When three young mothers decided to open a children’s consignment shop at Lake Anne, their lawyer and accountant were skeptical. “Adorable,” they said. They didn’t think the business would last a year. Thirty-five years later, Small Change Consignment continues to prove them wrong.
There’s a ton of reasons why Small Change has lasted so long in this constantly changing region. I’d always attributed its success to its fantastically low prices, but it turns out that there is so much more to love about Small Change. I had no idea how much this business and its owner have done for the Reston community.
When Small Change was recently nominated by Red Tricycle readers as one of the best resale stores in the Washington area, I visited to learn more about the shop and the reasons why people should vote for it.
I had intended to write an article about the shop and the ways that it can save families money, but in the process I found myself truly inspired by Susann Gerstein, the woman behind it all. I had to write about her as well. People would love her story. I was captivated by it.
In the late 1970s, Susann and her husband were raising their young boys in New York City and were part of a tight-knit community of families. When her husband needed to move to the DC area for work, this native New Yorker didn’t warm up easily to the suburbs. The cultural changes were intimidating enough, but the car-dependent structure of the suburbs truly terrified her — due to a lifelong visual disability, Susann has always been unable to drive a car. “I was used to walking everywhere. I would be planted like a tree in all these places we looked at in Northern Virginia,” she told me. “I told my husband that I couldn’t create a life for us and our children living here. I was devastated.”
They had heard intriguing things about Reston, but their real estate agent was reluctant to take them there. It was too unusual, too diverse, he claimed. Finally they decided to go without him. “The next day, we walked onto Lake Anne Plaza and we were done,” she said. “There were dozens of young families on the Plaza; kids were playing and parents were chatting. There was a bookstore, an art gallery, a supermarket, a library. Not only was Lake Anne beautiful, but you could also see community. It was heaven.”
Susann has lived, worked, and volunteered at Lake Anne ever since that life-changing day.
It didn’t take long for Susann to love her new neighborhood. She got to know other mothers, including a neighbor named Kathy who had recently moved from Chicago. Both of them missed the family resources in big cities, such as playgroups, parental social networks, and resale shops. “Consignment shops were viable there. The cities had large supply of cute clothes, and a culture of sharing among parents,” Susann recalled. “Reston was such a family-oriented community that it needed a shop like that.”
Susann and Kathy and their friend Margaret decided to be the ones to make it happen. Kathy took classes on business and finance to prepare, and the three of them started collecting clothing that people wanted to consign. Eventually Susann secured a storefront at Lake Anne Plaza.
I’d love to have been able to see this original space — imagine Marimekko wallpaper and shag carpeting in lime green. A friend made a fabric banner of children holding balloons (which still hangs in the store today). The clothing racks were built by Susann’s husband. The paint was still drying during the final hours before the store opened on November 21, 1981.
“We had a phenomenal first day,” Susann told me with a humble grin. “Everyone was delighted that we had opened.” People brought flowers. Neighbors baked cookies to share. The community had come out to celebrate together. That’s exactly what Susann and her partners had hoped for. “We wanted to create a community space,” she said.
Fifty families sold their clothes at the store that first day. “It was amazing how much shopping was going on,” Susann recalls. Clearly they had met a need for local parents.
Today they average 1,200 consigning families each year. These consignors collect 50% of the money made by the sales of their clothes. That money really adds up. “Four families have told me that they’ve invested all their consignment money over the years and used it to put their kids through UVA, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary,” Susann told me, much to my astonishment.
As for me, I spend every bit of my consignment money on more Small Change clothes. It feels like I’m getting free stuff when I shop against my balance. When I do spend cash, I’m amazed by the tremendously low prices. Everyday clothes prices are about 50% off retail, and sometimes vastly more.
I’ve found some excellent clothes there over the years, with brands like Tea Collection, Janie and Jack, Gap, Under Armour, and more. My kids’ winter jackets and snow pants come from there, too. Every time I stop by the store, I find myself with a pile of new treasures to take home.
“We learned early on that parents really benefitted from being able to find everything they needed for their kids in one place,” Susan explained. Clothes are arranged in sizes ranging from newborn to teen. The store also sells new toys, craft kits, maternity clothes, baby gear, and more.
Over the years, other ways to exchange children’s clothes have been created, especially since the dawn of social media. It’s possible to trade or buy used children’s gear in many online communities — it’s just way more time consuming to do that. Personally I don’t want to drive across town over and over again to buy single items when I could just walk into a shop and buy a pile of clothes in a few minutes.
The same goes for online shopping. One morning I spent an hour browsing children’s clothes on Amazon, and then I ended up finding more clothing that I wanted in ten minutes at Small Change. For way less money, too.
Small Change’s business is delightfully retro in other ways, too. Rather than a computerized booking and accounting system, Susann relies on a paper ledger and the same Rolodexes that opened the shop with her. Those Rolodexes contain the records for all her consignors. “It’s incredibly simple,” she said. “They always work, even if the power goes out.” The Rolodex pages are no longer made, but she keeps a stock of them for future consignors. “They are specifically sized to fit in this system, so we might have to 3D print some more if I run out,” she joked.
She also stitches her price tags into each item of clothing. Susann isn’t a fan of plastic and prefers threaded tags, even though they are difficult to find nowadays and are still made by only a couple companies.
Susann’s concerns about plastic also influence the toys she selects to sell. Most of the store’s toys are made of wood and several are handmade. She particularly loves products by Melissa and Doug. She sells those toys cheaper than you would find online or in other stores, and often adds additional discounts through pop-up sales.
On the store’s Facebook page, Susann offers themed toy discounts nearly every day. It’s not uncommon to find new toys sold there for less than their wholesale cost. And on one Saturday in February (the day of the Lake Anne polar plunge), Small Change offers 50% off all toys in the store. It’s a good day to stock up for birthday gifts.
These toys make the store a beloved spot for children to visit. They also love to play with the store’s school bus, grocery cart, and piano. It’s a store where kids are entertained so parents can shop and relax. “When we originally planned the store, we saw this as a place where kids could play and moms could talk. And that is absolutely how it turned out,” Susann said.
Small Change quickly became a gathering place for families at Lake Anne, and Susann got to know many other mothers as well as other members of the Reston neighborhood that she had grown to love. “I was always shy and timid when I was younger,” Susann revealed. “This store has changed me. Over the years, it has brought me out of my shell and given me a place to find what’s important to me.” Emboldened and grateful, Susann soon began to give back to the community through volunteer work.
At the time, Lake Anne Plaza was the home of the some of the offices of the charitable organization Reston Interfaith (now known as Cornerstones.) Susann got involved in their volunteer work to help local families in need of food, shelter, housing, and childcare. Eventually she became president of Reston Interfaith’s Board of Directors.
She served as the president of the Lake Anne Merchant’s Committee and the president of her congregation, Shoreshim. She volunteered at Lake Anne Elementary School and served as the PTA co-president. She was thrilled to live in a town where she could work, socialize, and volunteer without needing to drive.
Over the years, Susann recognized the need to commemorate the history of this special community. She helped found the Reston Historic Trust for Community Revitalization and secured a retail space at Lake Anne to educate visitors about the history and vision of Reston. That’s how Susann became the founding president of the Reston Museum.
“I’ve always had an idea in Reston that if something is important to you, you can affect change,” Susann explained. “There’s a can-do attitude in Reston.” She was grateful to founder and fellow Lake Anne resident Bob Simon and developed a deep friendship with him over the years. “He was like a second father to me,” Susann told me, sadly. She misses him profoundly. “Bob was probably the most remarkable person I’ve known. He understood what you need to create a town — the placement of houses, the mixture of ages, races, and socio-economic statuses, and the availability of social services. It took a lot of personal passion to make Reston happen, and luckily Bob had it.”
His vision of community lives on in people like Susann and businesses like Small Change. Something many people don’t know about this store is how much it donates to local families in need. If an item isn’t purchased after a few months, it is eligible for donation. Susann donates clothing to homeless shelters, the Closet thrift store, and volunteers serving overseas.
Most often, though, she gives clothing to local women and children in crisis. “We frequently respond to case workers who call from women’s shelters to help mothers and children who arrive with nothing but the clothing on their backs,” Susann explained. She packs clothing for the women and each of the kids in the sizes requested.
Susann never donates clothing that isn’t in good condition. “Families should have lovely clothes, current brands, and good quality. The last thing these children need to worry about is not fitting in with the other kids.” She says it’s very gratifying to be able to help these children in need.
Although I’ve been shopping at Small Change for five years, I never knew the extent that this store gives back to the community. It’s so much more than a place to save money. It’s a place to gather, to play, and to feel good about contributing to a larger need. And as I discovered after a long conversation with Susann the other day, it’s a place to get inspired by someone truly special.
Disclaimer: Small Change Consignment is an advertiser with Modern Reston and has been a wonderful source of encouragement and support for us along the way. All opinions in this article are my own. Small Change is located at Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, Virginia and is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-5pm. Like them on Facebook for daily discounts and other special offers.
If you love what Small Change Consignment has offered the Reston community, you can vote for them at Red Tricycle.
Photography by Charlotte Geary
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