Levi Stress

Sometimes, a hole in the crotch can make all the difference.
Not to mention a ragged hem, two-tone stitching, a "big E" tag, red lines or an exterior rivet.

And being Japanese has a lot to do with things as well.
It's all part of the fast-moving, no-holds-barred, big-bucks world of the international used-blue-jeans trade, where the Levi's that gramps used to trundle around in are now more expensive than a celebrity funeral.

It's been written about in important publications like Newsweek, Vogue and the New York Times, it's been on TV shows like 20/20, and Phoenix is a major, fairly cutthroat market. Just look at all the ads in this very paper. People want your used jeans, friends, and why shouldn't they, when a pair from the '50s or '60s will sell for hundreds--if not thousands--of dollars in the Land of the Rising Sun?

But it all begins with little people like you and me, trading in our humble denims for a few bucks so the Japanese can dress like us.

In fact, last weekend I took a pair of 501s to a place listed in an ad headlined "Cash for Levi's." These jeans were slightly faded, no holes, no stains, size 32x34; no damage, I'm just too fat to get into 'em. According to the ad, I would get "up to $18." I walk in, hand them over to the girl behind the counter. She scrutinizes them, looks at every seam, examines the crotch with such cold intensity that I'm surprised she doesn't pop a jeweler's glass into her eye.

Then the offer:
"I can give you $8."
Eight bucks? I whip out the ad, show her where it says that even with "1-3 holes" I can get "up to $10."

Unfazed, she hands me my pants, which, of course, are devoid of holes, and says, "These are too worn."

In lieu of screaming righteous obscenities until my head exploded, I took the jeans to another location in the same ad, and the guy offered me $13. Well, that's a little closer to $18. But it's not just any pair of Levi's that is going to wind up in Japan going for the big yen, I discovered, after I finalized the jeans deal and began to play reporter.

"Phoenix has been a hotbed for Levi sales over the years; it's a big denim state, as well as Colorado, New Mexico and Utah," says Steven Vise, owner of the Blue Jean Buyer, who sells 80 percent of his goods overseas. "These are the big powerhouses in exporting; it's very competitive. The way the 501 thing goes, it's really just a jean found west of the Mississippi. When you go east, it's all 505 and 517. So most of the foreign buyers come out west looking for stuff.

"In fact, starting about ten years ago, the Japanese would come out and rent cars and head out across the country, going to every small town, mining towns like Clifton or Morenci, going into all these old general stores. At that time, all this old merchandise was still sitting there brand-new; it'd been sitting there for 30 years. So they cleaned out quite a bit of it, and there's been so much media coverage that the public is educated now."

Oh, those wicked, shopping Japanese.
"These guys are so hungry, they're almost like army ants," says Russell Enloe, co-owner of a vintage clothing store called Four Aces in Denver, another big muscle town in the used-Levi game. "Sometimes, they'll start in California and work all the way over to New York and hit all points in between."

But what mysterious force drives these obsessive Asians? "There's nothing more American than hot dogs and baseball and Levi's; these things are just so screaming American," Enloe says softly. "There are two Japanese colleges in Denver, so the students will come in here all decked out in their vintage Levi's and their pompadours and their motorcycle boots, just trying to be so American."

You heard right, it doesn't stop with jeans. The latest attraction to the keen Japanese style eye is old basketball shoes.

"They're crazy, absolutely nuts," offers local jeans impresario Sherman Unkefer, owner of Cash for Levi's. "For the shoe market, they're into the 1970s through maybe 1985, '86. And they only buy sizes six through ten. Not a lot of size 12s in Japan."

Unkefer relates a tale to illustrate his point:
"We primarily buy old Nikes, pre-1985 basketball shoes. I go to thrift stores. I went down to the Disabled American Veterans the other day and bought a pair off the rack for $4.25 and sold them [to a Japanese guy] for $375. They were a pair of Nike waffle-trainer running shoes in orange with a bright gold stripe. Very ugly."

But when it comes to Levi's, these days the Japanese favor large sizes. Because that's what American kids favor. "When the baggy, gangsta clothing thing hit the States, it carried over to Japan," says Steven Vise. "Now kids with a 30-inch waist want 38s."

Used-Levi merchants rely on a number of different sources to score their wares. Some advertise and get cash-hungry people like me bringing in a pair or two. Others, like Russell Enloe (who says the market is so saturated in Denver that this method is now ineffective), do their own hunting.

"We get 'em anywhere," he reveals. "It could be an estate sale, a garage sale. My partner's found 'em in the trunks of old cars in junkyards. We've found 'em in Dumpsters."

Enloe has a friend who owns a pair of Levi's that has been documented as dating from 1937. The friend was staking out an old general store in Oklahoma one day when he overheard a conversation between the proprietor and a guy who had been a local rep for Levi's in the old days. The friend butted in and found that, sure enough, there was an old pair of jeans sitting on a shelf in the back room. Dusty, but unworn. The friend bought them for a few bucks, and recently turned down an offer from a Japanese collector for $25,000.

And then there are the "pickers." As the Wicked Witch of the West had flying monkeys to do her bidding, so do the Levi bosses have an army of pickers who do just that.

"They're kind of a weird subculture," offers Vise. "These people range from retired people to homeless--it's a real eclectic group--and that's what they do for a living. They hound the yard sales and estate sales and thrift stores, and a lot of them come in seven days a week. We recently bought a pair from a picker who found them in a thrift store. The pair was from the '50s, and we paid him about $150. It wasn't a particularly nice pair; in Japan it would only go for about $800."

Let's say you are holding a pair of Levi's. You are looking at them. Maybe you're smoking a cigarette, maybe the TV's on and it's a little overcast outside. I don't know. But let's say you're pondering those Levi's, asking yourself, "How can I tell if these are old and valuable?"

Well, if the "Levi's" patch on the back is made of leather, we're talking '50s. Or if the back pockets are attached with external rivets, you've got a pair that's pre-/early '60s. And if the little red label on the back pocket has a "big E" in the name Levi's, it's pre-/early '70s. There are also the red lines that appear on the white cloth on the inside stitching of the leg seam, which disappeared in 1982.

I found this out myself in a shop in Berkeley, California, a few months ago. I saw a ripped, faded, stained, evil-looking pair of jeans with a price tag of $50. I asked a kid who worked there why they were $50, and was shown the all-important red line. I asked him who would pay $50 for a trashed pair of Levi's that had only a faint red line on the inside leg seam to recommend it.

The kid looked at me like I was some kind of idiot and said, "The Japanese.