Moving weight: A recently opened Sarasota thrift shop, The Cubbyhole, is doing serious business

Cubbyhole co-owner Ron Chawkins (Tom Sukits)

May 18, 2009

At a time when expansion is the last thing most retail stores are consdering (heck, most places are just trying to saty afloat), one mid-Sarasota shop is growing. By 1,200 square feet, no less.

The Cubbyhole opened a little over four months ago, and just last week expanded its store at 2031 Bahia Vista by those very dimensions. Why is this “vintage thrift” shop thriving in such a terrible economy? The Cubbyhole has a feature most others can’t claim: unbelievably inexpensive designer clothing.

How are they able to supply this? They buy clothing by the pound — nearly a half-million a month, to be exact.

Brothers Ron and Neil Chawkins started a wholesale company about four years ago that buys used, new and unwanted clothing from individuals, businesses and organizations, and then resells it. They now have a dozen employees on the road every day picking up used clothing from all over the state and bringing it back to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse they have off 75 and Fruitville. A bailing machine compresses the clothes into 1,000-pound blocks, which are then shipped, 48 per freighter container, to retailers in less-developed countries like Chile, Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The retail store was always in the plans, but only recently come to fruition. “We go through a very small percentage of what we get in and are very picky about what we put in the store,” says Ron Chawkins. “No rips, no tears, no stains. We kind of keep it to designer, ‘trendy’ clothing.”

Instead of tags, the store has two menu boards with the prices displayed. “There isn’t a whole lot over $9.99 in the store,” says Chawkins. “Shirts are $3.99, shorts and skirts are $4.99, and slacks are $3.99 whether they’re Tommy Bahama or Express. We don’t differentiate between designers. All our jeans, whether they’re Lucky 7, True Religion, I don’t care what they are, Gloria Vanderbilt, they’re $6.99.” As an added incentive, if you bring in a 20-30-pound. bag of clothes (in good shape) they will give you 10-15 percent off your store purchase. Beat that, Goodwill.

Some customers show up early to cherry pick the designer stuff and then sell it on eBay. A big customer base are the service industry employees who seek out cheap white shirts and khaki pants for their work attire. “One thing we try to do is to get the people that need the clothing at the prices they need it at,” says Chawkins. “Ralph Lauren polo shirts are $3.99 in my store. Can I get $5.99? Sure. But people need deals now.”

There are certain organizations, such as the Kiwanis Club and the Boys and Girls Club, which they donate to regularly also. “We are not a nonprofit,” says Chawkins. “We donate to certain organizations that are near and dear to our heart. But we’re a company, we have overhead, we have bills to pay and workman’s comp.” He credits the Saba family, who rents out the space in Saba Plaza, as having been especially helpful while building the business. “We owe a lot of our success to them.”

Chawkins likes to use the term “eclectic” when talking about the store’s variety. “The beauty about the business is you never know what’s going to come in. We’re the true sense of a thrift store: to find something of value at a highly discounted price. There aren’t too many people that come in and leave without anything.”


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