The Exchange has a reach that packs quite a community punch

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How sublime consignment shopping funds a tireless nonprofit 

By Hannah Wallace

The Exchange has more than earned its reputation as a shopper’s paradise. The sprawling consignment store, located on half a city block in Sarasota’s downtown core, features furniture, housewares, clothing, linens, jewelry, artwork and more — meticulously priced and organized — and all of it representing the organization’s standards for quality merchandise.

For visitors, the Exchange is as much about bargain hunting as it is discovering a striking and unique showpiece that can’t be found on any old big box shelf. Discerning shoppers shop here.

But behind that opulent salesfloor is a streamlined nonprofit operation. The Exchange succeeds because of a knowledgeable staff and a small army of dedicated volunteers who record, organize, and track (within a sophisticated computer system) more than 15,000 consigned items a month — all in service of the Sarasota community and its performing arts programs.

This month, the Exchange will announce the recipients of its 2024 grants and scholarships — the organization’s 62nd year supporting Sarasota performing arts. The funds, raised entirely from the store’s sales, will total more than $400,000 to Sarasota and Manatee performing arts programs, K-12 arts programs, and high school and college students pursuing a higher education in the arts.

“We’re very unique,” said Karen Koblenz, executive director of the Exchange, just days before the board of directors voted on this year’s grants recipients. “There aren’t many places like this in the country.”

Founded in 1962, the Exchange has always been dedicated to Sarasota’s arts scene. The organization has awarded more than $9 million total in grants and scholarships during its six-plus decades. And to this day, most shoppers, in Koblenz’s estimation, don’t know that they’re supporting a local nonprofit. The inventory is what draws the crowds.

“I love the artwork and the blown glass,” she said. “I really think we get some fabulous art.” She remembers when the Exchange handled a picture that came from the Elvis estate, and another painting done by Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees.

In one case, a consigner took back a pro sports championship ring, postponing its sale until a young man could save enough money for the purchase. The young buyer then turned around and donated the ring to a local charity auction.

Another time, a volunteer arrived with a Gio Ponti bowl purchased for a few bucks at a garage sale. Staff at the Exchange, after research revealed similar items for sale by Christie’s, decided to send the bowl to an auction house, where it sold for several thousand dollars. The volunteer then gave the proceeds to his favorite Sarasota charities.

As important as the grants and scholarships are to Sarasota nonprofits, Koblenz explained that the Exchange’s benevolent reach stretches even farther into the community.

For instance, while 40% of each sale goes to grants and scholarships, the other 60% goes back to the consigner. That money may simply be a one-off expendable bonus for some consigners, but for others it represents a reliable second paycheck.

“We have over 5,000 active consigners, and we pay the highest commission in town,” said Koblenz. “Merchandise sells fast here. We cut checks on the last day of every month, and we mail them. We have a number of senior citizens who supplement their income by consigning at the Exchange.”

Last year alone, the organization paid out roughly $2.4 million to consigners. (Consigners also have the option of automatically contributing 50% or 100% of their sales to the organization.)

Additionally, items that can’t be consigned at the Exchange are in turn donated to the thrift stores run by the Pines of Sarasota and the Salvation Army — local organizations that benefit greatly from high-quality donations.

Koblenz also likes to point out that supporting arts institutions is a way of supporting the community as a whole — both for audiences who are enlightened by the cultural experiences, and even for community members who have unique chances to participate as performers and artists. In fact, the Exchange’s impact — and her own responsibilities as its director — touch on everyone who interacts with the organization and radiate outward from there.

“As a nonprofit, I’m here for our shopper. I want them to know that they can get a good value for their money, and they can get something unusual. And I’m here for the consigner, because I know that that sale helps people in our community. And then we turn around with the rest of the sale and support the arts,” said Koblenz. “It benefits everybody.”

Hannah Wallace
Author: Hannah Wallace

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