The Courtyard, Wellness House’s upscale resale shop, helps cancer patients

By Maureen Callahan

“Through the years, there’s been a magic to this place. Someone has always been looking out for us.” – Sheila Botti, Courtyard co-founder

Some say hindsight is 20/20 vision. For the three founders of Hinsdale’s Courtyard consignment shop, it’s true. This beautifully upscale resale shop exists entirely to help fund programs for Wellness House (WH), a cancer outreach organization in Hinsdale that offers free programs to patients and their families.

More than three decades ago, Sheila Botti, her sister, Nancy Keenan, and their friend, Kathy Ryan, were mulling over a consignment shop together. “Around that time, we were approached by Suzy Stout, a cancer survivor, about creating an income stream to help fund WH programs,” said Keenan. “So, we took our original idea and turned it into a non-profit organization to support Wellness House.”

Although it was a busy time of life, they decided to try it for a year. “We had 17 children among the three of us,” said Keenan. “So, we thought we’d just give it a try.”

“We stepped up to this challenge without fully realizing what we were doing,” said Ryan. “Honestly, it just kind of fell into our lives.”

“Looking back, we’re just so glad we did this,” said Botti.

Now, 33 years in, the trio is stepping down, but not out. The elegant business they helped to create is not going anywhere, however. The new managers are only new to their managerial posts. They’ve served the organization in other ways for a while.

This is the kind of place people don’t leave. Once they care, they’ll always care.

Jamie Ott is one of Courtyard’s several recently installed new managers. She became a volunteer here after first working at WH. But cancer gets heavy. “I was looking for something a little lighter,” Ott relayed. “The opportunity here at Courtyard kind of showed itself to me.”

There are 53 active and very dedicated volunteers. Some, like fireman Leif Johnson, have been around since day one. Staff decorators count on Johnson to do the heavy lifting. Literally. Mondays find him and his crew working with decorators to move furniture around the shop. The results are beautiful displays. “His willing attitude is so important because it’s always a puzzle to arrange the items so people can picture them in their own homes. If pieces are set up attractively, sometimes the entire vignette will sell,” said Ryan.

If a volunteer calls in sick, a text message goes out. It’s not unusual to get five offers in five minutes to fill the shift. WH support is always the overarching goal, but the camaraderie among the volunteers seems to be part and parcel. “You get to know other people well,” said Keenan. “I’m widowed. The Courtyard has become a second family to me.”

Botti, Keenan, and Ryan began as volunteers themselves. Eventually, they moved up to the role of merchandiser. “We’ve had a lot of fun over the years,” said Botti. They quickly learned to embrace the adventure of the hunt. Quests for Courtyard treasures have made great memories. Before resale became popular in the Midwest, Botti and Ryan hunted for antiques while they visited their children at East Coast schools.

According to Ryan, the word got out over time. People funneled items their way. “Once, the three of us drove to a wedding in South Carolina,” she laughed. “As we loaded items from an antique store into our rented truck, an older gentleman on the porch in a rocking chair watched us. He asked if we were those ladies who come down from Illinois to shop.”

Curiosities gathered from flea markets as close as Sandwich and Kane County to as far away as England and Denmark help create a one-of-a-kind experience each time shoppers visit The Courtyard. New inventory arrives each week. One may find anything from a rare Limoges box to a well-built pair of sofas with a solid wood table to put between them. Unique chandeliers, retired Lladró figures, custom stained-glass windows, and other accent pieces are usual offerings.

The Courtyard raises $150,000 annually to support WH programs. Since its inception, $5.3 million has been donated. According to the staff, there has never been a bad day. Botti laughed as she remembered “one freezing cold day when nobody was out and about, and we only made $29. But we still made money!”

Sales have reached new heights through a visible online presence, fine-tuned by Ott during COVID. Long days at clients’ homes sorting through possible merchandise have given way to an acceptance process over emailed photos. The result is a different collection of unique, quality items each week. All are priced to sell.

Although the staff loves a good find, they are very honest with consigning clients. People sometimes present items without realizing their value. Over the years, there have been some “big saves,” as Botti phrases it. In pre-internet days, a family brought in a chalk drawing after an auction house had gone through the deceased’s estate. “They came to us not knowing what that drawing was worth,” she said. “We helped them locate the gallery it had come from in South Carolina. The owner of the gallery flew to O’Hare with $15,000 to buy it from the family.”
Another time, a painting of great value by famed American artist Peter Max showed up. “We pointed the family to an appraiser to assess the value so they could sell it themselves for much more,” said Botti.

Good people are attracted to good causes. For 33 years, Botti, Keenan, and Ryan have exemplified this mantra. Now retired from managing and merchandising, the three are Courtyard’s newest volunteers. They’ll still be keeping an eye on things. “We couldn’t leave,” Botti said as she smiled. “There’s a magic to this place that’s hard to define,” said Ryan. ■

New managers Jamie Ott (left) and Tami Carstensen (right) flank merchandiser Deb Cassidy