Across the Country, Vintage Shops Are in a Fight to Save Thrifting

Laveta Brigham

Can the humble consignment store replicate its famously intimate in-person shopping experience online? That’s the plan. Kenzie Borland shops for her vintage store the same way she might shop for a friend. When combing her way through tablescapes at garage sales or bulk bins at Goodwill outlets, she takes time […]

Can the humble consignment store replicate its famously intimate in-person shopping experience online? That’s the plan.

Kenzie Borland shops for her vintage store the same way she might shop for a friend. When combing her way through tablescapes at garage sales or bulk bins at Goodwill outlets, she takes time to envision certain people in her life wearing each item. Who does this Crayola backpack remind her of, and how would they style that parrot-embroidered denim top? “Sometimes I’ll even shop for stuff and be like, ‘I could see Harry Styles wearing this,'” she says. Whether or not she’s referencing the rather Bode-like liquor-shelf-patterned button-up, we’ll never know.

Borland is one of the four owners of Dead Center Vintage, a vintage clothing and accessories retailer for all genders, ages and sizes set in the heart of Wichita, Kan. Borland and her business partners — Gabrielle Griffie, Morgan Goodwin and Lazarus Massey — had been individual collectors for years. But when they started hosting in-person pop-ups with some of the loot they scored from online auctions and out-of-town thrift shops, they suddenly saw a market for the type of experience their store could offer.

So this February, Dead Center Vintage opened its doors. But a month and 15 days later, at the onset of a spreading pandemic, those doors closed. Temporarily, sure, but closed still.

Today, Dead Center Vintage is open for business again and taking all safety precautions into account. But Borland estimates that the global health crisis has set them back months, and she knows the path forward won’t be smooth-sailing, either. It won’t be for the nearly 12 million small businesses the New York Times reports could close permanently in the next six months. Vintage stores like Borland’s may be a small slice of that pie — as of 2018, there are roughly 25,000 resale, consignment and vintage stores in the U.S. — but they’re a slice nonetheless, and a truly vital one for our retail ecosystem.

“When you’re looking at vintage clothing, you’re literally shopping history,” says Borland. “It’s something I also believe you can’t replicate online. There’s nothing like feeling crazy fabrics from the ‘70s, or seeing beautiful ’30s-, ’40s-style dresses we don’t see anymore.” Yet when Kansas issued their first wave of stay-at-home orders in March, Dead Center Vintage wasn’t quite considered an essential business along with the grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals. So replicate online they did.

But Dead Center Vintage had a leg up: Two of Borland’s co-owners were, as she says, “really big on Depop,” the peer-to-peer social shopping app that’s especially popular among the vintage crowd. (And among Generation Z-ers, too: About 90% of its active users are under the age of 26.) “We could do it, but we obviously didn’t want our entire business model to be moved completely online,” says Borland. “It’s a surreal experience to have no contact with your customers for two months.” Still, they tried to bring what they could of an analog experience to their newly-digital customers, including offering personal drop-off services to those ordering from Wichita.

Despite being seasoned online sellers themselves, Broland and her co-owners still had difficulty getting buyers to actually shop digitally. The reality is, she says, there’s just going to be some shoppers — even some of your most loyal ones — who won’t buy vintage online. And with the world not exactly opening back up in full anytime soon, that’s an obstacle retailers will have to face together.

Shoppers browse a vintage clothing store in Ottawa, Canada.
Shoppers browse a vintage clothing store in Ottawa, Canada.

There’s also the misconception that it’s as easy for retailers to operate e-commerce platforms as it is for consumers — who already buy up to 40% of their clothing online — to shop them. Running a brick-and-mortar operation is no cakewalk, but maintaining an online store is incredibly time-consuming for the retailers themselves. Not only do they have to clean, categorize and measure each garment, but depending on their platform (and that’s assuming they even have access to a platform at all), they’re also tasked with near-constant inventory management. So when New York City first entered lockdown this spring, Brooklyn-favorite Awoke Vintage, which runs three shops across Williamsburg and Greenpoint, went in a different direction altogether: Instagram.

“Instagram Stories are cool because you can just continually put up new things,” says owner Liz Power, who started Awoke Vintage as what she calls “a little market stall” in her native Perth, Australia in 2006. “It takes a couple seconds to put up a new item, and it just means that people are able to see 75 new items a day, every day.” This is as opposed to a proper e-commerce shop, which Awoke operates, but which only uploads about 10 new garments at a time.

Like Dead Center Vintage, Awoke Vintage has also reopened its physical stores following an abundance of safety protocols. And while some foot traffic is better than none, Power admits there’s been a dip in in-store shoppers, largely thanks to New York City’s paralyzed tourism industry. “Tourists were our bread and butter,” she says. “We needed those dollars to help us pay all of our regular bills.” The business is down 70% from 2019, she says, and it likely won’t make a profit this year.


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Power’s store, though, has been in Brooklyn since 2012, in that time building a close-knit community among friends who live in the neighborhood and regulars who cross the East River from Manhattan. This year, they didn’t just show up — they stepped up. “I must say that Americans, like no other, will come out and champion small businesses,” she adds. “That’s honestly one of the most heartwarming things about the U.S. is how much they get behind mom-and-pop stores.”

As a brand-new business, Dead Center Vintage didn’t have the luxury of neither accrued capital nor a long-standing consumer base. Borland says her team has been able to keep the lights on, but it’s not been easy. “Do I want to keep my doors open two months from now,” she says, “or do I want to go to the grocery store and buy groceries for the month?” They haven’t had to face this compromise, but the pandemic has still left them planning for a worst case scenario, i.e. if the shop has to shut down again and they don’t have enough capital to sustain themselves.

Through all the turbulence of the past six months, vintage has still emerged as a beacon of hope, or something at least resembling it, in the broader retail sphere. With more of us spending our days (and weeks) (and months) at home in relative solitude, we’re also spending an unprecedented amount of time on our devices. This doesn’t just lead to more shopping for shopping’s sake, though that’s definitely been the case: Americans have increased their so-called “impulse spending,” or buying “random, unneeded” items, by 18%. We’re also shopping more mindfully, and more aligned to our value systems. Then there’s the topic of time, in that we simply have more of it. While Depop hasn’t released its figures, Lucca attests Depop has seen a significant boost of new sellers listing the contents of their recently cleaned-out closets for the first time.

Inside one of Awoke Vintage's three Brooklyn locations.
Inside one of Awoke Vintage’s three Brooklyn locations.

“Quarantine consumption has heightened expectations for purpose-driven sustainable action,” says Depop’s SVP of Growth Ianina Lucca. “This resonates even more with some of the younger generations. People are anticipating that they’re going to be consuming less given what are probably some financial constraints. You’re more likely to consider your choices, and probably align your purchases more with your values, more now than you were before.”

The online secondhand market was already booming, but COVID-19 has accelerated it even further: The sector is now set to grow 27% in 2020, with the broader retail sector projected to shrink 23%. And this is also as shoppers, particularly those Gen Z-aged ones, are growing more invested in their role in the worsening climate crisis. If every person in the U.S. bought just one used, instead of new item this year, we would save 5.7 billion pounds of CO2 emissions, according to a carbon study commissioned by research firm Green Story. Buying vintage is the most accessible way to do that.

“I know I and a lot of others believe that vintage shopping is the future of sustainable shopping,” says Borland. “It always has been, but it’s becoming popular as people are realizing fast-fashion isn’t sustainable. It’s one of the most wasteful things we can do as humans, which is why a lot of us got into vintage selling. We grew up thrifting and getting our clothes from garage sales. Because the reality is, shopping sustainably can be very expensive. It can be a very big privilege.”

Which is why vintage sellers like Borland and Power are passionate about the non-financial support of their business, too. “For a lot of people, money is tight right now,” says Power. “If you have the means, we’d love for you to shop with us and support us that way. But you don’t have to support us with your dollars. You can write a Google or Yelp review, for example, and that’s so helpful to small businesses.”

Lucca is optimistic the momentum now propelling resale is here to stay: At Depop, she says, the platform is about the item, but it’s moreso about the people. That’s a mindset Borland and her co-founders certainly share, and one you’ve likely felt if you’ve ever stepped foot in a vintage store, only to find yourself 20 minutes elbow-deep in cheeky graphic tees from the 1980s.

“The hope for our shop is to not only be a little pillar in our community, but also to help shoppers realize you can shop on a budget and reduce your footprint for the earth. And when people come into our shop, they get that experience of being like, ‘Wow, this is some cool stuff. Maybe I need to start thrifting more.'”

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