I’ve been volunteering for over a year at Lifted Spirits, a drop-in center for unhoused women in downtown San Jose.
Lifted Spirits took a brief hiatus in late April, giving us time to catch our breath and to make improvements to the program. One of the major changes included remodeling the boutique.
As with most non-profits, we survive on a shoestring. The budget for the remodel: zero. You make do with what you have, take advantage of sales, and employ the “let’s build a fort!” sensibilities from one’s youth.
We welcomed back the women we serve on Monday and the boutique is a hit.
For a bit of background, the boutique is a free clothes closet where unhoused women access gently used clothing and travel-sized toiletries via our drop-in center. The program also provides a hot lunch, access to a shower-van two days a week, a sleeping room, a lovely patio garden and Friday Bingo. Serving women in a pleasant environment lifts spirits and that’s what we’re all about.
The original boutique layout included assorted clothing racks, shelves for shoes, a few cubicle-style storage bins and a wall divider originally used in an office setting. Two sets of file drawers doubled as storage for underwear and assorted toiletries. A counter sat on the file cabinets with two overhanging bins, and a salvaged piece of counter top sat on a series of plastic drawers used for toiletries.
The narrow space created by the cubicle wall meant that only one volunteer could comfortably fit back there at a time. You had to turn sidewise to bend over and open a drawer. Further, women had the sense that we were “hiding the good stuff” behind the counter. As volunteers, we felt cut off from parts of the boutique and the women we serve. The high wall and overhanging cabinets blocked the natural light.
On our first closed Friday, our group of five women volunteers dismantled the cubicle wall, removed the counter and relocated the filing cabinets. We repurposed one cabinet in the conference room, and free-cycled the second one. A hauler took away the metal walls for recycling, and we retained the two counter tops which you’ll see in use, below.
With that, the space opened up considerably. It felt lighter and brighter and more spacious, simply by removing the portable wall. I had a few goals in mind after reading articles on the design of small boutiques. They suggest an open space at the entrance to give the sense of having stepped into something special. Women in the US enter and automatically turn to their right. A check-out counter should be located near the exit and to the left. And finally, you want a sense of flow throughout the shopping experience.
If you are operating a boutique to make money, you want several ways to slow your shoppers down. In our case, we wanted the opposite. There are days when nearly 40 women access the boutique, so they don’t have time to linger. I designed the space so that women enter to their right and then shop in a circular fashion, finishing at the counter to pick up a pair of socks, new underwear and toiletries before exiting. There is one table in the center as a focal point and as a place to put out extras such as hand lotion and sample hair product, but otherwise the space flows.
My husband Mike enjoyed the chance to use his power tools to build a check-out counter. We set up a folding table outside, and he cut the two counter top remnants mentioned above, down to a useable size. They don’t completely match, but once cut and arranged in an L you don’t really notice. They weren’t completely level, but I fixed that problem with two packs of dental floss! I stacked the bins we use for sorting and storing bras along the shorter side of the L to form part of the counter.
The one splurge: four sets of Elfa drawers. I bought the drawers on sale, with an additional 10% off using my professional discount and donated them to the cause. The longer side of the L sits on the Elfa drawers. We regained the lost storage from the two filing cabinets and the stacking plastic drawers with the Elfa units. Small toiletries are now located under the counter for easy access. I created enough space for two volunteers to work behind the counter.
While in my heart of hearts I wish I could provide housing for all the women we serve, I am glad to be a part of something that helps lift spirits and fills some of the needs for women living un-housed on the urban streets of San Jose.
Boutique During the Remodel: