NEW YORK – With a mission of “to donate, to discover, to do good,” Pam Stone and her nonprofit, The Benefit Shop Foundation Inc., in Mount Kisco, New York, has turned the art of thrifting into a successful business that benefits other area nonprofits.
After 20 years of working in investment banking on Wall Street, Stone turned a weekend hobby of antiquing into a business. She first opened a thrift store in nearby Bedford, New York, where she lives, but after five years, as online selling dominated her business, she switched to an auction format and never looked back. Today, the foundation runs regular monthly auctions, selling 2,000 to 3,000 items each month, with 100% of the profits going to more than 40 local charitable groups. Auction Central News interviewed Pam Stone to find out how auctions have helped her business to help others.
How did you go from investment banking to running a charitable foundation that resells art and antiques?
I was [in the financial sector] for 20 years and loved it, but after the market crashed in 2008 … I decided to start a thrift shop in my town. I wrote a business plan and presented it to the board of Westchester Hospital. I did a test drive and it raised $75,000 for them. I decided I wanted to open a second space, which I did. One was going to be the shop and one was just going to be selling online. As I researched selling on the Internet, the auction format caught my eye and proved to be a better business model for us, so we moved 100 percent to the Internet. I just wanted to keep the merchandise moving and to be able to support our local charities.
What is running an auction business like?
I have a great team and they make it run like a well-oiled machine but an auction is more like a rollercoaster ride. You never know what’s going to happen and that is the excitement of it. When I had my shop, it was like Cheers. People would come in with their coffee and they would sit down in one of the donated chairs and we would chat. The auction format for us was a better business model, though. I just love it. Every day is a treasure hunt and it makes people happy.
Tell us a bit about the “benefit” aspect of your business.
One of the reasons I came up with the name Benefit Shop is because I felt it served multiple levels of beneficiaries. People were happy to recycle their household goods to our shop and know that their goods would live on. Because we are a 501c3, 100 percent of the profits are written in checks to the local community. It started with the hospital, but it now includes over 40 different charities. New ones are added every year. We let people know that when they donate their household items, they can tell us where they want the donation check to go. They can request that it go to their favorite charity, which is how my list has grown so much.
What role has LiveAuctioneers has played in keeping a nice revenue stream coming in? They are my sales platform. They bring in the audience, and it’s great because the more auction companies that use their platform, the more viewers there are — and one begets the other. I was one of the early adopters of LiveAuctioneers, and they have grown exponentially as online auctions have become more and more popular. When I first started, I had like 300 people in the room bidding. Now even local people will just bid online from their sofa, then come in and pick up the item.
What is your favorite auction-related story?
There are so many! Here is one: We picked up an estate about two years ago from someone who had worked in the railroad industry for a long time. He had some really interesting railroad collectibles and memorabilia. This couple from upstate near Canada — I can’t recall the name of the town — bought a bunch of the items and were so excited. They were both retired and had bought an early dining railroad car years ago which they were setting up as a restaurant. Then, they decided they want to open an early railway museum. They said they drove for, like, six hours to get here and bought the stuff from us to outfit the museum and decorate the dining car.
What is the one constant about this business?
I am always learning and being surprised. We had a Max Ernst photograph and I didn’t know if it was a gelatin or what. We don’t really take things out of frames here. We put an estimate of $200 to $400 because Max Ernst is pretty cool. Well, it sold for over $20,000 because the Internet is really your friend from a seller’s perspective. Not that we didn’t do our own research, but as we dug into it, we learned that the photograph was taken by Man Ray.
As a generalist, you sell across the board, but do you have a favorite genre?
Art. Personally, I like postwar and contemporary art, but I appreciate all of it.
Walk us through a typical workday.
I don’t know if my day ever ends. I feel like it’s a 24-hour workday for me. There is always merchandise to be unpacked, examined, researched, photographed and lotted for inventory. And while that’s going on, the phones are ringing off the hook and people are coming in to pick items up. We are also working on editing and uploading our catalog, social media, identifying marketing groups, processing inventory and taking information from people who want to donate or sell. There are so many plates spinning in the air at all times.
To contact the Benefit Shop, call 914-864-0707.