Not far from Leesburg's outlet mall, portable metal signs point the way to another, unexpectedly popular, shopping venue: the Loudoun County Surplus Store. Shoppers say they are drawn by quality, variety and big bargains. And as they say in bargain retail: Wait, there's more.
The store recycles furniture and equipment from and among county agencies and departments, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars each year. It brings in serious revenue, far more than annual auctions ever did. What's more, this little-known jewel has garnered national attention, with counties and municipalities as far away as Arizona seeking to know how to duplicate its success.
How does Loudoun do it? Think big yard sale, held indoors.
The store is in a neatly maintained office warehouse off Cardinal Park Drive, less than a mile beyond the car dealerships and office buildings on Route 7. Business is so good that the store recently expanded its hours, although it is still open only five days a month.
On one of those recent days, manager Mike Fleming watched as shoppers methodically examined row after row of merchandise. One customer paused and nodded at Fleming, then pointed to a gently used electric scooter. "All it needs is a battery pack," Fleming said.
The shopper lingered for a moment to admire the $50 scooter, touched its handlebars, then moved on to study the next few items. The man briefly glanced up and scanned the room. All at once, he changed direction and headed purposefully toward the shiny bicycles near the front windows.
Fleming smiled. "We have great deals -- home furniture, computers, stuff for the kids," he said. "You can almost furnish an entire home here, and do it cheaply."
For sale that day were a $20 sofa, a $10 love seat, a washer and dryer set that had been marked down to $30, a $10 dishwasher, a $3 television and a $20 gas grill that required only a thorough cleaning and a tank of propane to be functional. Clean, gently used children's toys -- a plastic slide, art easel and kitchen play set, among many other finds -- awaited new homes.
Bargains of interest to small businesses included old-fashioned wooden desks starting at $30, file cabinets from $5 and rows of cheaply priced office chairs and computer hardware.
Hard-to-find items sold quickly. Three 16mm film projectors, complete with original dustcovers, went almost immediately after the doors opened. "Regulars" recall the day when pre-advertising of eight laptop computers triggered a long line outside. The items sold in less than 15 minutes.
Everything is sold "as is," without warranty. Although many items require refurbishment, some of the merchandise -- usually unclaimed or seized property -- is new or barely used.
The store's diverse merchandise comes from a variety of sources that include government offices, the Sheriff's Office, community centers and even other towns. Although almost all county agencies participate in the surplus store's program, the school system is a notable exception. It holds a separate auction in October. Surplus store management and bargain hunters hope the program's successes will encourage schools to join soon.
According to Fleming's supervisor, John Armstrong, division manager of support services, annual auctions of used, unclaimed and seized property brought in $3,000 to $5,000 a year. The Loudoun County Surplus Store, which is modeled after a store in Charlottesville, opened in 2000 and generated $30,000 its first year.
In addition to operating the storefront warehouse, the surplus store also hosts a vehicle auction every June, which added $41,000 to the venture's bottom line this year, according to Rich Weidner, assistant manager of support services.
But Armstrong said the store gives the county and its taxpayers another important financial advantage that isn't readily recognized.
"The number one benefit in my opinion is that we're recycling 30 percent of this stuff among various county offices. That's a lot of money saved, money we don't need to spend," Armstrong said.
Maintenance shacks at the base of county network radio towers, for example, would have been empty or furnished more expensively without the surplus store's help, according to Armstrong. Instead, the small workspaces were furnished with desks and chairs from the surplus store.
"So now they [tower workers] have a place to do their work," Armstrong said. He is quick to point out that the furniture isn't junk. "Everything in my own office is recycled."
Fleming and Armstrong said sales were down to about $18,000 in 2003, probably because of a lack of publicity. Although the managers are not happy about it, the relatively smaller crowds please regular customers even if they are just temporary.
"When I first found out about it [the store], I thought it was a big secret," said regular shopper Alice Hunter, co-pastor of Ebenezer Mount Calvary Holy Church in Summit Point, W.Va. Then, she said, "it was a madhouse for a while. . . . It's a little quiet today."
Hunter's church burned to the ground about 15 years ago, and refurnishing it with new items was out of the question. "This place has been such a blessing. We try to come as often as possible. We've bought lots of chairs for the sanctuary here -- and tables, too," Hunter said. Like local shoppers, she checks the county's Web site to scan featured merchandise before the store opens.
Bob Huff, who lives in central Virginia but often works near Lansdowne, visits the surplus store often. "You never know what you'll find," he said. Huff helped boost the county coffers while solving a transportation problem -- he wanted an easier, healthier way to get around from his company's temporary housing in Lansdowne.
"It'd take me 25 minutes to walk to the office," he said while pushing a Chicago-made Schwinn bicycle to the cashier window. "I can bike-ride to work in 10 minutes."
Jim Moore of Hamilton scanned the warehouse for bargains while occasionally eyeing the store's entrance. "Normally, there's a line at the door," he said. On an earlier visit, he bought a set of padded stools for $3 each that he said were almost brand new and probably worth about $200 each. "My wife was thrilled," he said.
Because he visits the store every couple of months, Moore knows many of the regulars. He said men from a repair shop in West Virginia stop by periodically to purchase old computer hardware. "They refurbish and sell [the equipment]. It's a pretty good deal for them," he said. "There's something for everyone here."
The Loudoun County Surplus Store, 14 Cardinal Park, Suite 106, Leesburg, is open the first and third Wednesdays and Fridays of each month and the last Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 703-777-0136 or visit www.loudoun.gov for merchandise previews and directions.