On a Friday morning, a U-Haul backs up to the front doors of Southside Consignment. The movers unload an assortment of furniture, including an oak dining table, an antique hutch and a leopard-print chaise lounge.
“Oh, I just hate to see them go. It breaks my heart,” Sara Peck, of Kalispell, says as she watches the pieces go by on their way to their new home on the sales floor. But she’s downsizing into a smaller place and her kids didn’t want the furniture, so it just makes sense to sell it. Still, letting go of belongings she’s had for 50 years is hard.
It’s far from the first time that Southside owner Donna Kouns has seen someone struggle to say goodbye.
“What I’ve found with consignors, because so many of them are condensing down their homes, or someone has died in the family, or they’re moving, or something is really important to them, they don’t want to let it go,” she says. “But when they drop it off, as soon as they let go of that piece that might have belonged to Grandma or somebody, they’re very happy with the best price that we can get for it.”
Running a consignment store isn’t like regular retail, where a shop owner can choose exactly what merchandise she wants to stock, order it from a wholesaler, sell it for the price on the sticker, and repeat. If retail were a person, it would probably be an accountant — neat, orderly and predictable. Consignment is more like a test pilot: flying into the unknown every day, relying on instinct and good judgment to make it through alive.
After 30 years of reselling practically anything you can think of that might serve a function in a home or adorn it, and then some, Donna has become a time-tested veteran of the industry. She started Southside Consignment at the urging of her husband and Scotty Levengood, of Scotty’s Bar. She learned and refined her business model over the years. The people are her favorite part — some of the regulars will hang out for hours, taking it all in, enjoying the low-key atmosphere and the never-ending treasure hunt.
Treasure, however, is often wildly subjective. For example, a large abstract painting of trees sits behind the glass counter. The “girls” — as Donna and her employees refer to themselves, even though the youngest of the five, Donna’s daughter-in-law Valerie Kouns, has kids in college — debate whether they think it will sell. This is a recurring theme: they all have different tastes. Sometimes one of them will advocate for an item while everyone else shakes their heads, only to see it fly out the door the same day they put it on the floor.
They decide to take the painting. Asked where they’re thinking of displaying it, their eyes immediately flick to the nearest wall, continuing around the perimeter of the store. They pick a wall with a complementary paint color, but they’ll have to move a large gold-framed mirror for the painting to fit.
“It started a chain reaction,” Donna says, laughing.
The store is almost like a magic trick, or maybe one of those “Spot the Differences” newspaper puzzles. It’s always full, always artfully staged, but also constantly yet subtly different: a piece of turquoise jewelry sells, and a dusky velvet chair with rhinestone buttons comes in. The girls are also constantly tweaking the displays, knowing that a green enamel apple peeler, for example, might sit forever on a shelf full of kitchen items but will catch someone’s eye when arranged on an antique pie case.
Donna and Valerie then put their heads together over a nice-looking set of red frying pans with white enamel, checking the internet for their value. It’s far easier to estimate an item’s worth today than when the store opened in 1990. Back then, the cabinets behind the front counter were packed with reference books on antiques, and selecting and pricing most items came down to a best guess or gut feeling. They might have taken the pans then. “We took everything, just about everything,” Donna says. “When we started out, some items were 10 or 25 cents!” But they pass today.
It’s all part of the business, but one of the trickier aspects: how to nicely tell someone no. After all, a consignment shop not only has to cultivate a customer base, but it also has to sell itself to its suppliers.
One longtime consignor, Donna Carr, has brought everything from candelabras to rustic furniture into the store over the years and says she isn’t offended when Southside rejects a piece. “Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t think that will work here.’ And I appreciate that, because they’re being honest,” she explains. “It’s their business. They know what’s appealing to people and what isn’t. They know when to say no to a piece.”
On this day, they say yes to yet another consignor’s offering (they estimate that there are 700 to 800 sellers on their books at any one time): an antique Japanese officer’s sword and two high-end pool cues in black zip-top cases. While the woman waits for the paperwork, she notices the display of fur hats behind the counter and remarks that she knows someone in the market for a hat like that. The hats are the entire back ends of a red fox, a coyote and a silver fox — tails, hind feet and all — so they’re more like high-end Davy Crockett caps than trendy cossack hats, the kind of item someone would be specifically shopping for, not typically pick up on a whim.
She asks the price ($625), snaps a picture and heads out the door, possibly to facilitate Southside’s next big sale. And so it goes: swords come in, fur hats go out, and Southside Consignment carries on.
Southside Consignment is located at 2699 U.S. 93 S. in Kalispell and can be reached at (406) 756-8526.
Katie Cantrell contributes regularly to Flathead Living. Find her at www.katiecantrellwrites.com, or on Instagram and Facebook @KatieCantrellWrites.