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Arlene Reba, 74, stood outside Nest, a new consignment shop on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Tenleytown, and peered in. The place was closed, but Reba caught a glimpse of an employee inside the store. The employee ducked out of sight and waited for Reba to leave.
Reba, it turns out, had a history with the people running Nest. The man behind Nest is John Coon, an entrepreneur who specializes in opening and closing consignment shops. Coon ran the recently shuttered Washington Consignment in Cleveland Park and operated another store by the same name on Wisconsin Avenue before closing it more than a year ago. Another Coon consignment store on Nicholson Lane in Rockville closed in August.
Per his travels in the second-hand-sales biz, Coon has attracted a coterie of regulars, with Reba among them. At Washington Consignment in Cleveland Park, Reba was “a friend of the store,” according to Coon. But the two have had a falling-out since Washington Consignment began going under. Reba lost trust in the store, where she knew all of the employees and had done business for several years. Others who claim they should have been paid and weren’t or were paid too little too late echo her concerns.
The Cleveland Park store closed Sept. 28. “We went insolvent,” says Coon, who sometimes lists himself as the store owner but is in actuality the president of a board of a directors of a company that owns the store, he says.
“It was a victim of the economy,” says Coon of his latest closed store. He needed out of an expensive Connecticut Avenue lease, and when he realized he was not taking in enough money to cover expenses—including paying his consigners—he decided to have a big sale, close up shop, and sell the store’s Web site and e-mail list to a new corporation, which owns Nest.
At Nest, he has combined all of his endeavors, making it one-stop shopping for cleaning services, painting, interior design, home-staging, and event- and wedding-planning. He turned an old rug store that, he says, “everyone told me had been going out of business for 20 years” into a brightly colored gallery of other people’s furnishings, complete with a parrot named Pedro.
The sale of the Web site and the proceeds from the new store are helping him to pay his old consigners, he says. But some of his old consigners feel they are getting a bad deal. Among those who’ve come forward, Reba was owed the most.
Reba, a retired teacher and travel broker who finds items at estate sales and the like and then consigns them, was offered store credit in lieu of a check from Washington Consignment for more than $2,000. She took it, she says, “because I figured if they closed, I would have nothing.” She picked out a 1920s-era Chinese emperor’s robe, a Japanese wedding coat, and a few small statues. “All of it had to be carried out,” she says.
Reba felt her account had not been zeroed-out; Coon says it was and then some. When Reba went in again a few days later, she spied a bronze panther someone had recently brought in. “I loved it,” she says of the small sculpture by artist Loet Vanderveen. She owned another work of his, a bishop sitting in a rocking chair, “and I had never seen another piece by him” before the panther showed up.
She says that because she felt the store still owed her and that she would rather have had the money than robes and wedding coats and statues, she would agree only to pay half of the more than $650 the store was asking for the sculpture. She wrote a check, which was cashed; she provided a copy to Washington City Paper. Coon’s take is that Reba took the panther after being paid in full, had to be tracked down before she paid for half of it, and that by not paying the other half what she actually did “amounts to shoplifting.” Reba, upon hearing this, secured on Monday a cashier’s check for the rest of the asking price and handed it to Coon at Nest. Both say she wished him well and then walked out.
Coon’s exchanges with Linda Miller have not gone nearly as well.
Miller has written several angry posts on the popular Cleveland Park Listserv claiming Washington Consignment has owed her $600 since 2006. On the store’s last day, Miller wrote:
I just came from there and was dismissed by the owner with a surly, ‘Oh. it’s you’ I’ve been reading about you (what I’ve written as a customer(s) who up to now has been stolen from, since we are not being paid, (Way to go CP List Serv!!!!!) He then ran out…and said he would be back in 20 minutes. His take is that my $600 payment was 2 yrs ago ago and he has to research it. I told him my attorney would be calling him and he said, ‘I’d much rather deal with him rather than you”.
Coon says of Miller: “Linda Miller is a nut.” He confirms he told her he would rather deal with her lawyer but takes issue with the rest of her account. He was already leaving, he says.
Miller says: “I think he is the crazy one because he doesn’t pay. What kind of businessman is this? He comes across like some kind of pillar of the community and he’s not paying people.…I want my $600.”
The deal at Washington Consignment and at all of Coon’s stores has been this: When your items sell, you get half of the sale price and the store keeps half. Anything that doesn’t sell within 90 days must be picked up within one week. Anything that is not picked up within that week becomes the property of the store.
Both Miller and Coon say Miller turned over “hundreds” of items to Washington Consignment. Miller says these included an antique desk, plates, a table runner, burgundy pillows, a throw, Italian pottery, art, a table, and various other furniture and accessories from several homes she is trying to either sell or rent.
Coon says she was allowed to pick up unsold items after the one-week window. Miller says the store broke some of these items. Coon says it’s possible “a couple of figurines” were damaged. Miller says, “That’s a lie. I’m not into figurines.”
Coon’s records show she was issued two checks, for just under $600, and that the bookkeeper went so far as to give her the number of the checks. Although he said he would research her account, he has not checked to see if Miller cashed the checks.
“It was so long ago,” he says. “We don’t have these bank accounts anymore.…I would have no problem dealing with her in a rational, reasonable way, but when she’s trashing us and then saying she’s going to sue me…it burns me that I have to dig back into this.”
Another consigner, Deena Gorland, has been in touch with Miller through the Listserv and sympathizes with her. Gorland, a photographer, consigned only one item, a statue of a Tibetan Buddha that belonged to her ex-husband. “I wanted to get rid of the bad karma,” she says.
The store employee who took the item wrote it was “the real deal” in a record of the transaction. Those same records show it sold for more than $200 in February and that Gorland was issued a check on Oct. 8 for $101.25, eight months after the sale. Coon says the check was delayed because “we must have missed over her.” The check was mailed this week, he says.
“He doesn’t owe me a lot of money, like he owes Linda. It’s the principle of the thing,” says Gorland. “I run my own business…and I’ll say I’m going to get you these prints, and you pay 50 percent up front and the balance when you receive them. I run my business in an honest way. I do not shimmy-shank people.”
Gorland was angry enough to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. The BBB, according to its Web site, opened a file on Washington Consignment in March 2007 and, after receiving five complaints within 12 months, issued an “unsatisfactory record.”
Coon says the rating is misleading. “There were late payments, some of them toward the end, and there was one [complaint to the BBB] where we never got the letter about it. If you don’t respond to the BBB, they just assume you’re the bad guy,” he says. The BBB report does show that Washington Consignment resolved all but one of the five complaints, listing it as a “contract dispute.”
Another consigner, Eleanor Oliver, says she had a running complaint with Washington Consignment that was settled after she heard they were going out of business and posted her thoughts on the Listserv. “I’ve had no further problem since then,” she says, “but it took going public to get the money out of them.” She was owed between $150 and $200.
With Stephen Geoffray, the stakes were higher. He sent Washington Consignment a fine dining table that sold within a month for about $2,900, he says. When informed the store was closing, he was asked to accept two payments, one in July and one in August. He declined and made several more calls requesting full payment.
“After my nephew stopped in, I was told I could expect about $400, which I received…,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I received a letter dated Sept with a check for about $57.00 saying that…I would be paid in full but no specific terms.”
Coon says the letter stated he would receive monthly payments, but does understand Geoffray’s frustrations.
The bottom line, says Coon, is that “I was part of a business that failed.…We made a decision to let it go, but it was never an option that people would not get paid.”
(City Paper photographs by Darrow Montgomery)