Second-hand clothing finds chic niche in Port City

7/1/2013 - Seacoast Online Portsmouth

Once a sign of poverty - and a flagrant fashion faux pas - second-hand clothes are now sold as environmentally friendly, chic and ironic, and a bargain.

At the Second Time Around consignment shop in Portsmouth, 6,500 people have left unwanted women's clothing to be sold since the store opened about seven years ago, said store manager Maria Grassi. About 100 consignors leave clothes at the Congress Street shop every week and "new" items are hung and displayed about every half hour, she said.

The Portsmouth market is so fertile for the sale of used clothing that two of the largest charitable used-clothing sellers - Goodwill Industries and Salvation Army - recently opened large stores in the city.

In December, Goodwill Industries of Northern New England built an 18,000-square-foot store at 720 Lafayette Road, where it sells mostly used clothes. Last July, Salvation Army built a 33,000-square-foot building at 2458 Lafayette Road where it too sells mostly pre-owned clothing.

Savers also opened a large used-clothes store at 2064 Woodbury Ave. in neighboring Newington.

Second-hand chic also got a recent boost with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's song and video, "Thrift Shop," with lyrics that include "I'm coppin' it, I'm washin' it, someone else has been rockin' it."

Since she began working in Boston's Second Time Around store in 1998, Portsmouth's Angela Drew has seen all stigma that once cloaked hand-me-downs evaporate.

"You wash them," she advised.

Now owner of the Wear House consignment clothing business on Congress Street, Drew said women like her shop for a hobby and become bored with their clothing quickly.

"If I buy something, I sell something," she said. "And I'm always looking for the best pair of jeans ever."

Drew splits her profits with consignors 50-50 and said she only agrees to take about 30 percent of what's brought through her shop door.

"This is like a curated thrift shop," she said, explaining it doesn't take an hour of sliding dozens of clothes hangers to find one keeper.

In contrast, there's a lot to sift through at the large charity stores, but the hunt can be fruitful. For instance, at Portsmouth's Goodwill store recently, a customer bought a Bailey messenger bag for less than $5, as well as a vintage tray for less than $3 that was flipped on eBay for $50.

Last week, a rack of Goodwill's $2.99 men's T-shirts included the usual sports logos and corporate brands, as well one with the message "Drink Beer and Fight" and another announcing the wearer is a "Chick Magnet."

Racks of purses included illegal knock-offs of high-end brands, while all the clothing racks included designer labels and some with original retail store tags. The prices are low and Goodwill has a member's club that features 20 percent discounts on everything.

Goodwill also sells housewares, which last week included a $2.99 Thermos shaped like an oversized shotgun shell, with the National Rifle Association's logo on the side. The same night that item sold, a woman snatched up a signed oil painting of a floral still life for $14.99.

"Where else can you get a painting for $14.99?" she asked her shopping companion.

Record albums and turntables bring in retro music lovers who, no doubt, grab odd T-shirts on the way out the door.

Back at Second Time Around, Grassi said, "We tend to be more upscale." As examples she mentions authentic Louis Vuitton and Gucci items that have come and gone through the shop. Her favorite, she said, was a Chloe bag a woman consigned in the Portland, Maine, store that retails for $2,000.

On the other end of the spectrum, Grassi said, "We always get the occasional pair of underwear." Asked if the deliveries of unmentionables were unintentional, Grassi said, "I hope so."

"I hope someone didn't put in their thong to consign," she said.

The glut of lightly used women's clothing can be attributed to a number of factors, according to Grassi. Some women, she said, want new clothes, so they sell items to pay for others.

"Other women keep on top of trends and styles and don't want last season's," she said. "Some are cleaning house, some lost weight and some gained weight. It's amazing the number of things we get with tags on them. So many people buy without thinking.

Grassi said consignors tell her they bought clothes without trying them on, then got them home and realized they weren't right for a host of reasons. Others say they bought things online and they can't be returned," she said.

"I had a woman consign four or five Dooney & Bourke bags, worth between $300 and $500, two with the tags still on them," she said. "She retired from the legal profession and decided it was time to get rid of them and make some money."

Consignors can take a check for a percentage of what sold, or use the credit to buy "new" items in the store.

"A lot of people come in with the intention of taking a check," Grassi said, "but there are so many pretty, shiny things."

Drew said Wear House is different than other Portsmouth consignment shops because she's independently owned and "I really care about the town."

"I know half my customers by name. I help them shop," she said. "And I'm really honest with people. I'm not saying everything looks good."

Like Grassi, Drew said, "I've definitely seen my share of underwear."

"What's exciting for me are things like vintage Chanel bags," she said. "I wanted a Louis Vuitton Speedy Bag, I found one, used it for about six months, then sold it. Brands are super important, but also the saleability of the style."

Drew said her customers are women from their mid to late 20s, up to their early 50s. She has a rack of men's clothing, thought about getting rid of it, then sold 12 pieces in a week.

According to Drew, the reason Portsmouth can support so many used clothing stores, "and what puts me in a profit margin," is tourist traffic.

"And I price things to move," she said. "If you're in New York City, or even Boston, the prices are higher."

Drew said she also usually stays clear of vintage clothing.

"If I had a store full of that," she said. "I wouldn't make any money."

Adam Irish, on the other hand, works full time as proprietor of Old As Adam, a Ceres Street shop that carries all men's clothing made prior to 1960.

"Dressing for me is a sign of respect and I think it adds something to the street life," he said. "I try to evangelize that in my store."

Irish buys at estate sales and flea markets and sells at vintage shows and from his shop. He said he looks for local items with provenance, like the top hat he bought from a local woman whose husband was a diplomat and once wore the hat in Buckingham Palace.

He said antique clothing that people think is the most valuable, like tuxedos, are worth less than common clothing, like work clothes that were worn daily. In good condition, he said, the old work clothes can be more valuable than the furniture in an estate.

Nearby, on Market Street, Amity Joy is owner and seamstress at Odd Showroom and has gained a national reputation for her "modified vintage" clothing. On Joy's online Etsy site, she wrote that she takes a garment with "a yucky shape but amazing fabric and/or buttons, it is torn up and combined with other pieces to make a new 'modified vintage' item."

"By reconstructing these items they are recycled and given a second and sometimes more interesting life," she reports. "Scraps are never wasted either, they are used to stuff pillows and make patchwork goodies."

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