Ask an expert - Business Profile - The Courtyard

Following the 1990 founding of Hinsdale's Wellness House, the agency needed a reliable stream of funding to help sustain its mission of supporting cancer patients.

Sisters Shelia Botti and Nancy Keenan and their friends Kathy Ryan and Suzy Stout recognized that their shared interest in pre-owned household treasures could translate into an enterprise furnishing resources for hope and healing. They launched The Courtyard consignment shop in 1991, a move Botti half-jokingly said was not entirely altruistic.

"We really wanted to start it to benefit us," she quipped.

They took over a small storefront on the alley in the back of the old Hinsdale fire station (before getting their larger space at 63 Village Place) and acquired items for their grand opening from a mother-daughter duo in town who were relocating.

"(The mother) moved out and said, 'Come take whatever you want'," Ryan recounted. "We went to her house and filled our cars."

Patrons were asked to bring an item to donate for admittance. The response was remarkable, rendering the $3,000 in Wellness House seed money superfluous.

"The first day we (were given) enough to get by for a month," Ryan said, admitting the trio had scant experience running a business.

Volunteers stepped up to help with intake and delivery.

Consignment shops were not commonplace in the area 30 years ago, so the women regularly scoured house sale listings and beseeched sellers to contribute to The Courtyard's cause. Proceeds from consignment items are split, with half returned to the consignor and half going to Wellness House.

The shop provide about $150,000 annually to Wellness House's budget. In addition to celebrating its 30th anniversary, The Courtyard just passed the $5 million mark for funds contributed. The operation is undergirded by about 40 selfless volunteers who help with each Monday's intake of new merchandise and transport of outgoing items. They also make the most of the sales floor's less than 2,000 square feet with winsome arrangements - sometimes stacking tables or hanging chairs from the slatted walls to economize space.

Technological advances have meant no more handwritten price tags, and online purchases now account for about 25 percent of total sales.

"We went to people's houses all over the place," Botti said. "Now when people want to sell furniture, they just send us pictures."

The women rely on their eye for style to assign value, cognizant of ever-shifting decorating trends. The Courtyard business model they crafted has become the envy of others, including a consignment shop in Cincinnati that mimicked the store's approach.

An instrumental component of the success has been the fruitful partnership with landlord Hinsdale Bank & Trust, Botti and Ryan said. They're now looking for a new generation of partners to carry on the mission.

"We'd like it to continue, that's our hope," Botti remarked, adding with a smile, "Every young person who comes, we kind of attack."

"We've had wonderful experience and never, ever imagined we'd go the distance this long," Ryan said.

They suggested the amount of money raised for Wellness House pales in comparison to the rewards they have reaped.

"For these 30 years, it's enriched our lives more than anything," Botti said.

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean