Step into her store and you spot a border collie-mix stretched out on a sofa, a football-size Chihuahua sauntering across the floor. You notice a silk taffeta wedding dress hanging by a window, a tan designer handbag resting in a glass case and a pair of burgundy suede pumps perched on a wooden shelf.
Have you wandered into a pet store that doubles as a boutique? A fashion shop for pets? A boutique owned by a dog lover?
Sue Smith-Sturgis calls her store Cause for Paws. It's a resale boutique with a twist, a nonprofit business that purrs with a purpose.
Money from the Lincoln store, located at 5700 Old Cheney Road Suite No. 4, is funneled to Nebraska animal charities — more than $200,000 in the past four years, money that pays for everything from flea medicine to surgery.
Resale and thrift shops are common, and sales often benefit charities. But her store is all about helping the tail-waggers, the mouse-catchers, the cat that sleeps under your chin and the dog that nuzzles even when you have the flu.
Smith-Sturgis is a 64-year-old year old Nebraska native who considers every purse, dress and earring she sells to be a way to heal a dog or save a cat.
She loves animals and knows fashion. Early in her career, she helped select apparel for former Lincoln stores Hovland-Swanson and J. Braggs, where she learned why one dress draws customers and another draws yawns, why some handbags, scarves and shoes pop and others flop.
She learned as a little girl that petting an animal is a balm for bad day, that dogs love you no matter how smart, or pretty or rich you are. And she learned she liked paying them back.
She opened her shop four years ago in southeast Lincoln in a brick-faced storefront tucked behind a Phillips 66, across from a McDonald's. She knocked out walls and expanded three times as the business grew like a lab pup.
Smith-Sturgis is considering moving her shop to a former Blockbuster video store on South 48th Street, a 5,000-square-foot place with better visibility from the street, better layout and more room for the clothes, more chances to make money for animals.
Funds from her store help such groups as Lincoln Animal Ambassadors, which offers a low-cost spay and neuter program, and Hearts United for Animals, a no-kill shelter and rescue group that cares for as many as 400 dogs and cats at a time.
Last year alone, Hearts United received about $11,000 from the store.
“It's just a lifeblood,'' said Carol Wheeler, the organization's director. “It means we are able to help these animals.”
Smith-Sturgis has one employee and a half-dozen volunteers who staff the shop. They sometimes bring their pets, and they stroll the store with Smith-Sturgis' dogs like four-legged fashionistas.
Nearly everything she sells is donated, and is a mix of new and used. Because her store benefits dogs and cats, it attracts generous givers, people passionate about pets, like the woman who bought three $2,900 Yves Saint Laurent handbags on a trip to New York City and donated one to the store, still in the sack.
There was the lady who donated a $2,900 bridal gown with a chiffon bow and rhinestone accents after her wedding plans fell through.
There are the Omaha folks who hop in their cars for a two-hour round trip to deliver dresses, sweaters and shoes.
Pat Young of Lincoln is a customer and donor, a dog lover who gave most of her business wardrobe — suits, suede jackets, leather purses, high heels — to the store when she retired. It was some pretty nice stuff, she said, and donating it was an easy decision.
“This helps the dogs,'' Young said.
At Cause for Paws, you'll find designer handbags and apparel by Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor, Talbots and The Gap. You'll also find clothes from Target, Sears and JC Penney.
A newer, high-end designer handbag can hit $50 and up, like a leather Sharif bag with embroidered roses for $89. That Yves Saint Laurent bag sold for $500. That wedding dress is going for $1,350, including a discount.
But those prices are the exceptions. You can find plenty of clothes, shoes and accessories marked at $10 to $30. The store also offers discounts of up to half off.
While we're talking price, there's something you should know, something that reveals the animal lover in Smith-Sturgis.
Don't haggle over prices. Seriously, don't do it.
Just ask her husband, Darren.
He's watched a customer walk in, as his wife offers her usual warm greeting and a cup of coffee or tea.
The customer pulls a dress from a rack and announces she'll pay $10, not the $20 on the tag.
Smith-Sturgis tells the customer nicely there are no price-cuts, other than the regular discounts.
C'mon, I'll give you 10 bucks, the customer insists.
Smith-Sturgis' voice changes, the tone growing sharp like canine teeth.
“Does it say garage sale on the front of my store?'' she asks. “Do you want it or not?”
Smith-Sturgis figures that selling clothes for less than they're worth means less for the hungry dog or the sick kitten.
She grew up in central Nebraska, the oldest of five kids, and animals surrounded her.
Her family lived for a few years on a farm near Kearney, starting when she was 5 or 6. She remembers helping to feed the horses, cows and chickens. A couple farm dogs roamed the property, and she saved food from her plate for them.
The dogs slept outside, but she wanted them inside and would cry when her parents told her no.
She got her first dog when she was 11, a border collie with a white body, black ears and a motor that wouldn't quit.
She called him Whitey, and when she tossed a ball, he chased it. When she jumped on a swing, he pawed at her feet. When she climbed a tree, he scrambled after her.
Whenever she had a bad day at school, Whitey sensed it.
She's part Lebanese, so her skin was darker than the other kids at school. Sometimes children would shout something like, “Hey, Mexican. Go back where you came from.”
Stupid kids. Not even the right country, she'd yell back, but being Mexican is not bad.
When she saw Whitey, she'd stroke his fur and rub his belly. Her anger melted, her sadness faded.
Her sister, Lavon Hummel, said such experiences shaped Smith-Sturgis' attitude toward animals, and turned her into a protector, an advocate, a gunslinger for pets.
“She learned how it felt to be left out and put aside,'' said Hummel, who lives in Lincoln.
Whitey helped Smith-Sturgis, so she returned the favor.
He usually got only table scraps for food, but she gave him something extra. She scavenged for pop bottles and turned them in for change so she could buy him the cans of 19-cent dog food he gobbled up.
She began providing foster care for dogs when she was 18 and now owns four, including Emba, a gentle border collie-mix, and Evita, a sassy but sweet Chihuahua.
Whenever Smith-Sturgis spots a stray animal, she checks it for a tag. She calls the owner or phones the humane society and asks whether anyone is missing a certain pet.
A few years ago, she was cycling on a bike path when she spotted a black lab in a backyard kennel on a hot and sunny day. The animal had no shade or water.
A man stood in the yard, and Smith-Sturgis jumped off her bike and yelled something like, “How would you feel if you had nothing to drink and no shade?”
The man told her to bug off. She demanded that he provide the dog shade and water, and reported him to the humane society.
She rode past the yard a couple weeks later and noticed that the top of the kennel was covered with a tarp to keep the sun out.
After working as a fashion buyer, she took other jobs including selling skin care products at a local dermatology clinic. That led to her opening a salon and day spa.
She felt challenged, but something was missing. She wanted to do more for animals.
She borrowed a self-help tape and it delivered a clear message: Follow your heart, as well as your head.
On the morning after listening to the tape, she sat on her bed and the idea hit. She would combine her interest in fashion and her passion for animals.
Last week, she stood behind the counter of her shop, near the leather handbags, silver jewelry and silk scarves.
She held Evita in her arms. The little dog blinked her big eyes, looking sleepy and safe.
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