Robert A. Southard has spent a lifetime fighting poverty. As an ordained American Baptist minister, Southard has seen poverty around the globe as well as here at home.
By RUTH BAUM BIGUS
Special to The Star
“I kept seeing deep poverty and I thought I needed to do something,” Southard said. He bought some handmade tablecloths “and I thought, Who could buy these and help the people who made them?”
Southard turned that desire to help others into economic power with Unique Finds, a gift shop filled with eclectic items that help people and organizations battling poverty.
“We’re a gift shop that focuses on fair trade, Christian mission support and deep poverty,” Southard said.
Unique Finds carries such items as jewelry, shawls, purses, chocolates, coffee, linens and specialty items.
“It’s like a church bazaar, but in the public arena,” he said,
This month, Unique Finds celebrates its first anniversary, but Southard has been selling these kinds of items for a while at professional conferences and meetings.
“I just expanded my closet into a store,” said Southard of the store’s downtown Overland Park location. “It was getting so big I either had to stop it” or start a store.
Unique Finds carries merchandise from as far away as Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and India to Wichita and the Greater Kansas City area. Some items are things Southard has brought back himself while other items come from friends and colleagues who travel.
“I tell them if you see things from a poverty group, buy them and bring them back and we will sell them,” Southard said.
Q: How does your model work to help others?
Southard gives a percentage of an item’s sale back to the artist or organization. Some items he buys outright, paying the artist up front, while others are taken on consignment.
“I ask them to donate 10 percent of a sale to a nonprofit of their choice,” he said.
Open seven days a week, Unique Finds has 13 employees who help Southard run the store.
“Part of the purpose of the store is helping provide economic justice, and providing jobs is part of that,” he said.
Q: You have spent most of your adult life in the pastorate. How did you know what to do with a business?
Southard reached out in several directions to establish Unique Finds as an LLC. One of the first people to help out the retired pastor was his daughter who runs a Ten Thousand Villages — a network of stores focusing the sale of fair trade items — outside the Kansas City area.
“She taught me how to do this,” Southard said. “And I also had experience with antiques.”
Southard also turned to the Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College for advice on setting up his business as well as his personal financial consultant. He used personal funds to finance Unique Finds.
Q: Why did you choose your location?
“I looked for a location that fit our brand,” Southard said. “Downtown Overland Park has Ten Thousand Villages, and we encourage each other.… Downtown Overland Park seems like a fair trade district.”
So far, Southard said business has been steady; Unique Finds does get some business from its website.
“I had hoped it’s a two-year process and that it will pay for itself and I’m on track,” Southard said.
Getting the word out about the store has provided a challenge, Southard said.
“I’ve been trying everything,” said Southard, including social media, a news log, direct mail and hosting special events at the store. Every third Friday the store stays open into the evening hoping to entice customers to come in and check out the store.
Q: What does the future hold for your business?
“I do think about other locations and more stores, and I’m in the process of reviewing that,” Southard said. “I would like to consider franchises.”
For now, Unique Finds will be hosting some special activities at the store to celebrate its first year in business including a special sale, discounts for bringing in new customers and a party Jan. 26 at the neighboring Homer’s Café for supporters.