Lifted Spirits: Remodeling the Boutique

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.

Lifted Spirits clothing boutique starting point

Before: Lifted Spirits Clothing Boutique starting point

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.

After: Remodeled Lifted Spirits Boutique

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.

Open space at the entrance, “shopping” on the right, new counter on the left. Several mirrors help visually expand the space.

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.

Elfa brand drawers. Three sets open on the inside of the counter, the fourth set opens out and stores sanitary and incontinence products

I masked the drawers with three pieces of foam core board and a stripe of purple duct tape I found in a cabinet. The foam core is a snug fit under the counter, with some white duct tape on the end to hold it in place.

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 Before:

Boutique During the Remodel:

Boutique After:

A welcome new space

Lifted Spirits drop in center boutique

A group of volunteers sorting donated hygiene items

59 thoughts on “Lifted Spirits: Remodeling the Boutique

  1. Alys! ❤ I wish I could clone you and then we'd have the world put to rights immediately! What a transformation you have managed here and I love seeing how you make things work and make it all sound so easy. I am reduced to being a little tearful, as I know how much you care and would house everyone if you could – it's not just rhetoric. And seeing the light and space and beauty you have created here for women who know so little care in their daily existence – well it really is an act of love and surely you will lift the spirits of all who happen upon this post. I am deeply touched!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Pauline, I am deeply touched by your words. Thank you. I love transforming spaces, and feel privileged to be able to do so in a setting important to the well being of our women. It was amazing how the room transformed when we removed the cubicle wall. I also coopted under-utilized space in the adjacent room so we have a place to collect, sort and rack donations. This used to be done in the boutique. Now we’re ready to open at a moment’s notice with any clutter created by the sorting process in the next room. T-shirts that are stained or torn are diverted to a wild animal rescue program. Professional clothing and any children’s clothing are donated to Sacred Heart and I’ve now organized a men’s clothing rack so we give out clothing during the morning lunch bag program. Who knew that once my boys were (mostly) launched, that I would find a place to open my heart to others. I’m so grateful.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. What a wonderful contribution you and your volunteers are making, Alys. There are so many needs for unhoused women, and you’ve created a safe spot to give your clients a little pampering. I am so glad you shared the before and after photos. Good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Debra! There is tremendous need, most especially in our community which is now one of the most expensive in the country. It’s stunning what these women face on a daily basis. I’m glad to be part of something that can ease the daily burden, but at the same time acutely aware of how far we need to go to right the wrongs. I’m trying to keep my focus on what I can do, instead of what I can’t. I hope you are doing well.


  3. Just amazing, dear Alys! This transformation truly goes beyond the physical space of the boutique as it changes the lives of the women you help. Your dedicated group of volunteers lifted the spirits of the women you serve in the community, those who generously made donations, and everyone who reads your story! You are crating a complete circle of love, Alys! Our world needs more people like you! 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dawn! I’ve been thinking about you and hoping you are doing well. Thank you for your kind words and for what I know is your deep understanding of our women’s needs. We work well as a team, women helping women. We also receive generous donations of clothing and toiletries, that allow us to offer choice. You have very little choice when you live on the streets. Every small gesture helps make a difference in someone’s day. We all need to know someone cares. I like the idea of a circle of love. xo

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am not in the least surprised at the incredible transformation you made there as I have seen your work first hand. I get the full impact of what you do there now more than before. I was not in the least surprised to see Mike working there with you. Such huge hearts you both have. I had many years ago donated all my beautiful working outfits to the battered women’s shelter but have not seen anything like this here. Maybe I don’t know where to look. I know there is a need everywhere for something like this and you are just the person to take this in hand and make it even better and more effective. Pauline said it so well. I’ll leave it at ditto. Sending love and hugs to you all. You make the world a better place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marlene, I’ve just returned from reading your post, and marvel at the coincidence: we’re both reorganizing spaces. Thank you for your kind words, and for your appreciation of the organizing process. It was so much fun working in your home and wonderful working together. You were always open to new ideas and changes. Not everyone is comfortable with that.

      Mike is such a good sport. He’s always ready to step in and help. The counter turned out exactly as I’d imagined, and what a delight to selvage two pieces into a greater whole.

      Communities everywhere need programs like this that support women. Thank you for donating clothing you a battered women’s shelter. Thank you for your affection and kind words. xo

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad that these women now have a much friendlier and user-friendly space to do their ‘shopping’. And making use of what you have to do it is truly creative as well as in the spirit of recycling. I wish I had somewhere like this locally; I must have carted 10 sacks of unwanted clothing to our local thrift shops during the course of moving house.


    • Kate, I hope the fact that you don’t have something like this is because your housing situation is not so dire. We would have welcomed your donations, but I imagine the local thrift shops were grateful for your items as well. It’s all in the spirit of giving.


      • I think our population is a lot smaller, but there’s still a shortage of affordable housing, one reason we decided to let our old house rather than sell it; it’s more bothersome, but keeps it in the housing pool at a rent that people can afford to pay.


  6. Wow! Great transformation. The women coming to ‘shop’ hopefully feel special for a few minutes. If there are up to 40 women there at a time, there must be a fair amount of homelessness.

    Interesting to learn that shoppers turn right upon entering in the US. I imagine it is the same here


    • Helen, our homeless situation is out of hand. We lack the social safety net of many developed countries (like health care) and in addition, San Jose is now one of the most expensive places to live. It’s a complex problem, with NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard) making matters worse. I recently attended a meeting on a supportive housing development and was appalled at the vitriol. It can be overwhelming. If you’re interested, here is a complex Wiki article on the situation in the US. It’s complicated, for sure, but I know we can do much better. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.


      • A disturbing situation, Alys. Alas, we have homelessness here, too, in spite of the safety net, which is also getting weaker due to the prevailing ideology since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Besides, it is so easy to slip into homelessness because of poor renters’ rights (eg only 1 month’s notice to find a new home). I’m glad that you are doing something, anyway. Hopefully, this kind of movement you are involved in will lead to more positive action.


    • It was really interesting researching the set up and flow of retail spaces. I knew more about larger stores (for instance grocers put the most popular item at the back of the store, things like milk, so that you have to go past all the other items to get to it, and back again to pay for it. They’re counting on impulse purchases. The most expensive items are at eye level, and the cheapest are on the bottom shelf. Fresh food is generally around the perimeter of the store, with packaged food down the center.


  7. Well done to you, Alys and to Mike and your co-volunteers. You’ve managed to create an even more welcoming space for the less fortunate women in your community.
    One space that definitely doesn’t need re-organising is that big one in your heart that seems to be open to all, 💖


  8. This is just wonderful! A really great transformation and it must totally lift spirits to have a place to come where people are welcoming and the space says, “you’re valued.” My mother loves thrift shops so we go to several and, frankly, most of them look like rubbish. I think that conveys a sad message to the people who have no choice but to shop there . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kerry. You know you’ve really touched on something here: we all need to feel valued. Serving with dignity is so important. My mother shopped for our clothes and shoes at a local St. Vincent dePaul thrift store in the years after my father died. It was much as you described. She scored many wonderful things, but it was a dark place, with clothing piled on tables or crammed onto racks. The trend here in California now and for many years, is to present thrift stores like other retail establishments. It makes sense on so many levels. I would love to travel the country and transform some of these shops. I think that would be fun.


      • I think it’s about dignity and allowing people to preserve theirs. The Salvation Army store here is awful–dark, dirty, with clothes just strewn about, and with surly workers who make shoppers feel small. The St. V de P is the best of the bunch but that’s not saying much–at least the people are very nice. They all need Super Alys!


        • This makes me sad, Kerry. I’ll be teams of professional organizers, looking for a project, could whip some of these places into shape. Then they would see how everyone’s moral improved: the shoppers, the workers even the community. You’ve give me so much food for thought.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Wowsah! What a difference! So light and pretty now. Much better for volunteers and patrons. Bravo and well done!. This story of generosity and creativity is a great way to start the day.


  10. This has become such a welcoming, open and interesting space. Well done! Where would our society be now if it wasn’t for people like you, the other women who volunteer ~ and Mike too, of course! Much love xox
    (BTW, I am going to sort out my jewellery and am wondering if your boutique could use it ~ not earrings, of course. It seems like it would be easy to post.)


    • Oh Anne, my heart. The women love jewelry and in fact I just set up a table this week of donated necklaces that they could choose from. BUT, it must be a dear price for you to send jewelry all this way. I won’t say no, but at the same time, I imagine there is a need in your community, too. Thank you for your kind words on the boutique. It has been so much fun seeing the women’s eyes light up at the changes, and such a joy to be able to serve them in an inviting space. Big hug to you, Anne. xo


  11. Hi honey, look at you go !!!! You are simply the kindest, sweetest most caring woman I know. Bravo my dear, you and Mike are their angels, I’m certain. What a difference you’re both and the other gals there are making. I linked to the Wiki article above and was shocked that the numbers are far worse than I had in my mind. It’s daunting everywhere, but for certain California is a struggle. Since a great number of services for our homeless population in Edmonton are downtown, we do see a far bit more than most Edmontonians. It’s heartbreaking isn’t it? I think that could be why organizations here, and by the sounds of it, San Jose, get push-back regarding housing. The well-healed suburbanites don’t see what we see. it’s a classic case of, ‘out of site, out of mind’. I think Pauline said the world needs more of you. I couldn’t agree more. Can clone Alys live in Edmonton ? ! Lifted Spirits update looks magnificent, I’m in awe! xoxox

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your visit, dear Boomdee Bestie. We do what we can, wear we can. I’m surrounded by other wonderful volunteers making a difference. I just wish their wasn’t so much need. I think most cities consolidate services downtown so that is where homeless/unhoused folks congregate. The library is a safe, warm respite from the street, shelters and soup kitchens are often nearby and you don’t stand out so much when you’re in a city as you do in a residential area. I’m sure all those things contribute. I would love to come live in Edmonton. As for pushback on housing, yes. People think of the “homeless” as an entity, not individuals down on their luck. Everyone of those people on the street once had a mother and father, maybe a spouse and many have children. You and I are kindred spirits. I love you for your big heart.

      Liked by 1 person

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