Chamblee’s thrift and consignment shops experience surprise boon amid pandemic

National Charity League volunteers Hilary Aslaksen and her daughter Rory Hansen sort through clothes at the Giving Tree Thrift store Chamblee Saturday, October 24, 2020.   STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
National Charity League volunteers Hilary Aslaksen and her daughter Rory Hansen sort through clothes at the Giving Tree Thrift store Chamblee Saturday, October 24, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

For decades, Chamblee served as a haven for treasure hunters.

Dubbed the “Antique Row District," a half-mile stretch of downtown Chamblee features roughly two dozen antique shops and second-hand stores. However, the area has changed as younger shoppers pass up the chance to buy grandma’s china in favor of cheap clothes and eclectic decorations.

By offering more affordable and modern wares, thrift stores and consignment shops have laid roots in the antique district and are now seeing an unexpected boon during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think the second-hand market and the used-shop market is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy," Ken Matthes, owner of Simple Finds for the Home, said.

But some predict the increased demand might not last forever. Upscale apartment complexes are in the works nearby and rents have been rising throughout the DeKalb County city, threatening to squeeze the market for second-hand goods.

“I think (rising rents) are going to price them out of business," city Councilwoman Leslie Robson said. "They’re going to have to move to places where the rents are cheaper, and I’m not sure we’ll have a lot of that in Chamblee.”

Keep competitors close

The area’s thrifty roots stretch back for decades.

Assistance League Atlanta, a nonprofit, has run the Attic Treasures Thrift Shop off Broad Street since the early 1990s. Lynn Soylemez, vice president of resources for the charity, said the corridor’s antique history was well-known, and recent advertisements from the city still call the district “The Antique Capital of Georgia.”

With so many second-hand stores in the area, one would think that competition would be fierce. However, Attic Treasures shop manager Shirley McJunkin said the density is a strength, because the stores’ inventory is always changing and no two stores carry the same items.

“They always say that if you’re a thrift store, you want to be within three miles of another thrift store,” McJunkin said. “That’s kind of the rule of thumb.”

That logic is what brought Matthes to the Antique Row market. He previously operated a thrift store in Duluth that never found its footing, but his pivot to Chamblee led to seven years of growth.

Simple Finds for the Home, located in an old furniture store off Chamblee Dunwoody Road, found its niche by mixing antiques and consignment, which is when a store hosts third-party vendors while taking a cut of sales. He said his business did not miss a beat due to the pandemic and ensuing shutdown in March.

“I think we’re selling more now than if it (the pandemic) never even occurred," he said. “People are at home, they’re tired of seeing their sofa, they’re cleaning out their closet and taking it to Goodwill and they’re making changes. They need to replace those (items).”

Simple Finds for the Home
Simple Finds for the Home

Credit: Zachary Hansen

Credit: Zachary Hansen

Assistance League Atlanta, which is run completely by volunteers, has not seen an uptick in sales, but interest in the store and its charitable programs did not slow down. Donations picked up across the summer and the thrift store has been running at capacity since it reopened in September.

Despite being open only 12 hours a week, a third of its normal hours, Attic Treasures is generating 45% of its typical income, Soylemez said. The thrift store typically brings in 82% of the organization’s budget, which is upwards of $800,000 a year. The revenue has helped the charity fund its programs, which feed and clothe children and help the homeless.

“Our customers are so loyal, and usually we have a line between five and 25 waiting to get in,” McJunkin said.

Finding a foothold

The coronavirus did not stop new charity-based thrift store Giving Tree from opening down the street.

Tara Spell, president and co-founder of the organization, said the timing wasn’t ideal — they began renting the Peachtree Road property during the early days of the pandemic.

“We had already found the house and decided to lease it, and then COVID-19 hit," Spell said. "But as my grandmother would have said, the horse had already left the barn. We were already committed.”

The store was financed by the New York-based Yudelson Foundation, where Spell also serves as president. Giving Tree’s mission is to help adults with special needs by providing pre-paid vouchers for them to shop in the thrift store. The cause is personal to Spell, because her 67-year-old sister is autistic.

Karen Moore, another Giving Tree co-founder, said the store, which opened in mid-August, has already begun to positively affect those with special needs.

“They are so underserved," Moore said. "Bringing them in and letting them shop, it really warms their hearts.”

Karen Moore, (R), one of the officers at the Giving Tree Thrift Store in Chamblee, helps Karyl Boyd with a purchased Saturday, October 24, 2020.   STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Karen Moore, (R), one of the officers at the Giving Tree Thrift Store in Chamblee, helps Karyl Boyd with a purchased Saturday, October 24, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In the future, Moore said she plans to expand Giving Tree’s charitable programs but is waiting for the nonprofit application to be granted and for the thrift store to fully gain its footing before expanding operations.

Despite all the nearby second-hand stores, Moore said they aren’t concerned with establishing a customer base, because a few dozen daily shoppers have already found them.

“If we were worried about competition, we would’ve never gotten this place," she said.

Looming development

Others are not as confident in Antique Row’s long-term viability.

Robson, whose Chamblee City Council district encompasses the corridor, said the second-hand market is experiencing a “renaissance" thanks to loyal customers and the area’s history, but rising rents are beginning to take their toll.

The Suthers Center for Christian Outreach, a Brookhaven-based nonprofit, used to operate a thrift store in Chamblee but recently closed down because they couldn’t afford the rent.

“Chamblee’s rents are going up and up and up," Robson said. "We’re in the stage of explosive development here, and land prices are just going up dramatically, day-by-day it seems.”

ExploreDevelopment trend continues as Chamblee OKs lofts, retail complex

The city is in the process of developing a “town center” in the area, which will include a new city hall, police department, parking deck, greenspace plaza and hundreds of multifamily apartments.

Attic Treasures, whose property is owned by Assistance League Atlanta, is surrounded by the planned development, leading to ongoing conversations about the thrift store’s future. The city has offered to purchase the land but a deal has yet to be struck.

With higher-end housing and the demographic change that comes with it, Matthes said stores that cater to thriftier and budget-conscious consumers may have to adapt or relocate.

“Chamblee is trying to gentrify and make everything more appealing to the younger crowd,” he said. “I think the antique side is going to be more high-quality, because they’re going to have to cater to these groups.”

 Dick Littafied looks over the merchandise at the Giving Tree Thrift Store in Chamblee Saturday, October 24, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Dick Littafied looks over the merchandise at the Giving Tree Thrift Store in Chamblee Saturday, October 24, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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