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Since its inception, Sydney’s B’nai B’rith’s Bargain Bazaar Charity Shop has grown into an institution… writes Ori Golan.
Located at the intersection of Cleveland Street and Crown Street in Surry Hills, it is a place where all members of society interact; men, women, old, young, rich, needy and curious. They come from all parts of the city and from all walks of life. Bargain Bazaar is Aladdin’s cave of a bargain hunter; for others, it is a friendly place to go to stock up on household items and for still others, it is not so much a flea market as a second home.
“There was a lady who had just moved into one of the neighboring housing commissions. She bought us a table that we agreed to deliver to her, ”remembers director Robert Kohn. “When I got to her house, I saw that it was empty; no furniture, nothing on the walls, no electrical appliances, not even a rug. Completely empty. I told him ‘what’s going on? Haven’t housing services even carpeted your house? She said, ‘Oh no, I’ve been neglected.’ The very next day, we were called to evacuate the estate of a deceased person and the family asked us to clean everything, including the furniture. We hoisted everything onto the truck and brought it straight to this woman. She had a dining table, sofas, chairs… she was in heaven.
Kohn, is a very jovial man who generously sprinkles Yiddish expressions in his flow: schmattes the (textile) industry, everyone is there to get a metsia (a good deal) and they all have tsures (troubles). When he speaks, you can hear the subtle kiwi vowels that betray his origins. He moved to Sydney with his wife in 1986 where they raised a family and ran a printing house. After his retirement he wanted to do something “more substantial than going to the beach and drinking coffees.” He became involved in several volunteer community activities when his path crossed that of John Lilienfeld who, in 2006, had saved the Bargain Bazaar Charity Shop from impending closure. The two worked closely together to direct him, and shortly before John’s death he asked Kohn to take the reins. “And I took on the role,” Kohn sums up.
The store is jam-packed with like-new clothes, books, accessories and housewares, all at affordable prices.
But for many, a visit to the store is not just a business interaction, but a much needed distraction from the various crises going on in their lives. “A lot of our clients have mental health issues, limited income and other issues. Some suffer from social isolation or have recently been released from prison. A few kind words can make a huge difference to them.
Indeed, when Kohn describes his work, words such as “kindness”, “generosity” and “give back” are regular leitmotifs.
“I’ll give you an example,” he suggests. “A man walks into our store and wants to buy, say, a bedside table. He realizes he doesn’t have enough money. You have to understand that some of these people live from one week of pay to another. I tell him: ‘pay what you can now, and the others will pay later. I trust you. We are here to help you.’ As soon as he hears me say that I trust him, something changes in him, it shows in his face. Many of these people have never heard such things say to them. And you know what else? They always come back and pay the difference. We have never had a bad debt!
Kohn divides the structure of Bargain Bazaar into three key elements: donations, volunteers and customers.
The overwhelming majority of clothing donations, he says, are women’s clothing. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of women’s clothing we get. Women are certainly more clothing consumers than men, and they also change their wardrobes much more frequently than men.
The volunteers, who are mostly members of the Jewish community, are divided into teams and they do everything from sorting goods, setting prices, running the shop and keeping the accounts. “They are the backbone of this joint venture that makes all of this happen,” says Kohn. “They also build a personal relationship with customers, many of whom are regulars. “
As for the clients, they form a motley team. In just one day you can meet the whole gamut of humanity; all types, all levels of education and financial means. “We have customers who tell us: I can shop at David Jones, but I prefer to come here. Or a local resident who said all of their flat contents – from kitchen utensils and bed linens to furniture and clothing, everything came from our store. Without a doubt, we have made a difference in the lives of many people.
Like most retailers, Bargain Bazaar has not been spared the scourge of shoplifting and unpleasant interactions with certain customers. “I would say most charity stores have a shoplifting problem. Look, what are they taking? They could take a pair of jeans; they could take underwear or socks. Or they go into the dressing room and change into a dress they picked up and leave their old dress behind and then walk out. At first I used to run after them, but I told all the volunteers not to chase them – let them go and wish them Gesundheit. We also had some nasty things about drugged walk-ins, but it’s rare and the store is mostly a very happy and happy place.
Beyond its own social reach, Bargain Bazaar is also a generous support of various charitable causes and social enterprises. The inventory of organizations to which they contribute is long and varied. It includes the Bushfire Appeal, The Salvation Army, Courage to Care, Giant Steps and the Australian Cancer Research.
Financially, however, revenues were modest until three years ago Kohn had an idea to increase profit margins.
“Whenever we visited deceased estates, we were asked if we also took furniture. At first I said “no” because we just didn’t have the room. But I started to think maybe we should give it a try, so I started looking at a dresser. I quickly discovered that they were in high demand because in the housing commission buildings nearby there were no fitted wardrobes. When you walked into a lot of these places, everything was on the floor. The dresser has therefore become a precious object. As soon as we put them in the store, they were sold. Our contribution has increased considerably.
A succession of fortuitous events then occurred. In 2018, the Surrey Hills shopping center just across the street was due to be redeveloped. Kohn noticed a commercial space at the back of the center that had become vacant. He was able to secure the space rent-free from the property manager, the Vidor family, to use it specifically for the sale of recycled furniture.
It turned out to be a spectacular commercial success. In 15 months, they’ve sold over $ 300,000 worth of furniture and by the end of 2021, they’ll have raised $ 1.1 million for charity.
But then the times and fortunes of Bargain Bazaar changed. “At the start of this year, they demolished the entire mall and closed the furniture store, the Coles supermarket was gone, along with a lot of the foot traffic that was so essential to our business,” Kohn recalls. “The impact has been immense.
The worst was yet to come.
The owner of the property from which the store traded changed managing agent. The new agent wanted to increase rental profit and encouraged the landlord to find new tenants.
Then Covid-19 arrived and everything stopped. “It didn’t help us at all,” Kohn says ironically. The store was closed and they ended the rental.
Bargain Bazaar recently moved to a nearby pop-up store as a short-term fix.
With restrictions easing and a post-Covid-19 period on the horizon, how does he see the future of Bargain Bazaar?
“I’ll tell you,” he said, taking a long breath, “the future is tough, as I’m in good shape and well, I’m ready now to quit, after ten years, and spend more time with it. my family in Israel, but we couldn’t find a successor. I would like to appeal to the community; we need someone who is ready to step in and take the reins. Much of the infrastructure is already there, but we need someone to lead this project – someone with business acumen, retail experience and a willingness to give back to our community.
So it seems that the future of the mythical charity shop that has helped so many people and attracted such diverse crowds is now on the line. Like so many business ventures over which uncertainty hangs, it will take determination, effort. support and vision to revive his fortune. One thing is certain: given this prolonged period of physical and social isolation that so many have just experienced, the need for a social and community enterprise like Bargain Bazaar has never been more urgent to build a stronger project. and more durable.