Exchanging Memories in the Cape

For Michele Skarwecki, owner of The Cape Exchange home décor consignment boutique, business is personal.

A cup of coffee was all Michele Skarwecki needed to decide to open her business in Cape St. Claire.

Just over three years ago, the St. Margaret’s resident was looking at several areas to open her home décor consignment shop, focusing primarily on Severna Park. Meeting a longtime friend over coffee at in Cape Plaza made her realize that she loved the “main street” atmosphere of the shopping center.

Skarwecki's friend came back the following day and, to her delight, saw a storefront for lease—perfectly-sized for the business Skarwecki wanted to open. Just a few short, very busy weeks later, she opened the doors of in February 2008.

In those three years, Skarwecki has become busier than she ever thought possible, expanding from solely a brick-and-mortar store to include serving as an authorized, full service registered eBay drop-off location that sells several hundred items a month.

How did a former stay-at-home mother become a dynamic businesswoman? When Skarwecki’s now-grown children were young and money was tight, one of her favorite ways to keep the family budget in check was to purchase as much second-hand furniture as possible. Skarwecki began to realize that she actually preferred furniture and household items with a soul, and scouring flea markets and auction houses became a pastime.

“It’s amazing to me what you can get at an auction,” says Skarwecki, “and they have such a great camaraderie and a fun atmosphere.”

She started befriending people who she saw time and again while furnishing her home with her found treasures.

Inspiration struck on the day one of her children came home and told Skarwecki that the family living room looked like an antique shop. “I thought, well, if I can do it for my house, why can’t I sell the same stuff?,” says Skarwecki.

Since opening The Cape Exchange, Skarwecki has faithfully scoured area flea markets every Saturday morning for pieces she thinks will sell in her shop. She says, “There are no rules to buying, I just go with what feels good.”

She arrives back just in time to open at 11:00 a.m.-“ish”, because she never knows exactly how long her outings might take. “That’s the kicker,” she says, “I open at 11 so I’ve got to be able to leave on time, but I also like to allow a tiny bit of extra time to open up.”

Skarwecki also responds to many of the calls she gets every week by making personal visits to see items or collections, though one thing she avoids is coming out after a yard sale has been picked over.

Once a year, she treks to Charleston, S.C., to visit estate sales for larger pieces of furniture and artwork. Skarwecki says “There’s a different feel and style to furniture from another state, and sometimes what I bring back is just what someone in this area is looking for, that’s just a bit unique.”

Her eBay business picked up almost as soon as she opened her doors, and her thorough research into the pieces she resells are what produces results for her clients. “A lot of people don’t sell items well on eBay,” says Skarwecki. “We do lots of research, and since we have our authorization, we can log in to see prices of similar items that have sold. Knowing your competition will produce the best results.”

Indeed, the back area of The Cape Exchange is like stepping into another world, filled with a neat system of stacked boxes, charts and a mini photography studio to snap clear images of items on crisp white backgrounds.

Fortunately, her business has been so successful that she has been able to hire two full-time and two part-time employees who also help with the eBay sales.

Skarwecki’s favorite part of her job is the emotional aspect. She has seen her share of people who find a surprising sentimental attachment to pieces they thought they were ready to sell.

“People sometimes have collections of items, dozens and dozens of things, from a relative who has passed away,” she says, “and they think they want to sell every piece. Or they know they want to keep something from it, but aren’t sure where to start.”

Skarwecki’s job is to be objective when her clients can’t. She says, “Certain items trigger feelings, memories, and that ‘one’ is worth a billion dollars. If other items don’t trigger emotions, those are the ones to sell.”

She sees herself as someone who can help people through some of the toughest times of their lives in determining what to keep, to donate or to sell. “You go through someone’s belongings,” she says, “and you can see on their face right away what to do, even if they themselves don’t realize it.”

Though the recent economy has adversely affected many businesses, it may be the very reason why The Cape Exchange has grown so quickly. More people are looking for bargains, but, as Skarwecki points out, they still want to have something different from their neighbors.

To that end, Skarwecki is choosy about items that she puts in her shop so that they reflect current trends.

“People are downsizing,” she says. “Multifunctional pieces have become very popular. For example, most people will walk right by a plain coffee table, but if a table has a couple of drawers, then people will notice.”

Though she doesn’t limit herself to used items—anything new, used, vintage or antique will fit the bill—Skarwecki insists that they have character to come into her shop. “Last summer, I had a colorful martini glass set that was a very hot item, though I know that a plain set wouldn’t have sold so quickly.”

Consumers also are looking for eclectic items to avoid boxing themselves in to a single collection, says Skarwecki. “Mixing and matching is so much better. People are collecting what they like, not what your mother collected, not what the books say. You can have freedom and fun.”

One thing that will never go out of style is customer service, something on which Skarwecki and her staff pride themselves.  “I can do this as well as the next person so we want to be nice and we want to be honest. This is our reputation.”

Providing that personal service to her clients is what keeps Skarwecki appreciating her line of work. “What makes me feel good at the end of the day is interacting with people and helping them figure out what they need to sell to make their lives simpler, and what they need to hold on to because they treasure it.”


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