When Renee Bender’s daughter brought home a gift catalog used as a fundraiser for Longfellow Elementary School in Portland, the reaction was less than enthusiastic.

“I was like, ‘What can I stand to buy?’ ” said Bender, co-president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, knowing that a portion of what she spent would go to her daughter’s school. “What can I buy that won’t really bug me?”

That all changed this year when she flipped through the new Close Buy catalog, which features items from Maine companies, such as coffee from local roasters, lip balms from Westbrook-based Mad Gab’s and even handbags from Angela Adams.

“This is unusual for fundraising events,” Bender said, “but I was literally getting pats on the back in the hallways.”

That — and the fact that Longfellow Elementary doubled its fundraising take from the previous year — means the school’s PTO will be back with Close Buy next fall.

Which is heartening to Masey Kaplan, who runs the business from her Falmouth home and whose idea came from having an experience nearly identical to Bender’s. Her son brought home a catalog a few years ago, and Kaplan dutifully bought some wrapping paper, knowing that she was more interested in the fact that some of the money went to her son’s school than the actual items she was purchasing.

The next year, she simply sent in a check and didn’t order anything.

“There were products that I didn’t want in the first place,” she said. “I just started getting aggravated by it every year.”

But a couple of years ago, as she saw local companies struggling in the recession, a lightbulb went on: Why not give those companies some exposure to new potential customers and create a fundraising catalog that wasn’t so hard to get excited about?

That’s how and when Close Buy was formed. The company’s Facebook page describes Close Buy as “getting the chocolate of schools into the peanut butter of the local economy.”

Kaplan spent about a year recruiting vendors, designing the catalog and signing up three schools to serve as pilot programs for the fundraising.

A key to the new approach, Kaplan said, was focusing on products from Maine companies that people really wanted, “things you’re going to get anyway — and 30 percent of the cost is going to your school.”

Kaplan said vendors get 50 percent of the sales and she takes 20 percent, which right now is barely enough to cover costs such as shipping, designing and printing the catalog and other expenses. But the idea is growing, and Kaplan said she hopes to sign up another 20 to 30 schools next year, which could generate enough revenue to pay her a full-time salary to go with the full-time work.

“The first year, we were just guessing” at the types of products to offer, Kaplan said, but she’s continuing to refine the product lineup and relies on parents to send her suggestions and vendors to come to her with interesting ideas.

She also sends out a survey to parents who bought items to gauge the popularity and quality of the items offered in the catalogs.

“It’s been just overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

Bender noted that a couple of the vendors are companies that are run by the parents of Longfellow Elementary students, so Close Buy “is very local for us, which is really appealing.”

Kaplan said she has some ideas for expanding both her company’s and schools’ fundraising reach. For instance, the current fundraising takes place in the fall, to take advantage of parents’ interest in buying for the holidays. Kaplan thinks a spring catalog could be a solid fundraiser, too, with gardening tools and supplies from local companies.

She’d also like to put together sampler packs of the products she offers to sell to local companies, which would then give them to customers or as gifts for employees. A portion of those sales could also go back to local schools, she said.

For her part, Bender said she’s actually looking forward to next fall’s fundraiser.

“I just can’t see us going back,” she said.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]