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September 17, 2015

Offering Gently Used Kids' Clothes and Gear for 35 Years

By Joan Brunwasser

We are the fourth owners now. My mother used to shop with the original owners when my sister and I were small. Children use toys for such a short amount of time that it's almost like a toy rental here. People buy and then frequently resell the same items to us later. This is ultimate recycling. Think of how much packaging is NOT getting used and put in a landfill or ending up in our oceans!


Anne Coyne and fam
Anne Coyne and fam
(Image by courtesy of Anne Coyne)
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My guest today is Anne Coyne, proprietor of Hand Me Downs, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. Welcome to OpEdNews, Anne.

JB: Could that possibly be the same Hand Me Downs I used to shop at, 20 and even 30 years ago?

AC: Hello, Joan! Yes, this is the same store that first opened in 1979 on Broadway and Central St. We are the fourth owners now, and the store has moved to Dempster and Chicago Ave. but the store has remained largely unchanged. My mother used to shop with the original owners when my sister and I were small.

JB: So, clearly someone identified a need and that hasn't gone away, despite the passage of time, several changes in ownership and a new location. Tell us about your store, Anne. What's going on in there that everyone wants a piece of?

AC: There is so much going on in here! There are great brands of clothing at a fraction of the new price but still in fantastic condition. We have Crewcuts, Gymboree, Hanna Andersson, Zara, Pumpkin Patch, Matilda Jane. I could go on and on. We are one of the last ones standing that will take on gear and equipment (because of the space needed and the liability of it) for resale and consignment. So, you can still find used pack 'n plays, infant swings, bassinets, highchairs, carriers, strollers and more - all in amazing condition. There are toys and puzzles that always have all the pieces for mostly under $10 as well as rocking horses, radio flyers, riding toys, geotrax, American Girl, Thomas the Train toys and so many more. Children use toys for such a short amount of time that it's almost like a toy rental here. People buy and then frequently resell the same items to us later. This is ultimate recycling. Think of how much packaging is NOT getting used and put in a landfill or ending up in our oceans!

JB: So true! And I love your enthusiasm. How I fondly remember Hanna Andersson: My son had a yellow floppy sunhat and some incredibly cute outfits including a long blue nightshirt with white stripes. I was a bit sad when he outgrew them and he didn't have any smaller sibs to pass it all on to.

that yellow sunhat in action, South Haven, MI, 1990
that yellow sunhat in action, South Haven, MI, 1990
(Image by Joan Brunwasser)
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What a lovely trip down memory lane, Anne. Thanks for that. How did you end up at Hand Me Downs? This isn't your first job out of college, I presume.

AC: You are correct; it is not. I actually finished my bachelor's degree after we purchased Hand Me Downs. My mother always tells me I never do anything the easy way. I have a food service background. I managed for Sodexo at Northwestern University and for Starbucks, most recently. I am currently still a barista 20 hours a week at Starbucks because their benefits are amazing and I love the company so much I couldn't leave it all the way. And there is free coffee, lots of coffee.

I was searching one day online, and I don't even remember what I was looking for, when a pop up window came up in the corner of my screen ( my firewall/virus protection was out of usual) for local businesses for sale and one looked like Hand Me Downs. My older child is 8 now and we had been shopping there since he was born so we had a relationship with Monica, the previous owner, and Tanya, the totally amazing woman that worked for her. I emailed them and asked and she said it was indeed for sale. We pondered on it for a while and eventually decided to go for it. I honestly didn't research it enough before I jumped into it, but I couldn't imagine Evanston losing it!

JB: Great story! I assume this is your first time owning a business, correct? You intrigued me: What exactly do you wish you had known before "jumping into it"? What made you think you could translate your food service background to gently used clothing and equipment? How're they the same? How not?

AC: This is the first time owning a business! Really, the only skills that translated were the customer service skills. The rest was a fairly new skill set, and I don't like to barter, I discovered! I wish I had known more detailed financial data (I had a P&L [Profit & Loss report] from the prior year) but i ended up with almost double the inventory I needed for last year so I should have requested daily or weekly totals, more data on the overhead costs and such, as well as sales specific to category. Probably, I should have not signed a three-year lease up front, either! It's all a learning curve for me. It's getting easier but changing procedures at a long standing business is like running uphill in the dark; it's difficult and sometimes things hit you out of the blue.

The two industries are similar in the way that they are largely dependent on people skills and customer service. These two industries are more different than similar really; the hours are shorter but I take way more work home with me, and being dependent on customers for inventory is complicated. Having suppliers and vendors is so much simpler. Set pricing and quantities are always available. Recently, more and more online options are becoming available. That's making it much simpler to sell your own items or even just trade them and I am just now considering how to compete with that. I am thinking that maybe I need to join the online selling market and/or begin bringing in new merchandise. Our product mix is about 20% new at this time but I may need to increase it to around 40% at discounted prices.

JB: So, you're constantly tweaking to reflect your growing understanding of the business, no? Let's take something really basic like pricing. I'd like to understand the process. How do you decide how much to charge for an item? For example, let's take the Pack 'n Play that brought me to you in the first place.

JB: It is constant tweaking around here. Sometimes, the things that our customers want changed are things that I can change, like offering a higher percentage back if you choose store credit instead of cash. But there are things that are detrimental to the business that I cannot change if I plan to maintain here. I do get questioned on pricing frequently and the general business practice of mark ups. It is true that I am the middle man here. I do indeed make my living from buying and then marking up merchandise, as does every single retail unit in the world. In order to exist, I can't buy high and sell low, at least not sustainably.

As it stands now, I am comparably priced to Salvation Army, Savers, and other thrift stores, even though I do not run on donations. This former statement is only true when you compare apples to apples. If you compare a child's Hanna Andersson dress here to a child's Hanna Andersson dress at Salvation Army in the same condition, you will find a similar price, usually within 20%. I try to make the process as fair as possible for both selling and buying. A flat percentage is paid based on the price that we will sell it for and that percentage is 30% for clothing, 35% for toys, and 40% for consigned gear (10% higher if you choose store credit), which is higher than most and doesn't fluctuate, so sellers never have to wonder why they are receiving more or less than the last time for a similar item. For the consigned gear like the pack 'n play that started this conversation, the prices are generally 30-50% of the new price and are based on make, model, age, and condition. Occasionally, there are items that are still new in the original packaging, those will be priced a bit higher. By the same token, items that are a bit too faded or used but are still very functional and popular can be priced a bit lower.

JB: What comes in and goes out the fastest? Anything specifically that really brings the customers in? I'm wondering if shopping habits have changed from those long ago days when my kids were small.

AC: Toys are the fastest movers of all the categories, followed by books, and then gear. Clothing is the slowest to move but when we have a good season, the clothes go in bundles. There are a lot of online swaps and sales as well as craigslist and ebay that make it easy to buy and sell clothes and gear especially. Just in the last two years, we have seen a shift in the category that is most shopped for here. It was clothes until last year! Within the toy category the most coveted items are Legos, American Girl, Littlest Pet Shop, and Thomas the Train.

JB: Speaking of online shopping, can a small business successfully compete with so many competitors, real and virtual?

AC: I do still think that the face to face contact is beneficial in so many ways. Sometimes people just stop in here to chat or let their children play in our toy area. A second opinion or advice either from me or another shopper is needed occasionally. Just today, we were discussing pre-schools in the area. I love the School For Little Children and another mom was professing her love of Cherry Preschool. So much gets lost in translation in online shopping, when there is not any emotion able to be conveyed in a text format. The short answer, I suppose, is yes, a small business can compete with online retailers as long as it has something special to offer.

JB: Good! Personally, I'm all for the old face to face. There simply is no substitute for it. What else would you like to share with us before we wrap this up?

AC: Oh, I suppose I have some breaking news to share as well. Since we started this interview, my husband and I have made the bittersweet decision to sell the business and move to Wisconsin. We own another business as well and our family and that business will benefit greatly from the move. I seriously considered moving the entire store to Wisconsin as well and reopening but this is the last children's only resale store in Evanston and it was born here. I truly believe that it is a neighborhood store and Evanston needs it.

This place has become a community point place where people stop to chat, laugh, cry, play, and just BE. I want Hand Me Downs to stay local and live on, I imagined it being purchased and run by a group of moms with their children. We don't have a buyer yet but we have only had it for sale for a week as of September 9th.

JB: Talk about breaking news! All the best to you and your husband, and to Hand Me Downs in its next iteration. It was such a pleasure talking with you.

AC: Joan, I want to thank you for your interest in our shop. This has been so much fun!

JB: Delighted to hear it, Anne. Thanks for letting me know.

hanging around Hand Me Downs is fun!
hanging around Hand Me Downs is fun!
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Hand Me Downs website

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and