No better reason to visit the hospital |

No better reason to visit the hospital

Naomi Havlen

In a resort town like Aspen, gift shops aren’t so unusual.

After all, where else would visitors buy Aspen T-shirts, Aspen mugs, Aspen pencils and Aspen snow globes? There are even high-end gift shops to match the town’s posh reputation, places where you can buy a silver-gilded toothbrush, a shearling jacket for your dog, or a feather and rhinestone tiara.

And they all make great gifts – once you stop reeling from sticker shock. Face it: High rents equal high prices, even at the most down-to-earth Aspen shops.

So it’s surprising to learn that affordable gifts can be found in Aspen.Even more surprising is that the place selling those trinkets is Sally’s Gift Shop at Aspen Valley Hospital.

But there are a couple of things about the gift shop that many people – even those who have discovered this well-kept secret – don’t know. First, it’s run entirely by volunteers, and second, all of the shop’s profits go back to the hospital.

If you had your blood pressure taken in the intensive care unit, for example, it might have been by a machine purchased with proceeds from the gift shop. And that’s pretty impressive when you think about that pack of gum or get-well gift you once bought at the hospital.

Not your typical hospital gift shop

The mere mention of a hospital gift shop conjures certain images: cold linoleum and sparse shelves filled with dusty toys, glaring fluorescent lights and outdated greeting cards. It’s not usually the place to shop for a gift for parents celebrating the arrival of their firstborn. But then again, it’s not Aspen Valley Hospital.

The history of our local hospital gift shop dates back to when the hospital was located at the base of Red Mountain, where the Common Ground housing complex now stands. Kit Bulkley, who worked in the hospital’s patient care unit 25 years ago, remembers a cart that would troll the halls selling “cigarettes and candy” to anyone with a jones for nicotine or sugar, she says with a chuckle.

But the gifts shop’s true legacy began just after the new hospital building – in its current location – officially opened in 1977. The gift shop was part of the hospital’s new digs, and Aspen resident Sally Vroom became the store’s chief buyer, upholding high standards for gift shop items.

“She tried to always have wonderful merchandise at a good price,” said Bulkley, who is now a volunteer for the shop. “This is really a service, because employees come in, and people with friends in the hospital.”

Vroom died almost three years ago, but left behind her namesake gift shop with its tradition of reasonably priced, high-quality gifts. The women who volunteer in the shop, including current store buyer Linda Keleher, stay true to Vroom’s business plan.

Sally’s Gift Shop includes glass shelves lined with an impressive variety of stuffed animals, locally handmade jewelry, cookbooks, picture frames, and lotions and soaps in every scent imaginable. It also carries seasonal gifts, such as candles shaped like corncobs.

The ladies pride themselves on the shop’s wide selection of baby clothes, offering chic outfits for the littlest fashionistas. After all, 332 babies were born at the hospital in 2002, and that’s a lot of newborns in need of tiny sweater and matching pant sets.

Best of all, turning over an item to glance at its price tag isn’t a hair-raising experience. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the prices at the AVH gift shop are anywhere from one-half to one-third of those in boutiques within city limits. (The shop has one major advantage over all of those gift shops in Aspen, though: It pays no rent.)

Gifts that give back … to the hospital

As if reasonable prices and quality trinkets aren’t enough to lure shoppers out to Castle Creek Road, consider this: Everything the shop sells goes toward the purchase of a piece of high-tech equipment at AVH.

As part of the hospital’s extensive volunteer program, 14 locals donate their time (2,600 hours total each year) to ensure that the gift shop runs smoothly. So with every ring of the cash register, money goes into a fund that the volunteers use to buy an annual gift for the hospital.

“The hospital comes to us in the fall with a wish list that’s very à la carte, and rather than handing over money, we just pick what makes us feel good,” said Jamie Hall, who is the volunteer coordinator for the hospital. “They count on our gifts every year, and we count on giving it to them. If the gift shop fails, we have nothing to give.”

But there doesn’t seem to be a chance of that happening soon. Since 1977 the shop has made it possible for the hospital to buy equipment and complete renovations worth more than $390,000. A laundry list of past gifts include high-tech machines like a Corometrics Centrifuge, fiber optic bronchoscopes and anthroscopic equipment. This list also includes patient room TVs and VCRs, beds for same-day surgery and a CPR mannequin.

“Of course, we couldn’t be more pleased about these gifts, but from [the volunteers’] perspective, it allows them the option of picking and choosing what types of technology and equipment they’d like to support,” said Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Randy Middlebrook. “I know from experience they do a thorough job of reviewing our wish list; it helps them become a bigger part of the process.”

Middlebrook and his wife shop frequently at the gift shop, and say that the volunteers of the hospital are “pillars of the community.”

The gift shop’s biggest fund-raiser each year is a holiday bazaar, with holiday-themed gifts and seasonal refreshments. This year the bazaar is on Nov. 19, from 1 to 4 p.m.

In the mid-1990s when Beanie Babies were all the rage, the bean-filled animals in every shape and color were the gift shop’s biggest hit, and it was selling them cheaper than anywhere in town. The gift shop no longer carries the Babies (which are no longer the rage), but keeps customers coming back for things like free gift wrapping, a wide candy selection and disposable cameras for that baby who arrives sooner than expected.

“They really offer a wonderful product, and from the hospital’s perspective, we couldn’t be more pleased about the money raised purchasing life-saving equipment,” Middlebrook said.