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The girl next door

Consignment queen Meredith Byam is turning shoppers into loyal customers

By Christine Liu
Globe Correspondent / January 7, 2010

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Last year was a brutal one for local retail as sales plunged, shoppers hibernated, and going-out-of-business signs multiplied.

All the while, 36-year-old entrepreneur Meredith Byam was quietly growing Poor Little Rich Girl, her consignment clothing business, becoming a rare success story on a local shopping scene littered with dashed hopes and big debts.

After opening her first tiny shop in Somerville in 2002, Byam moved to a larger location a few years later, and in late 2008 opened a second store on tony Newbury Street. Just two months ago, she unveiled a third location, in Cambridge’s Inman Square.

Some of Byam’s good fortune can surely be chalked up to a business model made for the Great Recession: Fashionable types empty their closets and deliver the goods to Byam, who sells them to bargain-hungry shoppers, sharing the proceeds with consigners. Lower rents on her new locations don’t hurt, either. But Byam, bespectacled in cat-eye glasses with subtle rhinestones, brings something else to her enterprise: a dogged work ethic and an uncanny eye for what people want.

“Picking,’’ Byam says, describing her greatest gift. “I can sift through a thousand things and pick out a hundred things that are incredible. I’m just really good at trend forecasting.’’

Add to that her people skills and eclectic style. The day we meet, Byam’s donned Kate Spade polka-dot tights, a ruby-hued dress, and ruffled-edge sweater from Anthropologie, and Ann Demeulemeester ankle boots. It’s hard to imagine someone else so suited to her milieu.

The roots of Byam’s business venture can be found both in her love of fashion and rock ’n’ roll. In the mid-1990s, Byam worked at Fort Apache, the storied recording studio and label, then in North Cambridge.

“I hate to use the word ‘hot,’ ’’ she says, but “it was a hot recording studio and record label’’ whose roster included the Pixies, Elliott Smith, and Yo La Tengo.

The job, the travel, the trips to New York, all of it set the stage for what would become Byam’s ongoing love affair with vintage clothing - and hard work. Being in the music industry “was brilliant,’’ Byam recalls, “just really hard work. My boss was a stickler for details. To this day, my work ethic comes from working in that environment.’’

Byam soon got a taste of the consignment business, working part-time at Second Time Around in Harvard Square while pursuing fashion design at Lasell College. It was her mother who finally persuaded her to open her own shop a few years later.

“Our generation, we were raised to be employees, not employers,’’ Byam says. “It seemed mysterious and impossible.’’

But after a bit of scouting, she opened the first location of Poor Little Rich Girl, a 500-square-foot space in Davis Square on Highland Avenue. “It was perfect.’’ It was 2002. She was 29.

The quirky consignment store quickly grew popular. There was no strict compass for Byam, except to follow her inclinations. “I opened a store that I wanted to shop at,’’ she says. “I’m my own demographic.’’ The gem-like store “had an underdog vibe. It was so little. I was there every day.’’

There was also Byam’s enormous sense of community and networking. “Girls would spill crazy things to me about their personal life. They trusted me like a friend,’’ Byam says. “I was good at making personal connections. It’s a major component to this business.’’

Friends and neighbors kept the word-of-mouth flowing, to the tune of 2,500 consigners within three years. Byam relocated to a sprawling 4,500-square-foot space around the corner on Elm Street in 2006, where today she currently has items from 5,800 consigners among racks designated by decade, as well as an impressive array of shoes, and usually a crooner on the turntable.

While the business grew in the heady days of the mid-aughts, it’s continued to do well even as the economy has tanked. In fact, she attributes being able to afford her newer locations in Back Bay and Cambridge to shifting rents and shuffling tenants.

“I would never have been able to move down there two years ago,’’ Byam admits of her Newbury Street storefront. That location, with nary a piece over $50, focuses exclusively on handpicked items and experiments with new clothing labels, like Dear Creatures.

“I remember opening Newbury, thinking ‘I never want to do this again!’ ’’ Byam says laughing. Nonetheless, she unleashed a third store in November near Inman Square. The L-shaped building, which was once a bodega (a meat locker in the back room testifies to its past), now teems with cheery Orla Kiely wallpaper, fancy-hatted mannequins, and brilliant sequined party dresses hanging in the windows.

“She’s definitely a source of inspiration for us - what she’s doing, how she’s making it work,’’ says Amanda Williams, who works at Davis Square boutique Artifaktori, a haven for vintage clothing, antiques, and handmade art around the corner from Poor Little Rich Girl in Somerville. “In Boston, the vintage community is very connected and supportive of each other. And Meredith is definitely part of that, which is pretty cool. We always love seeing what she’ll do next.’’

Up next for Byam is figuring out ways to keep her business and its offerings fresh, to adapt to an economic climate that continues to favor bargains over all else. Starting next month, she’ll up the ante with an automatic markdown system, similar to Filene’s Basement and Second Time Around. She’s never tried it before, and she’s curious to see how her customers respond.

“You have to adapt,’’ Byam says. “We’re officially two years into this recession, and I am finding that people, more than ever, want cheap stuff. They want a sale.’’

And, of course, stores with unique, lovingly curated offerings.

“Some consignment stores can get stale because they choose by label, not style. Who cares if it has an Armani label from 1994 that doesn’t look in style?’’ Byam asks. “I like quirky things. I like offbeat. I want to be amused by the things around me.’’