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ISSUE 118 VOL 2 PUBLISHED 9/24/2004

Fun finds for the fashionably frugal

By Lisa Gulya
Staff Writer

Friday, September 24, 2004

Moving in for many students inevitably means accessorizing with brightly colored plastic room decorations. Unfortunately, some note, it can be eerie to look at the room across the hall and see all the same furnishing, albeit in different colors. For some people, though, the individuality that comes from having purple when one's neighbor has lime green just isn't enough.

Enter Used a Bit. Used a Bit, the Northfield Senior Center's second-hand household items store, celebrated its one-year anniversary on Sept. 18. They have orange flowered couches from the 1970s and actual wooden coffee tables. Or rather, they did last week. The beauty of this store is that no one knows what items will still be there next week.

The store workers are all volunteers, most of whom are retirees in their late 60s to mid 80s. That means that students can shop for distinctive furnishings and interact with people who are not 18-21 or professors (though there may be some retired professors lurking about the store). While they're there, they can even return to their childhood by purchasing a 25-cent kid's grab bag.

Marie Gery, self-titled 'maven' of merchandise and manager since mid-July, chatted about Used a Bit while shampooing a chair. She talks good-naturedly about managing, saying, "This is a little like herding cats," but says that the store is "a wonderful way for people to meet, workers and shoppers alike." Some college administrators are even known to stop in on their Friday lunch breaks to see what's new.

The store is homey, not rigidly and impersonally organized like many second-hand stores but organized loosely in front into living room and dining room areas complete with tables, chairs, lamps, and china. More kitchenware, linens and children's items are in the back. There is a jewelry counter in front of a display of collectibles.

Some items are cheap and priced to reflect their quality, perfect for the short-term relationships most college students have with their couches, lamps and linens. Other items, collectibles and antiques, are displayed next to computer print-offs explaining the pieces and their relative values, Used a Bit seems to price items more modestly than antique stores. Because of their relatively modest prices, Gery described a couple that visited the shop each week this summer, buying items to resell at flea markets.

The origin of the idea for Used a Bit, according to Gery, is already lost in legend. One story claims that the idea came from a social work student at St. Olaf. Another possibility is that Used a Bit was the brainchild of one of the college's economics professors. Whatever the case, after nearly six months of planning, the store has enjoyed a successful first year.

Merchandise comes solely from donations. In an ad, Used a Bit requested "clean, usable household furnishings," but, as Gery says, "people's definitions [of these words] are not always the same." However, once items are accepted, they are very rarely thrown away. Items the store would normally accept but cannot use go to Goodwill.

Item donation is only the first step to arrival on the store floor. Volunteers take linens and bedding home for laundering and ironing. A fix-it guy comes in to make any necessary repairs on furniture. Antiques and collectibles go straight to the pricer. The pricer then researches goods using the Internet and Kovels, an antiques and collectibles reference.

Although this may seem like a long process, Gery says the goal is to try to move items in and out of the store as quickly as possible. The purpose of the store, she says, is that "stuff moves from someone's past into someone else's present."

Merchandise flows so quickly in part thanks to the regulars. "We have the people we see every week, Gery said. With such an array of wares comes an array of buyers -- college students, mothers, other retired people, and sometimes even those looking not to enhance their own living spaces, but to resell.

Used a Bit does not sell books or clothes so as not to compete with the hospital's auxiliary book sale in the spring or the used book and clothes shops already open in Northfield. They chose not to deal with electronics, in part because there isn't space, so they direct those donations to the community action center.

Students who find themselves lacking items forgotten in the rush of packing, book ends or hole punches, coffee pots or rugs, tea cups or birthday cards, might be able to find what they need at Used a Bit. Then again, maybe it's better just to go to the store with an open mind and leave with a full car.

Located on 640 River Park Mall (Water Street)

(507) 645.1399

Store hours: Thurs. 4-7 p.m. Weekends: 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.

Students recieve 20% discount

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