For 21/2 years, Wallabies Kids sold heaps of children's clothing, as well as swings, bouncer seats and countless toys — all used but in great condition.
Nicky McGinnis and Kim Hendrick had a thriving business. Two employees had good jobs. And thousands of west Pasco parents had an affordable place to buy the things their kids needed — and get some cash for their old gear.
That all ended last Tuesday, when Wallabies closed its New Port Richey resale shop for good.
The venture, the owners decided with heavy hearts and teary eyes, had become too risky.
"We wanted to make sure all our items were safe," McGinnis said. "And without testing you're not 100 percent sure."
Most parents have heard about the new law going into effect Tuesday that prohibits the sale of any children's products that exceed a certain amount of lead. The standards apply to any goods for children under 12, including clothing, furniture and, obviously, toys.
The Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act of 2008, born of the lead scare a year and a half ago, requires retailers to certify their goods meet the new safety standards. Fine if you're Wal-Mart, importing thousands of the same toy from China. You get the manufacturer or an independent tester to provide the documentation that this particular toy isn't toxic.
But what if you're Wallabies? You get thousands of different items from your customers: die-cast cars and xylophones, action figures and activity tables, plush bears with painted noses and tiny jeans with appliques and colored snaps. The cost of testing each one for lead would bankrupt you.
Amid the groundswell of protests from resale and thrift store owners — and the legions of parents who rely on such stores — the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a "clarification" of the law last month:
Resellers are not required to test their inventory for lead. But they are not allowed to sell anything that exceeds the lead standards (600 parts per million total lead). And if they do, they could face civil or criminal penalties.
That gave little comfort to the ladies at Wallabies. They closely monitored the recall lists, but without testing each item themselves, how could they be sure they didn't sell a bad one?
When the landlord asked in January if Wallabies would be renewing its lease for the Little Road storefront, the ladies said no.
"We were not willing to take the risk on a three-year lease, not knowing what the lead law was going to do," McGinnis said.
It was the same story for Neon Daisy, a charming little consignment shop on Seven Springs Boulevard in New Port Richey that recently closed its doors.
"My concern was that we could be sued if someone purchased something that had too much lead content, and I did not feel comfortable with that," owner Lynn Brownsword said. "Everyone in this society seems to be sue happy, especially with the economy."
As a mother of two small children — and frequent shopper and seller at consignment shops — I'm saddened to see them go. Such shops make it easier to clothe our ever-growing kids, splurge on the otherwise-pricier playthings and get a little money back on the items our kids outgrew too fast.
I don't blame these store owners for throwing up their hands in the face of a somewhat contradictory law that places all of the liability on their shoulders.
But I am pleased to report other consignment shops have dug in their heels.
Crystal Reposa, owner of Katie's Closet on U.S. 19 in Port Richey, has consulted with two attorneys on the issue. Her husband also spoke with officials at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, who told him most manufacturers have been creating toys for the past five or six years that comply with the 600-parts-per-million lead limit. The problematic toys were identified in the rash of recalls a year and a half ago.
"We're just paying extra close attention to the recall list and making sure the list is up-to-date to make sure we protect the children as best we can," Reposa said. She has also cleared her shelves of the types of items that may contain lead, such as wooden and metal painted toys and vinyl rain jackets.
Carol Vaporis, owner of Duck Duck Goose Consignment on State Road 54 in New Port Richey, has become a human encyclopedia on the topic of lead testing and regulation.
"It's just me and my sister that run the store, and the two of us, almost 24 hours a day — if we're not sleeping — are constantly into the research and the awareness of what's going on with the law," Vaporis said. "I think it's going be a very active week this week."
She holds out hope for legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would, among other things, exempt resale shops from this law. In a prepared release, DeMint says such stores "were never the source of the product safety concerns encountered last year, and they won't be in the future. They are good actors trying to provide Americans of modest means with value oriented products."
Vaporis also is putting together two notebooks: one with information on products certified to be safe, so she can confidently accept them in her store; and one with information on items that appear risky, so she knows which items to decline.
Some of the riskier types of items are being flagged on Web sites such as thesmartmama.com, run by California environmental attorney Jennifer Taggart. She provides XRF testing — using a handheld X-ray device that can detect lead and other harmful metals — and posts information on potentially dangerous items.
"We're trying to memorize the guidelines that thesmartmama.com and other organizations are setting up, and if anything looks suspicious, we don't take it," Vaporis said.
These stores are doing their part, but we parents need to do our part, too.
In the past few months, recalls have been issued for 75,000 lip gloss keychains, 8,400 skull-and-crossbones necklaces and about 400 science kit magnets, all because they contained lead-laced pieces. They weren't designed, marketed or sold to small children, but toxic to them all the same.
The new restrictions on those who manufacture or sell children's items wouldn't have kept those things out of your house. Ultimately we're responsible for what we bring home. And it's up to us to do our research, make smart purchases and keep potentially dangerous things out of our children's reach.
There's a silver lining in all of this for the co-owners of Wallabies: They'll get to return to being stay-at-home moms.
"We've had three years of Saturdays without going to football and cheerleading and birthday parties," McGinnis said. "Our families do need us, and we had put three years of their lives on hold."
And McGinnis will be back in resale shops — as a customer.
"I have confidence in what I'm buying for my children," she said. "You use common sense."
The Mommy Track is an occasional column on parenting issues and the work/family balance. Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.