."

Another difference with the Hospice Unique Boutique: volunteers cannot purchase merchandise before it goes into the store. "There is no backroom buying," says James. "We want our donors to know that their gifts will be available to the community to buy."

If an item doesn't sell in a few months, it is advertised on eBay. The boutique sold a 1903 French tin toy for $1,200 on the online auction site.

In 2009, the first year the boutique opened, Seybold said the board didn't expect it to make a profit. But it did. A check for $5,000 was handed out to a few end-of-life support groups. The second year, the check grew to $10,000. On Friday, Ashland Community Hospital Hospice, Asante Hospice, Lovejoy Hospice and Providence Hospice, as well as COHO: Choosing Options, Honoring Options, the Memory Care Center and the WinterSpring Center will receive a share of $30,000.

Proceeds come from items that cost a few dollars or more. A hardcover book is $3. Three silver-plated spoons are $5. A wedding dress is $45. A vanilla-colored, wall-size country hutch is $325. An antique claw-foot table is $999.

Volunteers have seen bereaved relatives come to the shop with bags of personal items. The boutique workers have been trained to be sensitive to the donors' emotions.

James says a woman came by recently with her late mother's items. When the woman handed James a box of jewelry, James suggested the woman sit with the pieces for a while. The woman saw some she had given her mother decades before. At James' suggestion, the woman left with the box.

"We are not vested in these items," says James. "We are just here to help."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

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