By Sara Jordan-Heintz
Raccoon Forks Trading: A sense of belonging, a love of antiques
A business is only successful when the dignity of its employees is held in high regard. This is the mindset of Raccoon Forks Trading Company, an antique shop situated in the East Village district of Des Moines, Iowa. Opened in 2011, it functions as a micro business of Optimae LifeServices, a company that serves people with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities in central, eastern and southern Iowa.
At Raccoon Forks Trading Company, “customer employees” — those who receive services from Optimae — work in the store, gaining job experience — and so much more.
“We have a twofold mission of providing services for our clients and then also to provide high-end, quality antiques,” said Will Dodds, director of Raccoon Forks micro businesses who does buying for the store and is also a consignor. “Optimae provides several different services in different ways, and one way we identified a little while back is to provide job training services and jobs to our customers to give them a valued role. There have been several studies that show people with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, etc., have a hard time gaining and retaining employment, so one way we decided that would be successful for the population we serve that struggle with severe barriers to employment, was to create our own small businesses that Optimae helps run.”
Employee James Goetz, who once received job coaching and now works independently, said his job at the Trading Company has been beneficial for him and colleagues.
“The antique shop is a wonderful place to work and gives me a chance to get out and make some extra income,” he said. “I also think that it’s great the shop works with people that have disabilities. People that haven’t worked for up to 20 years now have a chance to get back in the work place and get some job training.”
In addition to the antique store, Optimae’s Raccoon Forks micro businesses include bookstores and cafes, bakeries, food processing plants and farms. Each business maintains an independent bank account and has its own staff.
Services Optimae provides
Optimae offers health care and human services for folks in 36 Iowa counties. Its programs include community-based, behavioral health, home health and residential care services, serving as advocates for approximately 3,900 Iowans each year.
A for-profit business, Dodds said the goal of the Trading Company is to offer customers a competitive selection of antiques at affordable prices — no different from fellow shopkeepers in the industry.
Antiques and collectibles at Raccoon Forks Trading
“We really try to focus on as many types of antiques as we can,” he noted. “We have a collection of mid-century furniture all the way down to primitive and country furniture. There’s a room dedicated to the British and American Arts & Crafts movement; one with industrial, folk art. We have lots of prints and bottles.”
The ever-changing inventory, which also includes furniture, sculptures, carnival glass, stained glass, art tiles and lamps, ensures shoppers check back in the store frequently.
It recently acquired a lot of over 1,000 used vinyl records, and customers are encouraged to preview before they purchase by using the store’s record player.
Railroad Bill's Dining Car
Having operated out of several different locales through the years, its current storefront (shared with fellow micro business Railroad Bill’s Dining Car), was built in 1920, and is a bit of an antique itself.
Traversing its original wood plank floors, visitors are offered a glimpse into Des Moines’s railroad past. American Railway Express Company first utilized the building, and the space was given an historic rehabilitation in the spring of 2018. Renaissance Restoration, based in Galena, Illinois, led the efforts, which included installing new doors and windows, rebuilding the façade (with brick original to the structure) and repairing architectural elements. A new counter, popcorn machine and Coca-Cola cooler also help shoppers journey back to a bygone era.
Raccoon Forks Trading Co.'s goal
Just like its inventory, the way in which the store obtains its merchandise is eclectic in nature. Items are taken on consignment or purchased outright. The store buys, sells and trades and works with a variety of vendors. Trading Company staff scours the internet in search of antique and flea markets and estate sales, as well as dabbling in picking, to ensure one-of-a-kind items are secured.
Customer employees, job coaches and staff hired from the general public make up the team. Customer employees perform tasks catered to their individual skill set.
“We really try to focus on giving them interaction within the community, so a lot of customer service work, doing research to identify items to purchase, all the way down to dusting and cleaning the store,” Dodds said. “They have individual goals and unique situations, so we try to work on those and build off that, with one-on-one training.”
These jobs are held down by the customer employees, at present totaling around a dozen, are not intended to be permanent. The ultimate goal is to give them the experience, confidence and people skills to make them viable candidates for employment elsewhere. Months to a few years are the average length of time for employment, but each person receives individualized treatment.
“The goal is for them to no longer have to receive services, but we don’t pressure them,” Dodds explained. “Some end up staying on as regular employees, and some move on to our different micro businesses. Work at Raccoon Forks is slower-paced than that of say, our diner, so we might start someone out at the antique store first.”
Revenue generated from the sale of the merchandise goes back into the store. Dodds said all customer employees make above minimum wage, which promotes the dignity of their work. They only work part-time hours, as to not interfere with income restrictions from receiving social service benefits. On average, these employees work 40-50 hours a month in the store.
“Optimae has several other avenues, including residential programs therapy, etc., and the micro businesses are definitely growing; it is one of the things I think Optimae does that makes us unique in terms of mental health providers,” Dodds noted.
He said there are many rewarding aspects of serving as director of Raccoon Forks micro businesses.
“It’s seeing our customer employees succeed, and watching someone who really had no interest in antiques kind of get into them and appreciate them,” he explained. “We have one who now does a lot of curating for the store, and is really getting into the history.”
Where to learn more
To learn more about career opportunities, visit www.optimaelifeservices.com/employment/open-jobs or directly contact one of the micro businesses.
The store is located at 621 Des Moines Street, Des Moines, Iowa. Business hours are Monday-Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. Her articles have been published by the Associated Press, the Iowa Historical Review, and in Collectors Journal, Farm Collector and Discover Vintage America. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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