Bnai Brith Bargain Bazaar. For some it is second hand shop; for others it is a second home.
Ori Golan JOURNALIST • AUSTRALIA
Since its inception, Bnai Brith’s Bargain Bazaar Charity Shop has become an institution. Situated 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, the rich, the destitute and the inquisitive. They come from all parts of the city and all walks of life. Bargain Bazaar is a bargain hunter’s Aladdin cave; for others it is a friendly place to drop in to stock up on household goods and for others still, it is not so much second hand shop, as a second home.
“There was one lady who had just moved into one of the nearby housing commissions. She had bought a table from us which we agreed to deliver to her,” recalls manager Robert Kohn. “When I arrived at her flat, I saw that it was empty; no furniture, nothing on the walls, no electric appliances, not even a carpet. Completely empty. I said to her ‘what's going on? Haven't housing services even carpeted your place?’ She said: ‘oh no, I've been neglected.’ The very next day we were called to vacate a deceased’s estate and the family asked us to clear everything, including the furniture. We hoisted it all onto the truck and took it straight over to this woman. She got a dining table, sofas, chairs….she was over the moon.”
Kohn, is a very jovial man who sprinkles Yiddish expressions liberally in his flow: In the schmattes (textile) industry, everyone is out to get a metsia (a bargain) and they all have tsures (troubles). When he speaks, you can hear the sublte kiwi vowels that give away his origins. He moved to Sydney with his wife in 1986 where they raised a family, and he ran a printing business. After retiring, he wanted to do something “more substantial than going to the beach and drinking coffees.” He was involved in several voluntary community activities when his path crossed that of John Lilienfeld’s who, in 2006, had saved the Bargain Bazaar Charity Shop from imminent closure. The two worked closely together running it and, shortly before John died, he asked Kohn to take the reins. “And I assumed the mantle,” Kohn summarises.
The shop is filled to the rafters with like-new clothes, books, accessories and homewares, and all at affordable prices.
But for many, a visit to the shop is not merely a business interaction, but a much-needed distraction from the various on-going crises in their lives. “Quite a few of our customers have mental health problems, limited income and other issues. Some suffer from social isolation or have recently come out of prison. A few kind words can make a huge difference to them.”
Indeed, when Kohn describes his work, words such as ‘kindness’, ‘generosity’ and ‘giving back’ are regular leitmotifs.
“I’ll give you an example”, he offers. “A man walks into our shop and wants to buy, say, a bedside table. He realises that he doesn’t have enough money. You need to understand that some of these people live from one week’s pay to the next. I say to him, ‘pay what you can now, and the rest pay later. I trust you. We are here to help you.’ As soon as he hears me saying that I trust him, something changes in him – you can see it in his face. Many of these people have never heard such things said to them. And you know what’s more? 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 components: the donations, the volunteers and the customers.
The overwhelming majority of clothes donations, he says, are women’s garments. “You would not believe the amount of women's clothes we get. Women are definitely bigger clothes shoppers than men and they also change their wardrobes a lot more frequently than men.”
The volunteers, who are for the most part members of the Jewish community, are rostered into shifts and they do everything from sorting out the goods, pricing them, running the shop and doing the book-keeping. “They are the backbone of this joint venture who make it all happen,” explains Kohn. “They also build a personal rapport with the customers, many of whom are regulars.”
As for the customers, they are a motley crew. In a single day you may meet the entire gamut of humanity; all types, all levels of education and financial means. “We have customers say to us: I can shop in David Jones, but I prefer to come here. Or a local resident who declared that her entire flat content – from kitchenware, to bed linen to furniture to clothes, everything came from our shop. Without a doubt, we have made a difference to many people’s lives.”
Like most retailers, Bargain Bazaar has not been spared the scourge of shoplifting and unpleasant interactions with some customers. “I would say that most charity shops have a shoplifting problem. Look, what do they take? They might take a pair of jeans; they might take some underwear or some socks. Or they’ll go into the fitting room and change into a dress that they’ve picked up and leave their old dress behind and then walk out. At the beginning I used run after them, but I've said to all the volunteers don't chase them - let them go and wish them Gesundheit. We have also had some unpleasant dealings with walk-ins under the influence of drugs, but this is rare and the shop is mostly a very happy and joyful place.”
Beyond its own social outreach, Bargain Bazaar is also a generous supporter of different charitable causes and social enterprises. The inventory of organisations 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, the takings were modest until, three years ago, Kohn hit on an idea to boost profit margins.
“Whenever we’d visit deceased estates, we’d be asked if we also took furniture. Initially I said ‘no’ because we just didn’t have the room. But I started to think that maybe we should give it a go, so I started to take in chest of drawers. I soon found out they were very much in demand because in the housing commission blocks nearby there were no built-in wardrobes. When you walked into a lot of these places everything was on the floor. So chest of drawers became a prized item. As soon as we put them down in the shop, they’d be sold. Our intake increased significantly.”
An succession of serendipitous events happened next. In 2018 the shopping centre in Surrey Hills, directly opposite, was slated for redevelopment. Kohn noticed shop space at the rear of the centre that had become vacant. He managed to secure the space rent-free from the property manager, the Vidor family, to use it specifically for the sale of recycled furniture.
This proved a spectacular business success. In 15 months, they sold over $300,000 worth of furniture and by the end of 2021 they will have raised $1.1 million for charity.
But then, the times and fortunes of Bargain Bazaar changed. “At the beginning of this year they pulled the entire shopping centre down and the furniture shop closed, Coles supermarket disappeared and so did much of the pedestrian traffic which was so essential for our business”, Kohn recalls. “The impact was immense.”
Worse was yet to come.
The owner of the property from which the shop was trading changed managing agent. The new agent wanted to increase the rental profit and encouraged the owner to find new tenants.
Then Covid-19 happened and everything stopped. “This did not help us at all”, says Kohn ironically. The shop was closed and they ended the tenancy.
Bargain Bazaar has recently relocated to nearby pop-up shop as a short-term solution.
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 says, drawing a long breath, “the future is difficult, while I am fit and well, I am ready now to step down, after ten years, and spend more time with my family in Israel, but we have not been able to find a successor. I would like to appeal to the community; we need someone who is willing to step up and take the reins. A lot of the infrastructure is already there, but we need someone to lead this project. Someone with business acumen, experience in retail and a drive to give back to our community.”
It appears, then, that the future of the mythical charity shop that has helped so many and has drawn such diverse crowds, now hangs in the balance. Like so many business ventures over which uncertainty looms, it will take determination, support and vision to revive its fortunes. One thing is certain: given this prolonged period of physical and social isolation that so many have just been though, the need for a social and communal enterprise like Bargain Bazaar has never been more urgent to build stronger and more durable project.
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