BLISS/LK1st/cw2nd By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter At first, visitors who wander into Bliss Unlimited in the Glendale Galleria may think they’ve come upon one more retailer vying for a share of the holiday spending pie. The store is stocked with gourmet food baskets, gifts and novelties. And, like most retailers during the busiest selling season of the year, it is staffed with young students. The difference is that at Bliss Unlimited the students actually run the show, handling everything from designing to buying to selling the items the store carries. They are part of a project sponsored by We Care for Youth, a non-profit agency that seeks to prepare kids, many considered at risk to join gangs or drop out of school, for the world of work. With mall space donated by the Galleria and a line of credit guaranteed by the credit card of one of We Care’s board members, Bliss Unlimited opened for its second holiday season last August. By early December, sales were running well ahead of its plan, and are likely to meet last year’s sales of $54,000 through the end of December. “So far, we’re about one-third ahead of (the same period) last year,” said Linda Maxwell, who with Jose Quintanar is co-executive director and co-founder of We Care for Youth. The idea for an entrepreneurial learning and business laboratory was hatched by Maxwell and Cindy Chong, vice president and general manager of the Glendale Galleria, both of whom were members of the Glendale Chamber of Commerce. Maxwell had been leading a project selling baskets of coffee to corporate clients when Chong offered space in the mall for a full-blown gift store. About 25 students from Glendale-area schools are recruited for the program each season. They go through a three-week training program and then are thrust into the chaos of running a retail store. They go to the California Gift Show and review lines from visiting vendors. The group votes on the items the store will carry. Then they assemble different pieces in baskets, or in other containers they design themselves. Much of last year’s inventory was geared to corporate gift giving. This year, when a new crop of students took over, one of their first orders of business was to add things kids would buy. Among the lines they developed was a trashcan they personally spray-painted graffiti style with messages of peace, love and hope, and then filled with “enough junk food to stop your heart,” says Maxwell. It’s become one of the store’s best sellers. Other items include baskets of licensed Mickey Mouse candies and novelties and bags of popcorn decorated with big bows and pictures of Santa Claus. When Joseph James De John is on the selling floor, though, he pushes a selection of bath items called TJ Takes A Bath. That’s because De John, whose nickname is TJ, merchandised the baskets, choosing the price points of $9.99, $24.99 and $29.99 and assembling the products for each basket. “Most people that work in stores don’t have the opportunity to have a part in the product,” said the 17-year-old De John, a student at Allan F. Daily High School. “I’m very proud of it, and it’s the first thing I point to.” Instead of a paycheck, the students receive class credit for their work. About 90 percent of the students who worked at Bliss last year landed paid jobs at other stores this season, and De John is hoping that his experience will help him pay his way through college with part-time retail jobs. Vendors who work with the store also help train the students. David Steely, national sales director for DeVries Imports and Distributors in North Hills, a company that represents about 3,000 different gourmet lines, holds seminars to teach the student buyers how to assemble baskets. “We teach them not to mix something that’s sour or bitter with candy items. And if you put Brie in a basket, don’t forget the crackers,” says Steely. Over the first holiday season in operation, the store grossed $54,000 with a net profit of $6,000. But, thinking the store would remain open for the rest of the year, Maxwell plowed that money and then some back into inventory. And when the Galleria temporarily took back the space at the end of April to accommodate another retailer, Bliss Unlimited was left with $7,300 in inventory that it could not sell. “It’s very important that this be more than a break-even project,” said Maxwell.