Snagging recycled bargains

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Copyright Times Publishing Co. Sep 10, 2004

The snappy floral sofa beckons for the perfect cocktail table. A metal chair forged into the shape of a horse calls for a cute plaid cushion. A wicker daybed begs for a fluffy down comforter and a sunny guest room.

A middle-aged couple mull the possibilities.

A pine wardrobe catches their eye and they buy it on the spot.

For $365.


You heard right, tootsie. Whip out the faux Kate Spade wallet, you just entered consignment shoppers’ paradise.

What used to be an average-size, 3,000-square-foot consignment store on Henderson Boulevard, recently morphed into bargain-lovers’ central, a 27,000-square-foot furniture showroom, featuring hundreds of used sofas, chairs, chests, desks, paintings, dining sets, even a darling antique church pew with flowery cushions ($445).

“We have some pretty dramatic space needs,” says Linda Bell, who co-owns the new Triage Consignment Showcase at 4912 S. Lois Ave. with her husband, Dave.

“In our old store we would very literally have to rent a warehouse for incoming furniture.”

Not to mention all the decorative items spied last week in just one visit: throw pillows, ice buckets, upholstery tassels, wine glasses, sweet little Blue Willow saucers, a ceramic Chinese pot with a goldfish painted inside.

The selection ranges from elegant to entertaining.

That large bust of Zeus will set you back $22.

Three little rabbit chairs, $12.

“We’ve had some people furnish an entire apartment in a single afternoon,” Linda Bell says.

Catering to the whirlwind home decorator takes space. The former janitorial supply warehouse just off Gandy Boulevard came complete with loading docks, a roomy parking lot, even a vast warehouse for incoming and outgoing goods.

“The storage in our old shop equaled a two-car garage – it was just a back room,” Linda explains.

The Bells knew they were on to something big when they started carrying furniture in their South Tampa store back in 1992. They accepted only high quality items, lots of brand names that sold for three times as much new.

Customers knew they were getting a deal and kept coming back.

The store drew loads of bargain lovers from Brandon, Apollo Beach, New Tampa, Wesley Chapel, New Port Richey, even surrounding counties.

The Bells say they’re now attracting the grown children of original customers. And loyal shoppers have been known to drive miles for a Triage deal.

“We had a couple from Homosassa last week,” says Linda, who got started in the consignment business back in the early ’80s in a 350- square-foot South Tampa storefront.

“We even had parents of UT and USF students buying furniture for their apartments. One woman was so upset because she hadn’t come here first.”

The Bells opened the new location June 19 and haven’t looked back. A recent super sale – one of four they hold each year – drew so many customers that cars lined up on Gandy and across the street. The parking lot overflowed and customers roamed the warehouse floor, grabbing reduced merchandise. (The most famous bargain was a $67 china cabinet snagged by one lucky woman.)

Frequent visits are key.

Pat Veretto, editor of the online publication Frugal Living, writes that, as a rule, consignment and thrift merchandise changes daily.

“A weekly shopping trip is reasonable and will yield many finds and bargains,” she says.

The Bells first scouted the warehouse property in February, after spending a couple of weeks informally surveying customers to see whether they would drive the extra 3 miles from South Tampa.

“Every single person said they would,” recalls Dave Bell who got into the business by way of his wife. After the two fell in love and married – blending six kids into a famously close-knit family that good friends have always called “the Brady Bunch” – he left banking and jumped into the world of consignment retail, then just heating up.

The new store still features a large consigned clothing section, but that’s another story, another time.

The furniture alone is enough to keep you browsing for hours, even days. But the turnover is fast, so shoppers must be quick on the draw.

“If you like it, buy it, because it won’t be here tomorrow,” warns saleswoman Donna Brown, a seven-year employee who knows most regular customers by name.

She’s also known to keep an eye open for what the loyal seek.

Lori Downs furnished much of her home in Avila with Triage finds, things she likes because they are “older, have a lot of character and have been well-loved by someone else.”

It took her 21 months. She did it slowly, with Brown’s help.

An avid decorator with a taste for the eclectic, she could shop anywhere.

She’s also the new breed of consignment customer.

Many local interior designers browse the Triage aisles, as do some famous Tampa faces, including athletes and politicians.

When Linda Bell first started selling consignment clothing – often expensive frocks plucked from wealthy women’s closets – going to her store was a secretive adventure for some women who wanted nice clothes on the cheap.

Ditto for consignors looking for a little spending money on the sly.

“It was a lot different in the ’80s; there was a negative stigma,” Bell recalls. “Women who didn’t want to be caught in a consignment store literally used to hide or dive for cover or go out the back door. Now it’s cool.”

“Triage,” which is from the French and means “to cull,” prides itself on taking only good, high-quality merchandise, about one in four items offered.

The most expensive thing they’ve ever sold was a $6,000 leather sofa, barely used, “originally $22,000,” Linda says.

Fees are split on a 50-50 basis with the person consigning the goods.

Typically, Triage employees visit a home first to eyeball furniture and decide whether it’s worthy of ferrying back to the store on the truck. The wait for such a visit is three weeks, but the Bells will sometimes make a decision based on digital pictures.

For now, they’re thrilled that they made the move to the new, megalocation. They haven’t advertised.

Says Dave: “We’ve been mostly word of mouth.”

He knows he’s a lucky guy. Consignment furniture shopping has soared into the stratosphere in the past decade for reasons he can only begin to fathom.

In the end, the formula is simple.

“It’s human nature,” he says. “People look for value.”

If you’re interested in selling a piece of consignment furniture, send a good quality photo to Store hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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