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To Thrift, or Not to Thrift?

Inside the fast-paced market of online vintage furniture during COVID.
by J. Livy Li

A recent post on Instagram displays a curated collection of plants that drenches an otherwise white wall in green. In the corner of the room, a Mac perches on a round wood drum table, complete with a mid-century teak wood chair. It’s a revamped work-from-home space, not uncommon in the pandemic, but the furnishings look uncannily out of time. In stark contrast to the vivid pinks and blues emanating from the Mac, the rest of the room looks like it should have that grainy offset coloration of a ’70s interiors magazine. Two different vintage shops are tagged in the photo for the table and chair respectively.  

Until recently, vintage resellers were mostly in one of two camps. There are shops where you can find a Massimo Vignelli coffee table for anything between $5,000 and $10,000. Ettore Sotsass’ internet-famous Ultrafragola sells for up to $12,000. Chicago’s own South Loop Loft has seen their wares displayed in Demi Lovato’s home.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the vintage spectrum are thrift shops and antique malls, find-it-yourself (FIY?) institutions that also serve as mainstays for low-income folks. I grew up on second-hand clothes and thrifted finds. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this meant getting into my mom’s minivan and making it an entire weekend day trip; we would spend hours rifling through bins of clothes and books, the joy of finding some Very Cool Jacket overriding the itchiness of unknown fabric rubbing against your arms and the decidedly musty yet disinfectant-y smell that lingered on your skin.  

The COVID era has proven to be a renaissance for a new generation of vintage sellers who have carved out a space for themselves somewhere between celebrity-favored travertine tables and kitschy brass lamps with price-sticker residue. A far cry from these tactile memories I have of thrifting, the new sellers are bringing home goods right to your screens. Instagram has become the ideal socially-distanced showroom for the 2020s, and the second-hand scene is absolutely flourishing.

A far cry from these tactile memories I have of thrifting, Instagram has become the ideal socially-distanced showroom for the 2020s.

KOPOS, who has chosen not to use her name, tells us that part of this growth is because “everyone is spending more time at home, so their surroundings have become that much more important.” The purveyors of Ramona’s Market agree: “Our homes now serve as our offices, our restaurants, our bars, our schools, our movie theaters, our place of gathering, our sanctuaries! It’s no wonder there’s a huge demand for pieces to reinvent our spaces with.”  

This new group of Instagram-based vintage sellers targets a middle class of young Americans: people who can’t afford designer vintage furniture, but like the aesthetics. The majority of sellers offer delivery services in their cities or shipping, which helps people stay home while simultaneously changing their spaces. There’s also a particular feel-good factor about supporting local resellers; of course, money stays within a community rather than going straight into the pockets of, say, Jeff Bezos. On top of that, there’s the matter of waste. “I hope there’s a push for more sustainability in the furniture market going forward,” Ramona’s Market tells us. “The ‘fast furniture’ business like Wayfair, All Modern, Amazon, Target, whatever, have a huge negative impact on the environment. Shopping second-hand is a great alternative.” The Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2018 that 9.68 million tons of furniture went to landfills every year, a number that continues to increase. 

There are problems with resellers, though. One rallying cry is about the gentrification of thrift shops. As an umbrella term, this refers to people with more means buying out thrift shops. Anna Mielniczuk, an SAIC alum who runs Honey Home Vintage, understands the impact of that first-hand. “We have been shopping at thrift stores since immigrating to the U.S.,” she tells us. “I never saw it as something hip or cool, just a part of my life growing up in Chicago. When I went to art school, I met a lot of people who saw it more as an aid to their aesthetic. I met someone once who wore raggedy clothes with holes (when they could very well afford new clothes) say that they ‘wanted to look poor’.” It’s a familiar narrative of richer folks taking what they want and leaving the scraps for the poorer people. In the case of thrift sellers, the impact can be even greater since thrift sellers buy up a considerable amount of stuff to build inventory.

The core of the problem is sourcing; there are more ethical ways and there are less ethical ways of going about it. There certainly are resellers who simply go to their local thrift store (or more egregiously, Salvation Army), buy whatever they think might be sellable, and then post those items on Instagram for a profit. As someone who has relied on thrift stores, I find this reselling unethical and deeply troubling. In a pandemic that has stuck a crowbar into the wealth gap and wedge it wide open, low-income people should be able to find what they need (or even don’t need!) at affordable prices. This type of reselling creates an artificial micro-inflation, caused by people who have the money to buy inventory to begin with. A poor person who needs a new set of pots should be able to do so for, say, $5 at a thrift shop, not $30 plus $5 for curbside delivery off of Instagram. 

In a pandemic that has stuck a crowbar into the wealth gap and wedged it wide open, low-income people should be able to find what they need (or even don’t need!) at affordable prices.

Of course, there are also many resellers for whom the markup is more justified. There’s a viral post in the vintage community titled “What You’re Actually Paying for When You Buy Vintage” that describes a process of sourcing furniture from around the country (from private sellers to garage or estate sales), long-hauling it back to their home cities (in the case of most young Instagram sellers, that means a hands-on road trip), cleaning, repairing, and sometimes reupholstering. Lampshades may be switched out for trendier ones, surfaces may be repainted or simply restored.

Then there’s the process of art direction. KOPOS tells us that “the wave of independent resellers has everything to do with COVID-19. A lot of us are artists that have lost our jobs due to the pandemic. Reselling seems like a natural pivot because it is still creative in many ways; we are able to curate our selection and bring art to our communities this way.”  

The most popular accounts have carefully shot product photos and deliberate branding and design, all time-intensive labor for the creatives behind the accounts. Ramona’s Market, for example, notes that their background in graphic design comes into play, telling us that “when we aren’t working on Ramona’s, we are working our day jobs as art directors/photographers.” There’s certainly time and labor that goes into running a thoughtful vintage shop. Mielniczuk tells us, “You have to put in a lot of work to make a decent profit. I’m open to selling a vintage piece worth $15 as much as a piece worth $1500. For me it’s about the history of the object, the craftsmanship, and the appreciation of it.” 

This wave of vintage resellers ⁠— of creatives turning to curating furniture for a generation that has been largely in the same, unchanging spaces for over a year now — might just be a modern solution to a modern problem. f