While the Great Recession HAS been challenging for many small businesses, it has also proven to be a boon for the thrift store industry. In fact, according to the National Association of Resale Professionals, the number of thrift stores and consignment shops grew 7% in the past two years, and now boasts revenues of nearly $13 billion per year. However, well before the deep recession of 2008, Mary Ann Califano was addicted to buying and reselling everything from used cashmere coats, to leather boots, to antique jewelry. Mary Ann is a lifelong resident of San Pedro, a blue-collar seaport town located within the international port of Los Angeles. While attending San Pedro High School, she would travel to nearby garage and estate sales on weekends to buy used furniture and other items that she would resell at local swap meets. After graduation, she combined her eye for resale with her full-time job of waiting tables. 20 years later, Mary Ann and her daughter Kristina decided to open their own boutique store in the heart of San Pedro.
How did you start your business?
I was born in San Pedro, which is a small town. I went to high school here and all through my high school years I was collecting things to sell at the swap meet. I used to sell parts from old fishing boats, couches, lamps and jewelry. I was also working at a Ports O’Call restaurant and so I would meet people that I knew and that I met at the swap meet. Everybody kept telling me to open up my own store. I was afraid at first, but one day I found this spot and started by working for the woman who owned it as a vendor mall before I bought it. People would bring stuff to sell, and we sold stuff for them and then paid them at the end of every month.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
I borrowed from everybody I knew. I even borrowed money from my daughter, who ended up becoming my partner. It was really hard and still is— but I do love it. I know it doesn’t look like much but we’ve put in a lot of time and money to make this business work.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I worked at Ports O’Call since I was 13 and knew everybody in Pedro. I bought the business from another woman who ran it as a place where people would rent a space and then she would sell their stuff. I learned a lot from her. When she got too old and tired, I offered to buy it from her. I learned everything there was to learn from her. She was nice, but she didn’t give me any break when I wanted to buy it from her.
Who was your first customer?
Wow. I really don’t remember. I’m sorry. I’ve been doing this for so long that I can’t remember. I remember one of my first customers who was an old man whose wife had just died. He sold me a lot of really great things, like classic old furniture that was really well-made. He didn’t care about the money because it was more about just trying to remove the memories of his wife. It was sad.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
My biggest mistake was paying too much for the business. I didn’t know anything about running a business, so I just bought the business with my heart and not my head. See, the thing about this business is that you can run it anywhere. We could have run it out of our house or, like I had been doing for years, out of a swap meet. But I wanted the retail environment with drive-by traffic. This is a great location, but we don’t have a lot of parking. So it kind of defeats the purpose for drive-by traffic. I think in hindsight I would have found a strip mall or other location that had better parking.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
The smartest thing I ever did was to involve my daughter. She is so awesome. She’s really got a better head for business and she knows how to talk to customers. It’s so funny because I remember when she was a little girl, she was embarrassed about the idea of mom buying old stuff and selling it later. But now, she is the smartest thrift store manager you could find. She also just loves it to death.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
Again, I think it’s working with my daughter. How many people can say that their best friend and business partner is their daughter? She has two kids and they can come in here, and it really becomes a family business. Some days that thought is what keeps me going.
What’s the most challenging thing about running your own business?
The people that come in here are the biggest challenge. We get some real freaks. I don’t know if it’s the area or the business, but we’ve seen some odd people.
The other thing about this business that’s really challenging is trying to find things to sell. I find all my merchandise through donations, or going to yard sales or garage sales. My daughter is always spending time shopping online auction sites for good deals. We only get things that we can markup 50% or more. So if I buy a lamp for $10, I know that I have to sell it for $20.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
The most surprising thing is how people from all walks of life come to shops like ours because they are looking for deals. We first started redirecting folks from our swap meet and then we started to put a small ad in the local papers and on Facebook and Twitter. It was really amazing how that worked. Most people that come are more curious than anything, but they end up staying and usually buying something. I had a guy that came in yesterday. He drove an $80,000 car and he bought a solid maple coffee table and some paintings for his kid who was going to school at UCLA. He was really nice and he told me he saw my Facebook page. Isn’t that a kick?
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most?
I guess my daughter. She just picked this business up so quickly. She has a husband and kids and she is so good at finding quality items and selling them for a good profit. She is my hero.
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What I’ve Learned
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
Well, I think I would tell myself not to do it! It’s been so hard and while it’s been successful, we are always running on such a shoestring budget. I think I would have just remained at the swap meet just paying a weekly fee to put up a tent.
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
I wish I knew more about business. There are licenses, bookkeeping and advertising. I don’t know any of that. The other thing I think I might have done is try and make it non-profit somehow. But I could have known a lot more about everything.
About the Author — Vincent Aviani has been a professional observer of life for nearly 30 years. Starting out his career as a reporter, and then as a community banking communications officer and public relations executive, Vincent has spent his career listening to personal stories and conveying the histories and wisdom within each story to his receptive audience. For the past four years, he has been running his own small business as a professional communications consultant and storyteller.
This article was originally written on December 2, 2014 and updated on July 2, 2020.