Imagine. You’re clearing out your closet one Spring, and amongst your reams of old socks and panties, you put aside a few select items to donate to charity. A few months down the line, you’re scouring the rails at your favorite vintage thrift store, and what do you discover, but that very tweed box jacket you so nobly passed on to the Salvation Army, selling for a whopping $80.
Naturally, this would be an unlikely coincidence; however, it would certainly not be beyond the realms of possibility. Even amongst the scattering of consignment stores in the Astoria and Long Island City neighborhoods, a seemingly popular area in NYC for seasoned thrift-shoppers, there exists a hierarchy of recycled goods and clothes. Ivona Bilicic, for example, markets her store, LoveDay 31, on 31st Avenue in Astoria, as vintage rather than thrift. The store is more a trendsetter’s boutique than a muddle of used merchandise. Bilicic may charge around $80 for a tweed box jacket or $200 for a fur coat, but her clients understand that they’re essentially paying for her to weed through an extensive amount of second-hand goods and select the ones worthy of resale. This concept, however, does not appeal to local woman, Jenny Kraft: “I like the treasure-hunt aspect to it…. The prices [at LoveDay] are way too high.”
Bilicic only buys her stock from bona fide dealers, and even then, she’s very selective about her purchases. “I go through 1,000 pieces and only pick a few.” The dealers, however, are slightly less particular about what they buy. While they often buy and sell on “dead stock,” the thrift store lingo for merchandise still in its original packaging, they source a lot of their items from second-hand charity shops like Goodwill Industries International Inc. and the St. Vincent De Paul Society.
Ingrid Hirschenbrinner, owner of the Broadway Thrift Shop Center in Long Island City, a much more low-key establishment, also serves a significant number of dealers at her shop. Nonetheless, it doesn’t bother her that the stock she sells is often sold on for a much greater profit; she might sell a dress for $4, that could potentially end up at LoveDay 31 with a price tag of $40. “I sometimes misprice things,” admits Hirschenbrinner. “But that’s what makes people come back.”
While Hirschenbrinner’s store is a mix between profit and not-for-profit (she gives a fixed sum of money to the All Saints Church in Sunnyside), Bilicic’s store is purely for-profit. But, either way, both shops are in an industry that, according to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS), is now growing by seven percent a year.
The mark-up at LoveDay 31 is not dissimilar from the retail standard; Bilicic prices approximately two-and-a-half to three times above the buying rate. Nonetheless, she often puts her tailoring skills to good use, altering items for a more modern appeal, as well as cleaning every item put on the rack. “I’m not a vintage purist,” says Bilicic. “I like to mix things up.” Hirschenbrinner, however, who only takes in donated stock, goes purely by experience, and on the odd occasion, by the item’s Ebay market value.
While thrift shoppers often see the distinction between these types of stores, be they for-profit, part-for-profit, or not-for-profit, they do often simply go for what’s cheaper. “All in all, we’re competing for shoppers’ attention and money,” says Alfred Vanderbilt, a public relations officer for Goodwill. He added: “[But] people still want to see what they can get for their dollar.” Kraft says she once bought a nice mid-century dining room set for $50. As an “avid recycler,” she buys what she can from consignment stores. Mother and daughter, Grace and Melissa Narao are of the same mindset. “You can get perfectly good clothes for cheaper,” says Melissa.
The common denominator for all three types of stores, however, is that they are ultimately selling recycled material. According to NARTS, the resale industry generates an approximate annual revenue of $13 billion, with Goodwill alone taking in $2.69 billion in 2010, the most recent year available. Hirschenbrinner often sells $6 fill-what-you-can bags of clothes that don’t make it to the shop floor; shoppers can simply pick what they want from the bargain bin and buy by the bag.
It is that anti-waste mentality that makes thrift advocates like Vanderbilt argue that buying second-hand is a very important way of serving your community. “We need to think about recycling clothes that would otherwise end up in the waste bin,” he said.