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."

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."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela