Summarized by Pat Rice
1960s to 2000
A gentleman brings into Boca Bargains several boxes of clothes donated by his wife. The volunteer remarks, “These are all extremely nice clothes.” One week later, a lady comes in and explains she was out of town and her husband brought in the wrong boxes of clothes. The clothes for Boca Bargains are still at her house! She asks if she could have her good clothes back. Unfortunately, they had been priced and put out. We told her to see what was left on the racks and she could certainly take hers back. She found very few! She left, saying she was headed home to get her husband’s credit card.
So many stories about Boca Bargains like this one exist — whether it be the unusual items donated, the famous customers, or customers buying back donated items — we could probably each share one. Perhaps those historical memories of our own at Boca Bargains are the most important benefits of this incredibly successful venture run by Boca Grande Woman’s Club volunteers. The gain that has been accomplished is not only of financial benefit to our community but to us personally as we develop friendship and comradery among members. This may be the real “treasure” for us all in the history of Boca Bargains.
To begin, rummage sales were probably the early predecessors of Boca Bargains. Held as a one-day annual event, the “Rummage Sale” started in the 1960s. In the early years when it was first held on the old railroad building platform across from the Post Office,
income from this single day grew from $70 to $400 in the mid-1970s (total budget of BGWC then was $1,200). Usually held in January, the Rummage Sale was chaired for years by Marguerite East who volunteered her in-town garage for storage. By the late 1970s, annual proceeds were over $1,000, which was significant to our Club’s philanthropic efforts.
During the 1980s before each sale was held, a room was opened for a few days in the back of the Crowninshield Community House for donation drop-offs. There were volunteer “department chairs” who would be responsible for finding assistants to help prepare for and work the day of the Rummage Sale (“departments” included Kitchen Items, Knickknacks, Shoes, Blouses, Books, Toys, Glassware, Linens, etc.). In 1980, on the actual day of the Rummage Sale, the concept of “Boutique” was added so members could bring in valuable items and antiques for the Club to sell on commission, with the Club retaining 30%. Rummage Sale income for this one-day event steadily grew from $1,921 in 1982 to $6,500 in 1987… and that year, a tornado hit just before the Rummage Sale day!
Also, that year an important event happened for the Woman’s Club: overall approval of tax-exempt status. This provided an incentive to review fundraising efforts. In a series of “lively” conversations during 1988, the idea of taking the Rummage Sale one step further was discussed among five members: Marguerite East, Doris Bishop, Marni Donnelly, Darlene Shevitski and Lucy Stanton. Could a unique thrift shop in which Club members donate “treasured items” work? Some questioned whether anyone would come to a thrift store in Boca Grande, but ultimately, they agreed the Club should give it a try. It is said that Marni Donnelly came up with the name Boca Bargains. Plans were presented at the April 1988 meeting, when Donna Moore was President, and received support. The first chairs were Darlene Shevitski, Marguerite East and Lucy Stanton. They opened in November 1988, in a small annex backroom, first known as the Rummage Room, in the Crowninshield Community House. An open house celebration was held on January 10th, 1989, with a preview for members the day before. At the end of that first season, they made over $7,000, exceeding their expectations.
During the 1990s, Boca Bargains experienced growing popularity and success. It would open in November and close in April, with suggestions being made each year. For example, members were urged to bring a “gift” for someone to purchase at the shop as a Christmas present. Another idea was to help answer customer’s questions about where money goes by posting a specific program in the shop with a running graph of money raised toward that. New coat racks and shelving were purchased, and special year-end sales were held. Proceeds for each season (only five months!) averaged $13,000. By 1995, Boca Bargains had outgrown its small space and needed to find additional room, especially to capitalize on the furniture market without which profitability might not be met. This led to a discussion about keeping the current space and expanding for furniture.
Boca Bargains looked at a county-owned building on the corner of Park Avenue and Banyan Street: the original Teacherage House. As part of the Boca Grande Community Center campus, built in 1929, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was originally constructed in 1930 as a “duplex teacherage,” providing one apartment free to the school principal and his family while the other apartment was usually occupied by teachers. The Teacherage had been vacant since 1964 when the school closed due to declining enrollment until 1971, when it was converted to an office/residence for the Lee County Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT superintendent lived and worked there for 23 years, but the south side was vacant since the family moved out two years prior. The north side continued to be used by the DOT. In 1995, through the challenging work of BGWC members like Carolyn Frederick and her committee, negotiations began with Lee County about the availability of the south side portion of this DOT building, the Teacherage. By February 1996, a lease was signed for one-year use with an automatic renewal provision for half the house. Work needed to be done prior to an anticipated move-in date in October 1996. The north half remained the DOT office with excess space becoming storage for the Community Center supplies.
In the first of many moves, Boca Bargains expanded into its share of The Teacherage. The 1996 grand reopening of Boca Bargains took place November 30th, with hours from 9:00 to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Our former location, the Annex, became a Furniture Mart showroom for bulky items. So, two locations or departments were open by the 1997 season. Profits continued to grow, with “things selling even before the shop opens” and donations up (even a station wagon was donated). By the 2000-2001 season, the Furniture Mart had put in place a policy “carry in, buy, carry out,” thus accepting only items a member could bring in and that a buyer could carry out.
2000 to Present
In 2001, the Lee County DOT office was moved to the Community Center, leaving the majority of The Teacherage house for Boca Bargains expanding operations. A new lease was negotiated, doubling existing space there, and plans were made to move over the summer, with a fall opening. BGWC also re-signed a lease with Crowninshield Community House for the former Annex space, or Furniture Mart, with permission to sublease to the Art Alliance or school. Lee County advised they would take over the Teacherage building in the next few years and remodel it to code, turning it to office space for island organizations.
In July 2003, Lee County condemned the Teacherage and advised the building was not up to standards, leaving us without a shop. With no plans to return Boca Bargains to the BGWC, we were without any means to continue to raise the funds that the scholarship committee and community had always counted on. We were at an impasse, so past presidents Je-Je Pierce, Camille Williams and Mary O’Bannon went to Ft. Myers to meet with Lee County Ray Judah and county staff. After some very serious negotiations, the three women offered to pay half of the $36,000 costs of a modular unit which would be used to house Boca Bargains until repairs to the Teacherage were done with the understanding that we would be returned to the rehabilitated space and share it with the Boca Grande Historical Society.
This modular building was erected adjacent to the Teacherage, for Boca Bargains temporary home in December, with work expected to start in January 2004 and finished by July. Boca Bargains contents were moved out of the Teacherage and into the Crowninshield space and the modular unit through the efforts of many, including Club members in protective gear!
As an aside, after those repairs were made, the BGWC then allowed Lee County to use the unit for their restoration of the reference room, and then loaned it again to The Island School during their construction project. These three women also brought Commissioner Judah and Commissioner Tammy Hall to Boca Grande during that time to set into motion the rehabilitation of the adjacent Dishong-Bowen house (now home to the Art Center) that had sat on railroad ties for almost three years in disrepair.
There were delays and unexpected challenges. Because the estimates to rehab the Teacherage were so high, the Woman’s Club hired an independent engineer to inspect the building. His report came back much lower, opening the possibility of the BGWC raising the necessary funds to restore the building. In return, Lee County would grant the Club a long-term lease. It took determination and months of perseverance by Club women to see the planned renovation through. Boca Bargains opened with newly remodeled headquarters in November 2005, and the ribbon-cutting of both the Teacherage (housing Boca Bargains and the Historical Society) as well as the Dishong-Bowen House (housing the Art Center) took place January 14, 2006.
As our President Anne Fairbanks noted with much gratitude in our newsletter that year, everyone was deeply indebted to the three women, “who stood up to the politicos in Fort Myers and refused to be turned away from their goal of getting Boca Bargains back to its rightful home. It would have been much less stressful for Mary O’Bannon, Je-Je Pierce and Camille Williams to walk away and let the county take charge and put Boca Bargains on the back burner indefinitely. They stood their ground and attended several meetings in the Commissioners’ offices demanding to be heard. They became a force to be reckoned with and finally persuaded the commissioners that they were adamant about Boca Bargains being restored to its former home and would not be dissuaded. It wasn’t easy, and, at times, it wasn’t pretty, but they pulled it off and now Boca Bargains stands at its old location as if nothing has happened in the last five years. Thank you… thank you.”
Since then, continued growth and innovative ideas have been tried: Boca Bakes, morning coffee and goodies on some Saturdays; merchandising shoes in front of BB during the Strawberry Festival; pre-opening and closing sales, including Buy-A-Bag; adding co-chairs and developing volunteer guidelines; working to liaison with the Art Center over breezeway access; credit card acceptance; color coding inventory; and more.
The reach of Boca Bargains has been widespread. Members have gifted their time and talents to make it a success. Their volunteer efforts have enabled the Woman’s Club to support many community projects and award extensive scholarships. In the 1970s, several hundred dollars’ profit each year from the Rummage Sales changed to several thousand each year in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Boca Bargains raised from $12,000 annually to over $30,000 a year. During 2000, Boca Bargains raised $45,000, and over the decade, profits steadily increased to nearly $100,000 in 2010. Most recently, Boca Bargains has netted over approximately $230,000.
Boca Bargains goal has been to raise money to promote the general welfare of Boca Grande by supporting local nonprofit organizations and scholarships. It has offered an innovative way to accept generous donations and creatively recycle them for the betterment of our community. Over the years, it has provided a phenomenal value in terms of goods to island residents and visitors alike. But as was mentioned in the beginning, that is only part of the story.
Dedicated volunteers like Doris Bishop and Lucy Stanton remained involved into their 90’s, working outside on our closing day selling bags. As Anne Lyons so aptly said, “It was rewarding to work with and become friends with so many terrific gals and for the special organization, Boca Bargains. Special because everything is donated, everyone is a volunteer, and all the money goes to charities related to our island.” All these, and more, are the stories that create our Boca Bargains history!