Sisters Turn Hobby Into Profitable Business

The interior and exterior of Bartered Threads, a Brookland thrift shop

WASHINGTON – Tonia Gore and her sister, Tameka Gore Tillman, have been shopping in thrift stores all their lives, initially not by choice.

Their cost-conscious mother was the one who got them started.  Their mother grew up poor, the second of nine children, and not having a lot, the family spent nearly all of their shopping in second-hand stores looking for bargains, Tillman explained.

“So, once she started her family, she did the same thing,” she said. “Back then, it wasn’t trendy like it is now.  Wearing used clothes was thought of as being poor.”

The sisters weren’t exactly fond of it.

“We hated it,” Gore said adamantly.

Years later, however, they have turned those lemons into lemonade with their store, Bartered Threads. 

Interior of the thrift boutique

With the tagline, “Extraordinary Things Restated,” the 500-square foot shop at 3924 12th Street in northeast Washington dispels any preconceived notions one

could have about thrift shops. It features used high-end apparel, footwear, home décor and jewelry thoughtfully arranged in a vibrantly decorated shop.

Their once- despised shopping activity transformed into a love of thrift shopping when they became adults, Tillman, 39, said.

“When we got older, we could appreciate how you could get so much more for your dollar,” the former federal employee said.  “So, it developed into a hobby.  We would spend 12 hours a day on the weekend in thrift stores.”

They have used that experience to find one-of-a-kind, quality items that were inexpensive; a theme that they have incorporated into their own business model.

Bartered Threads began in May 2012 as an online consignment shop after Gore called Tillman when she saw a television program that featured a woman with a successful online consignment store.

However, they realized they would have to change their business model after their plan of an online consignment store that did not feature many high end products failed.

“We took a step back, as you always need to do when you have a business, and just reflect on what you’ve done and where you are,” Gore, 34, said.

With extra inventory from the consignment shop, they set up shop in a Baltimore flea market to gage how well they might be as a traditional brick and mortar store, she said. With the success of that venture, the sisters began a five-month process to open their current store in May 2014.

The sisters were able to obtain their current location with the help of a real estate agent looking to rent the property who Gore had worked with professionally in the past.

They also came up with other creative ways to start the business.

“I actually bartered accounting services for a contractor,” said Gore, an accountant and  Howard University business school graduate. “We didn’t have to pay for that.”

At the time, they were unfamiliar with the thrift shop industry from a business standpoint, but their personal strengths, in combination with their industry knowledge as consumers, led to viability and success, they said.

“It feels good to know we did it not having much experience in this industry,” Gore said. “It’s a big accomplishment.”

All items in the store are handpicked from donations to maintain a standard of quality, and as business has grown, inventory adjustments have been made to accommodate customer demand, Gore said.

Gore passed on a piece of advice to those thinking of opening their own business.

Home decor and journals sold at Bartered Threads

“A lot of times you’ll see people spend a lot of money, thinking it’ll make them a lot of money and that’s not necessarily the case,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s better to start off small and then progress.”

When family works together, it can be challenging, Gore said, but she said she believes that the differences in her and her sister’s personality compliment one another.

“She’s the people person and very outgoing,” she said.  “I’m conservative and introverted. It’s a good balance, and you need that.”

Bartered Threads also has a barter program, in which people who make their own items, can sell their products in a physical location at no cost, with the “barter” being an exchange for social media promotion.

As the store grows, the sisters said they hope to open a second location and develop community partnerships. Currently, they are working towards a partnership with the St. Anne’s Center for Children, Youth and Families, a transitional home for women and children in Hyattsville, Md., Gore said.

They said they hope to provide mentorship and job training programs to the women and assist the organization with managing its donations in a similar fashion as the selection process of Bartered Threads.

Gore said the key to their business is to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and welcomed.

 “Everybody isn’t confortable with resale, but I think when resale looks like this,” she said, alluding to the stores merchandise, it makes it easier.”