Vintage Inc.: More Than Ever, Other People's Junk Is Big Business
Lewis Pizer is shopping.
He's been at it since dawn, driving from one end of town to the other, whipping through tiny secondhand shops and hangar-like thrift stores, pawing piles of other people's junk, hoping to unearth an unusual treasure.
At one scuzzy hole in the wall where the proprietor is frying bacon in an electric skillet behind the checkout counter, he's eyeing a pair of paint-by-number landscapes from the '60s. "Too expensive," he finally decides, before walking away. "But that's how it goes now. The thrift stores think they're antique stores. The antique stores are pushing crap, just to stay afloat. And all these TV shows are saying 'Vintage is the new black!' So the price of old things is going up, which makes selling at a profit harder."
Pizer, a longtime vintage dealer who closed his Phoenix antique store in 2008, hasn't found anything — either for his own collection or to resell — all day. "It's nearly 10 a.m. Before vintage became a way of life, my car would be completely full by now. I'd have to go empty it before I hit the thrifts in Sun City."
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He stops to finger a box of Fiesta dishware. "Reproductions," he sneers. "Now that vintage is so hot, there's less and less chance of finding old stuff to buy. This town has been sucked dry."
He glances over at the guy cooking bacon. "And today, everyone is an antique dealer."
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Once upon a time, buying used stuff was something to be embarrassed about. Second-hand clothes were a sign of poverty; a Victrola in the front parlor meant you were unhip to stereophonic sound. That weird guy at the end of the block who collected old vacuum cleaners was clearly mad, and given a wide berth.
Today, this same fellow would likely have a website devoted to the joyous history of the electric sweeper — and a six-figure income from selling old Hoovers to similarly minded collectors.
Old stuff has been cool for a while now. Since the early 1990s, we've seen a steadily growing trend toward all things vintage: clothes, jewelry, cars, books, interior design, parties, even candy bars. Things from the 1920s and the 1980s are now somehow more than just neat old stuff. They're big business, embraced by young pop stars and corporate monoliths alike. Your mom's Crock-Pot from 1971 is "collectible" and likely has been knocked off by Target. Secondhand clothes are officially known as "vintage fashion." Miley Cyrus appears in the pages of Vogue, showing off her collection of 60-year-old Travilla gowns and her first apartment, full of "retro décor." Radio hits like American rapper Macklemore's "Thrift Store" extol the virtues of finding fun old stuff, making it chic for a younger generation to scout out skinny ties or turn a Pufnstuf lunch box into a designer handbag. Corporate America has responded with "vintage-inspired" lines of merchandise at even low-end department stores (recent Walmart summer specials included a "retro-look" oscillating fan and a men's one-piece bathing suit).
The selling (and, some say, the selling out) of your grandmother's goods has become big business — around the globe, on the airwaves, on the Internet, and especially, it seems, all over Central Phoenix, where an already healthy number of vintage shops appear to be taking over. Mainstays like Red Vintage Furniture and Brass Armadillo have been joined by Sweet Salvage, which opens only a few days each month to lines of eager shoppers. Vintage Industrial sells, out of a giant warehouse in downtown Phoenix, brand-new "vintage-inspired" furniture; Davis Salvage offers used theater seats and ancient lighting fixtures from old hotels. Even the Internet has gone eBay one better with 1stdibs, an online global marketplace of 1,500 high-end international antiques dealers, backed by big-deal venture firm Benchmark Capital.
Something happened to that stuff in your grandfather's attic. But what was it — and why now? Some blame the crummy economy, because secondhand chic can still be less expensive than other designer options. Others accuse the corporatized "shabby chic" aesthetic, embraced by design doyenne Martha Stewart in the '90s and now gone viral. Still others blame vintage-centric TV shows like the AMC network's hyper-stylized Mad Men, in which office lothario Don Draper's Summer of Love peccadilloes are less important to some viewers than his secretary's cinch-waisted shirtdress or that pair of plaster harlequin lamps on his Haywood breakfront.
It's nearly impossible to pin down just how big a share of the national retail market belongs to secondhand goods, because there's no trade organization that tracks that information. But, according to a 2013 report on the online vintage industry published by Ibis Marketing Ltd., the annual revenue taken in last year by secondhand dealers exceeded $5 billion in profits. "And that's just the Internet shops," says Wayne Jordan, a Virginia-based personal property appraiser and author of the recently published The Business of Antiques: How to Succeed in the Antiques World. "The profits made by brick-and-mortar stores, estate sales, and auctions aren't included in that figure. Once you add those, and then roll in antique stores, consignment shops, and antique shows, the number is certainly a lot higher."
Jordan is even more impressed by vintage retail's growth. "The industry is growing by 8 percent a year," he says. "That would be healthy in any secondary marketplace, but given the state of our economy, it's phenomenal to see that kind of increase."
He attributes the stunning emergence of vintage retail to a trifecta of circumstances — a twist on the old business model of supply and demand that's hung on our own mortality. If the demand for old things has never been higher — thanks in part to a lot of cable TV shows touting the aesthetic value of old cake plates and the joys of making a planter out of a busted mantel clock — so, too, has the ability to resell Grandma's tea service with next to no overhead.
"Twenty years ago, you needed a lot to be an antique dealer," Jordan says. "You had to know your product, you had to have enough inventory to stock a store, you had to sign a long-term lease, advertise your shop, get listed in the Yellow Pages. Today, anyone who frequents Saturday morning yard sales can put [items] up for sale on eBay and make a few bucks. Or they can rent a space in an antique mall."
The competition among sellers of vintage goods is therefore greater and keeps prices lower, Jordan says. But it's the overwhelming supply of old things that is driving the newly burgeoning vintage market, he believes. And it is, as he puts it, "only going to get worse."
"The generation of parents and grandparents who grew up in times of lacking — war and Depression — saved everything," Jordan says. "And they passed it down to their kids. So baby boomers have inherited two generations' worth of vintage items, to which they've added their own things. As they start to die off, they're leaving behind a tripled supply of what we now think of as 'collectibles.'"
In other words, more people are leaving behind more old things when they die. Which is part of the reason Phoenix has seen such a boom in brick-and-mortar vintage shops in recent years, Jordan says. "A lot of people move there to retire," he says, "and bring their grandmother's china with them. Arizona and Florida have more antiques than most other places in the country."
But even Arizona's vintage boutiques and antique stores may feel the pinch in coming years, Jordan thinks, if the new fad in silent auctions takes hold. It's a selling trend so new that it doesn't have a proper name yet, he says.
"There's no auctioneer, and everything is for sale at once. The most appealing thing about it is that you can browse all the merchandise at your leisure, then you leave a bid at a computer station in the room. If you're outbid, you get a text message, and you can re-bid or opt out. It's like an in-person eBay, but it satisfies our need to browse, and sellers don't need real inventory, because everything is consigned from an estate or an outside seller."
Electronic consignment auctions are the future, then. All you need is a dead baby boomer and a cell phone.
Even the word "vintage" has morphed, according to longtime Phoenix dealer and collector David Sheflin. "Vintage used to be an adjective, and now it's a noun," he says. "The world has changed."
Sheflin has observed that change, up close. He began selling old postcards and used 45s when he was still in grade school; today, he's one of the top vintage fashion dealers in the country, his booming business covered in New York Style magazine, his clientele mostly wealthy haute couture collectors and designers who are completing museum-quality collections.
"In the '80s, my dad was horrified that I was buying someone else's shoes," laughs Gilda delaGarza, a longtime local who's been collecting old stuff since the '70s. "Today, I know I could quit my job and open up an Internet shop selling the old things I love, and I'd make a bundle."
Vintage's financial heyday has been coming on for a long time, according to Heidi Abrahamson, who grew up selling antiques in Indiana in the '60s and '70s. Her parents, always thrifty, lucked into a career as vintage dealers after her mother spotted a valuable vase in a thrift store in Chicago. "She spent her whole paycheck on it," Abrahamson recalls, "then turned around and sold it to an antique dealer and quadrupled her money."
From then on, Abrahamson's parents were antique dealers. "I grew up in flea markets and antique shows all over the country," says the former owner of popular Phoenix boutique Metro Retro, remembering a time when selling secondhand goods was considered strange. "Dads worked in banks and moms stayed home," she says. "I got my first set of Arts and Crafts silver-plated chargers when I was 12. It was the sort of thing a young person didn't admit to her friends."
Today, they might boast about it. As ever, California is setting a standard — this time, in vintage shopping trends. Michael Robertson, who owned numerous local antique shops before relocating to San Diego to open a store called Urban Renewal, reports that his customers are increasingly younger.
"They're in their 20s," he says, "and they come in and say, 'We're doing our whole house in '60s! Can you help us?'"
Those 20-somethings want something more than just a nice boomerang table. "For the younger crowd, it's all about repurposing," Robertson reports. "The buzz words are 'going green.' My staff's new terminology includes the words 'repurpose' and 'refurbishing.' People my age wanted these things because they were unique and nice to look at, but these green people are thinking of bigger things. I'm waiting on more and more people who like how the 60-year-old medical office desk they're buying is now their dining table. It's called up-cycling, and it's helping to save the planet."
Robertson admits this shopping-to-save-the-planet routine took some getting used to. He's learned not to wrap breakable items in tissue paper, for example.
"The kids give me a dirty look if I use nice, new paper for glassware. I use yesterday's newspaper, and this makes them happy. They come in with reusable bags, because they don't want anything to have been killed just so they can have something to carry their purchases in."
Vintage's business model has changed, and today's shoddy craftsmanship has helped it along. Where American manufacturers once courted conscientious consumers with products made to last, today's production is often outsourced to the cheapest manufacturing source. Things are, according to those in the know, designed to fall apart so that we'll need to buy a replacement. Meanwhile, those sturdier designs from the '40s are still going strong, and vintage dealers are cashing in on that fact.
"Most new stuff is disposable crap," Abrahamson says. "In the '50s and '60s and even the '70s, people who were getting married would buy the housewares they planned to use for the rest of their lives. And the thing is, that stuff really did last long enough for them to do that. All that's changed."
Today, she says, clothing and household goods (vintage's two biggest commodities) are either built to fall apart or are made to appear outmoded in short order. Stylish people can't be caught cooking in a Dutch oven touted last year by Martha Stewart, when this year one should be making stew in the La Croisette Rachael Ray is pitching at Macy's.
There's a design principle at play, as well. International chain IKEA's screw-together melamine furniture may fit the bill for today's streamlined living rooms, but there's very little about its design, Robertson says, that will make it desirable 60 years from now.
There's another factor, too: Where people used to take care of their things, today they're less likely to, delaGarza says. "We're consumers who've grown up with a constant message: 'Buy this! Buy this! That thing you have isn't good enough!' Previous generations didn't have that mentality. You were told, 'You have a nice fountain pen that works. You better take care of it so that it lasts forever, because who knows when you'll get another one?'"
Robert Black agrees. "We've become a throwaway society," says the owner of Scottsdale's Fashion by Robert Black. "We buy things knowing we will throw them away. In the '40s, clothes were built to last — a dress was made to be taken in when you lost weight and let out when you gained a few pounds. Today, most off-the-rack dresses would fall apart if you tried to alter them."
Most off-the-rack designers today are designing for women who aren't, as Scottsdale fashion model and vintage maven Kirin Christianson puts it, "at their peak, physically."
"No one with boobs and hips can wear this stuff," she says of retail clothing. "It's designed for a 21-year-old who's built like a boy. Vintage fashion was designed for real women — women who'd had kids. I've had two children, and it's damn near impossible to find clothes that fit. I can spend three hours at the mall, and if I find anything, I have to take it to be altered. With vintage, I can find four things that fit in a half-hour, and I don't have to alter any of it."
In the good old days of lady's clothing, Black says, designers knew how to design for women's figures. "Even the machine-sewn stuff was created to correct a flaw in a woman's figure," he says. "The designers of commercial fashion knew how to dart a bustline and did it all in the construction."
Now, there's no such thing as a dart in off-the-rack clothing. Designs for mass-produced clothing are typically created with computer programs that emphasize production efficiency over flattering lines. "And then we're told that loose and baggy is the acceptable fit for a garment," Black groans.
"We're so much more global now," Christianson sheepishly admits. "Clothes produced overseas aren't necessarily shaped to fit American people."
If the product is crap, the new marketing opportunities for vintage-inspired products are genius. "It used to be that you had to be Lilly Pulitzer or Ralph Lauren — someone with a really strong voice and a lot of talent — to have your own line," says Georganne Bryant, owner of Frances Vintage. "But today it's people like me who get shows on cable and product lines at Target. It's like anyone with reasonably good taste can have a TV show."
Black agrees that television, which now offers entire cable networks like DIY and HGTV that are devoted to buying and selling old things, has helped make vintage mainstream. "New customers come into my store and they've never bought vintage before," he says. "But they've seen someone wearing it on some show about the red carpet, or they've seen Julia Roberts winning her Oscar in a vintage Valentino. And so this thinking about used clothing has turned into 'I want that — vintage is so classic.'"
It's all Martha Stewart's fault, according to Gilda delaGarza. Stewart, says delaGarza, began boasting about finding and using cool old things as long ago as the 1980s. Later, Stewart launched her television shows on which she blabbed about the retail lines based on the secondhand things she found (or, presumably, that her staff found; it's hard to imagine Martha Stewart attending a tag sale or wandering the aisles of Goodwill, in search of vintage treasures).
Television — or what Sheflin calls "those stupid TV shows" — might be the real reason vintage is big business today. Antiques Roadshow, launched in 1997 and the granddaddy of all programs about vintage stuff, has been joined in recent years by TruTV's Hardcore Pawn, the History Channel's American Pickers, A&E's Storage Wars, Spike TV's American Diggers, Travel Channel's Toy Hunter, and a slew of HGTV shows, most recently Flea Market Flip and Cash and Cari.
"They're all so terrible!" Sheflin exclaims. "That one called American Restoration drives me nuts. Those guys are not doing restorations. They're doing cheap, crappy renovations — changing old houses into modern houses. They are ruining people's homes, and charging them $15,000 to do it. And people see this and think, This is what my house should look like!"
Robertson worries that the history lesson behind each old thing — the influence of the era in which it was created; its relevance to American habits and styles — is being lost as more and more amateurs leap onto the resale bandwagon.
"All these old things used to be heirlooms," he says. "They were not meant for resale." They were part of your family history, and told a story, usually about your uncle or your grandmother. Antiques required someone with real knowledge of, say, Stickley furniture or the value of a fishing lure made from human hair.
"It wasn't until people started selling them that heirlooms became antiques," Robertson says. "Now that old stuff is more mainstream, it's 'retro' or 'vintage.'" And vintage seems not to require any knowledge of the old thing in question, so long as it's neat-looking and isn't being made anymore.
"We used to do research," Robertson says of antique dealers, "so we could talk intelligently about the piece we were selling. Today, that's out the window. Now it's all just, 'I don't know what era it's from, but this table is old!'"
Vintage was a more rarefied commodity, Abrahamson agrees, back when only those in the know could tell the difference between a McCoy cookie jar and one made by Shawnee. Today, thanks to websites like Replacements Ltd., which can help identify pretty much every china pattern made before 1980, everyone's an expert.
"The Internet changed everything about collecting vintage and selling vintage," Abrahamson complains, "because all they have to do is Google that thing you found at Goodwill, and you immediately know how much it usually sells for, plus a little background on it."
"You used to shake like a junkie when you came across a purse with a Bakelite handle for two dollars," delaGarza says. "It never happens any more because a million people recognize a Bakelite purse, including the clerk at the thrift store."
Especially the clerk at the thrift store. Today, most secondhand stores have paid pickers — employees who cull older and collectible goods from among the more serviceable junk — who up-sell vintage goods to antique shops. Most chain thrift shops have vintage departments of their own (usually a glass case at the front of the store), where even a 10-year-old Barbie with clipped hair can be priced as a "collectible."
Sheflin attributes vintage's boom to the collapsed economy and thinks the upswing in used goods was born of necessity. "People lost their jobs and couldn't pay their credit cards, and suddenly it was okay to make a living selling things from the thrift store on eBay," he grouses.
"What I've been doing for a living for decades didn't use to be considered a real thing," Sheflin says. "It wasn't a legitimate business, and I got no respect for doing it. One day, it was me and two other people out looking for old Halston, and the next day, it was everyone saying, 'I'm a picker' and 'I'm a designer.' It was suddenly cool to be shopping for used things, marking them up, and reselling them."
Vintage's popularity may also be linked to good old-fashioned backlash. Goliaths like Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn have so glutted the market with Depression Era-inspired aproned sinks and enamel breadboxes, according to interior designer Jill Anderson, that people are trying harder to create distinctive rooms to live in.
"The big companies — like Restoration Hardware especially — have a very specific look," says Anderson, who designs for Scottsdale's Wiseman and Gail Interiors. "Clients come to me with a Pottery Barn catalog, but they've also seen all the shows on Bravo about the importance of a distinctive vintage piece to give your interior a certain patina. Often, my clients want both."
That's getting harder to do, Anderson says, because as more companies create more retro-look products, these same products stop being distinctive. After a while, even "what's old is new again" starts to look old.
Bryant knows the value of vintage knock-offs. Despite its name, her popular Frances Vintage on Camelback Road offers very little in the way of old things. When Frances first opened its doors, about a quarter of the store's inventory was vintage. After the first year, Bryant dropped the word "vintage" and started carrying mostly newly made, retro-inspired products.
"Vintage is a good business if you can do it correctly," she says. "Secondhand merchandise has a much higher mark-up than most anything else. You can buy something for a dollar and sell it for 10. But doing it right is very time-consuming."
Abrahamson knows that better than most. Despite the fact that business was booming, she and her husband recently shuttered Metro Retro. "It used to be that you'd go to an estate sale and you'd see the same 10 dealers you'd known for years," she says. "Nowadays, you have to spend the night in your car in the driveway of the estate sale, because there are 30 other people already in line, hoping to buy a chair that you want, too. I'm too tired for that bullshit."
In other words, Abrahamson says, vintage started to feel old.
Lewis Pizer is almost done shopping.
Getting into his car to head to the next thrift, Pizer apologizes for being bitter about the big business that vintage has become. It's just that he worries, he says, about the bigger picture.
"If vintage is popular now because old things are better-made, and because they're more stylish, then what does that say about our future?"
He signals a left-hand turn and pulls out into traffic. "Vintage is hot right now, but what's going to happen when it's all been bought and resold?"
He glares out at the passing traffic. "There's only so much old stuff left in the world, you know."
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