By John Burton
LITTLE SILVER – The Woman’s Exchange has been around for a long time but it keeps up with the times – and helps lots of people along the way.
“You have to always have your eye on the horizon” when running such a business, said longtime manager Lori Saybolt of the 32 Church St. shop. “You can’t rest on your laurels. You have to be aware of what’s trending for the future.”
The Woman’s Exchange, which will be celebrating its 80th anniversary on Friday, June 6, with an open house, is more than just the traditional gift shop.
The establishment, a not-for-profit, showcases the work of 250 to 300 craftspeople from around the country and relies on about 70 volunteers who contribute their time, work with customers to make selections, offer special orders for specific items and provide free gift wrapping.
Portions of the proceeds go to help a number of local charitable organizations. The chosen charities supported this year are, HABcore, which provides permanent and transitional housing; Saturday Soup of Asbury Park; and Meridian Behavioral Health Services in Shrewsbury.
In past years the exchange has provided contributions to the Parker Family Health Center of Red Bank; 180 Turing Lives Around; and Mary’s Place by the Sea in Ocean Grove, which provides support for women battling cancer.
The exchange donates about $600,000 annually to the various organizations.
The organization is a member of about 50 such exchanges in the United States. It was established “by a group of community members who saw a need during the Depression in our community,” Saybolt said.
Started in the back of an appliance store in Rumson, The Woman’s Exchange helped families struggling financially during the Depression and World War II make ends meet by selling some homemade items, Saybolt said.
“Our mission has always been the same, to help people help themselves,” she said.
The shop sells a variety of items on consignment, many of them handcrafted, including infant and children’s clothing, toys, jewelry and accessories, unique décor items and seasonally themed merchandise.
The shop is now filled with all sorts of summery, Jersey Shore-related products.
Colleen Reyes of Howell was one of the crafters offering her watercolor paintings and paper art items for sale. Now she is one of the volunteers who offer their time in the shop.
“I started one day a week and now I come as often as I can” to enjoy the environment and the interaction with customers and fellow volunteers. “We’re not only volunteers, we’re shoppers as well,” Reyes said, confiding that she sees things she plans to purchase.
“That’s the downside of working here,” joked Jane Gehlhaus, who, along with serving on the exchange’s board of trustees, has been a volunteer for about a decade. Gehlhaus enjoys it, too. “It’s such a happy place to be.”
The volunteers are a major part of what makes the exchange so special, Saybolt said. Many volunteers offer their time for many years. That’s even true of local high school girls, who initially volunteer for community service credit, but stay on well beyond what is needed. “This speaks to what we do,” Saybolt said.
The fact “that our volunteers want to be here, customers receive customer service that is unparalleled,” she said.
Customer service, mission and keeping an eye on details have been contributors to the business’ longevity. “Our merchandise mix changes almost every day, and that means a lot in this type of business,” Saybolt said.
Keeping it fresh, personalizing the service, offering what isn’t available elsewhere, means everything, said Saybolt, who in an earlier stage of her life was in the buying program for the former Bamberger’s department store chain.
Add to that, paying attention to more modern developments – a continually updated website, incorporating email announcements and embracing social media – means that while the exchange is entering its ninth decade, it remains relevant.
“Those were major changes for us … being not just a cute, little gift store but to be more progressive and available,” said Saybolt, who along with being the manager for 27 years, is co-president of the Little Silver Business and Professional Association.
The Woman’s Exchange open house will be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, June 6, and will feature special sales, raffles, giveaways, refreshments and an opportunity to meet some of the shop’s local artisans