For the Frugal, the Stylish and the Curious

By Lan Xu

Vintage Thrift

Walking on the Third Avenue between 22nd and 23rd streets, you might not notice a boutique, so small that two people with hands connected and open arms can reach the ends of the outside frame. But, if you do spot it, you will definitely be attracted to learn more. First, you will notice its windows, on each side of the front door. Though the two windows are small, they contain a lot of historical things in excellent condition. You might see a classic and elegant double-seated couch with a matching, brightly colored cushion. Or a delicately carved oriental cabinet. Or a mannequin dressed trendily in a 1980s style. Once you go inside, a lot of things might “wow” you. A shiny funnel toaster from the 1930s almost invites you to play with it. When you open and close it, this little historical machine makes squeaky sound.

This small boutique, which sells gently-used, second-hand products, at 286 Third Ave. is named neither “vintage shop” nor “thrift shop.” It’s “Vintage Thrift.”

A Chinese girl, I come from a small town and never knew of vintage stores before I came to New York. The idea of shopping for second-hand products is a cultural shock, and an enthralling one I have experienced. “Vintage Thrift” got my attention as soon as I saw it. The name “Vintage Thrift” was not chosen differentiate it from vintage or thrift stores, said the manager, Lisa Haspel. The name was chosen by the founder Gene Golombek, who died a few years ago. He liked shopping for second-hand items, so he decided to start his own business in the 1990’s.

Vintage Thrift is a nonprofit store, dedicated to benefit the United Jewish Council, which mainly helps residents of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Since it is a charitable venture, the store is legally allowed to sell only items that are donated. Contributions are accepted during all business hours and vary widely from clothing, to books, to appliances, to furniture. The store offers free delivery for furniture.

Many vintage stores sell higher-end antiques, and many thrift stores sell inexpensive or poor-quality products. Vintage Thrift sells good-quality, vintage items at affordable prices. This attracts a lot of different customers, from individual buyers such as frugal students to dealers. The former go there for inexpensive, historical and unique things, like a pair of vintage glass frames for $30. The latter visit because they can buy things at a very low price and then resell them.

Vintage Thrift is so small that the shop area has room for only two people in the open space. Even so, its rent is the most expensive item on its budget. The trucking for free delivery is also expensive; Haspel said it might cost $200 to deliver an item. Another big cost is employee salaries; the shop has 10 employees. To run the shop efficiently, the managers have to hire people who can multi-task efficiently. Everyone has an art-related background, and at least one other skill. This way, the store needs not to pay extra money to hire any designers to do jobs likewindow decoration or store layout design. Haspel, the manager also designs the store’s website.

Vintage Thrift attracts about 2,400 customers a week, on average, Haspel says, and I’m happy that I’m one of them. How my attitude has changed.

Unlike most Chinese people, New Yorkers, especially younger people, are not at all embarrassed to use second-hand items. In China, people wear second-hand clothes from their relatives only when they do not have money to buy new ones. They often avoid telling the truth about wearing older sisters’ or brothers’ clothes. Another group of second-hand things I can imagine Chinese people use are appliances that have been transferred from generation to generation. If people are told that some of these tools are antique, they brag about them; otherwise, they will never mention that they use their grandparents’ things. Both these categories are hand-me-downs, not second-hand things that people purchase.

But a lot of New Yorkers think it is cool to buy and use second-hand products. Many students and lower-income people shop in used merchandise stores, as do many wealthy people looking for bargains. A brand-name blouse may be less than $15, while a new one would cost at least $50 in a retail store. Some shoppers also love old things, because they are full of stories from the past. One such fan told me she likes the feeling and smell of old things and imagines what happened to them. Another part of the appeal is that many of the used items are hand-made, unique and full of personal effort—a striking contrast to machine-made items that are emotionless and popular. Having a desire to be different makes some shoppers want to wear something rare but cheap. They believe that wearing something everyone has is boring.

Vintage Thrift is a place frugal and stylish shoppers can go. As its brochure pointed out, “Vintage Thrift is a different kind of charitable thrift—where discriminating shoppers find the very best in gently-used quality merchandise in a boutique setting.”