Retail Therapy: Bebe O's boutique in the Tower District

The Fresno BeeAugust 31, 2013 

Lupe Oftedal has fun showing off a vintage '50s poodle skirt, with husband Martin, at more of the more quirkier items in their Tower District shop, Bebe O's, a contemporary sculptural piece.

JOHN WALKER — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

There's more to Bebe O's boutique in the Tower District than rockabilly dresses, vintage band T-shirts and zebra-print shoes.

This is a retailer that gives back to its community and has ties to its neighborhood. Lots of retailers give donations to good causes, but there's something going on at Bebe O's that I haven't seen before in my eight years as at retail reporter.

Owners Martin and Lupe Oftedal host fundraisers. They take kids' clothes and toys to the foster agency nearby. When the roof of the apartment building across the street collapsed, they gave clothes to the tenants. Next month they're hosting an ArtHop event where the artists are all kids.

But don't run out and hit them up for money. Here's why. All that philanthropy doesn't pay the bills. This isn't Forever 21 raking in the profits. This is a couple who rents a small shop at 1050 N. Fulton St., next to Babylon Club. The store sells some new items and lots of used items.

Every year Bebe O's closes for a week or so when the Oftedals volunteer at a leadership camp for teens from underserved communities in Sacramento. This year when they closed, in addition to volunteering, they decided to take the time to think about whether they really wanted to continue running the business. It's a lot of work and the store pays its bills, but there are no fat paychecks at the end of the month.

Marty keeps his day job as a financial adviser. Lupe still deals with the torn ligaments in her arm, injured years ago when a box of steel-toed boots fell on her while working at a shoe store.

The Oftedals posted about their possible closure on Facebook and reaction was swift and strong. People didn't want them to go. They prayed for them. Someone offered to hold a fundraiser (which they turned down).

There are lots of people grateful for what the Oftedals and the business have done, such as Gloria Canales, head of human resources for the foster care agency Angels of Grace that is just behind the store.

The agency often gets kids who have left a traumatic situation with nothing but the clothes on their back. The Oftedals donate kids' clothes and toys they come across while looking for merchandise for their store, Canales says. Sometimes they go the extra mile and bring in new baby bottles or formula, she says.

"They pay it forward in every which way they can," Canales says. "They're just an awesome business."

Katie Turner at Fresno State's nonprofit Central California Autism Center has similar kind words. The Oftedals do a big fundraiser every year with bands and booths in the parking lot and they chose the autism center this year.

"That's just awesome that someone would do an event for us, because we usually plan our own," Turner says.

Sometimes the things the Oftedals do are less formal, like the interaction with the neighbor who walks to Dollar Tree to do his grocery shopping. He drops a bag of cereal inside Bebe O's door on his way home, and the Oftedals make sure it gets to whomever needs it.

After hearing the reaction from customers and neighbors, they decided to keep Bebe O's open. They've tweaked the business in hopes of bringing in more customers.

They're selling more plus-sized clothing, something customers requested.

They've added vintage furniture. Not the pieces that are refinished or painted, but solid original tables they felt should be preserved.

They're getting back into selling on eBay and will sell on Etsy.com, too.

Lingerie — including a pink zebra-print corset and a blue camouflage skirt — is new at the store, too.

The store gets a lot of women looking for rockabilly-style clothes or burlesque-inspired wear, and they want to do more of that. Bebe O's is getting a reputation for helping people find outfits for 1960s or Roaring '20s parties (including two recent 1920s-themed quinceaneras).

Lupe likes to pull out old magazines from the era and help customers put together outfits.

And of course, they'll continue to host fundraisers and community events. ArtHop with the kids' art is Sept. 5. Bebe O's is participating in a fashion show raising money for nonprofit Centro La Familia, which serves low-income families. That event is at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Star Palace.

"Since we have a venue, we should give back," Marty says.

 

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6431, bclough@fresnobee.com or @BethanyClough on Twitter. Read her blog on fresnobeehive.com.

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