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I had a brilliant idea when I graduated college. Interning, living at home, and saving every penny I could to travel after the summer, I decided to take nearly all the clothing that wouldn’t fit into my suitcase to the Buffalo Exchange two blocks away. I assumed I’d make some money and lighten my load at the same time.
Instead, I found myself sitting through the specific but visceral agony of watching a 20-something woman much more fashionable than I go through my clothing and determine that, yes, she was much more fashionable. I saw every item in a new light. Oh god, why did I think that pink and white T-shirt was a good idea? Had I really been wearing that striped sweater for four years? Who let me buy that polka-dot going-out top? I spent an hour waiting, watching, deciding that I’d move to a nudist colony so I’d never have to think about clothing again.
In the end she offered me $4 for a shirt I had already bought secondhand, teal with a graphic of Steve Urkel on it. She suggested I take the rest to Goodwill in the tone that that one store clerk suggested Regina George could try Sears.
Resale stores — Buffalo Exchange, Beacon’s Closet, Crossroads Trading — promise a curated version of your typical thrift shop. You get all the moral superiority (No waste! Go green!) of buying your clothes secondhand while maintaining a middle- to upper-class shopping experience. No rifling through bins of old bras. No holes or odors or anything too stretched out. Their shoppers are not the ones who “need” to buy secondhand. But that curation, and the assumption that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, sets up a chasm between who wants to buy versus who gets to sell that leaves nearly everyone frustrated.
Most resale stores attempt to inform potential sellers about what they’re looking for, to mitigate some of the frustration. Beacon’s Closet’s website currently says they’re buying for fall and winter. Buffalo Exchange says they look for “current trends, denim, designer, everyday basics, leather, vintage and one-of-a-kind items,” and Crossroads Trading lists a number of on-trend items they’d like: floral prints, cozy knits, minimal sneakers.
But that doesn’t mean it’s nearly so simple. “I always tell first-time sellers that buying clothing is like art, not science — we try to avoid rules when it comes to the buy counter,” says Justin Goellner, store manager at the Buffalo Exchange in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. He says items must meet some basic requirements, like being in good condition and having “a style that’s appealing to our customers,” and that buyers are extensively trained as to what that is. Lia Finkelstein, senior district manager of Crossroads’ Southern California stores, similarly says they’re constantly “learning what sells and what doesn't,” so there are few hard and fast rules.
Goellner and Finkelstein both look for “seasonal” clothing, though they make exceptions for the exceptional. “We might not take in a pair of denim shorts from H&M this time of year,” says Goellner, “but we would try an all-over print silk pair from DVF that a shopper would be so thrilled to stumble upon they couldn't resist.”
Those who benefit from resale stores are often those who can decipher what they’re looking for, and who can afford to be persistent. Aude White, 27, says her mother has been going to Beacon’s Closet for nearly a decade, and has a system for making sure her clothes get bought. “Things that aren't in season, she'll hold on to until they're in season and then try to sell them then. When she has clothing to resell that's middle-to-high-end, she will take it to Beacon's Closet and hold on to whatever they reject and bring it back in a month or two,” says White. “She thinks that what gets taken and what gets rejected has to do with individual sellers, so if she feels confidently about the clothing she's trying to sell, she will literally just keep bringing it back until they buy it.” It turns out her system works. After a few months, different clerks will almost always buy what others rejected.
But most people don’t make it a personal mission to sell all their clothing. The typical resale experience of walking in with a bag of clothes you think are fashionable and walking out with the exact same bag has become so common that Broad City even did a bit about it. It’s exhausting, and following the “rules” offers no guarantees.
Victoria Pratt, a 31-year-old living in Brooklyn, says she “nearly cried” after bringing a load of “normal ladywear” from middle-scale brands to the Beacon’s Closet in Park Slope and having them reject everything. Whitney Johnson, 31, took a bag of clothing to resell before moving to Seattle in May, and said clerks took only two of her items, and that it was their first time taking anything of hers after about five times of trying to sell. Even selling with an eye to the season is often a miss. Kendra Wells, 26, says she took “some very cute pastel skirts and dresses” to sell, only to be told they were shopping for spring. Wells jokes, “Wherefore are pastels not spring?”
Despite guidelines and the enticing promise of fast cash, resale stores are still a buyer’s market. Buyers want things on trend and in season, but that’s often at odds with the way most people clean out their closets. Buyers may want sweaters and jackets in fall, but sellers probably won’t give them up until spring. And if things like “minimal sneakers” and “floral prints” are on trend, potential sellers probably don’t want to part with them the way they would, say, some very 2006 gladiator sandals.
The greatest agony comes from seeing “cheaper” things that resale stores did deign to buy. Shanna Maibaum, 31, brought in a bag of clothing in great condition to a resale store in LA, only to have them buy one thing from her. What got her, though, was seeing “just a plain white Hanes tee with a couple of random stains” hanging on the rack. “I can understand that they only have so much space and can't afford to take every piece of clothing that everyone brings in,” she said, “but I left with a bag full of clothes in near-perfect condition, while they'd rather use hanger space for what was basically a rag.”
Maibaum’s frustration belies a kind of hope — maybe your stained old Hanes could be the one that passes the test. It used to be that you couldn’t get anything back for your used clothing, unless it was a pristine, designer piece being sold at a consignment shop. Resale stores changed that, but they also created the promise that your trash is another man’s treasure. Instead of charitably dropping a bag of used stuff at the Goodwill, you could be making bank off your old sneakers and $5 fast-fashion T-shirts.
Except that promise sets up a cycle in which we expect others to value things we already devalued, and the people who actually need the cash never get it. If you’re selling your clothes, odds are you could use the money, and if you need money, odds are you can’t afford brands like Kate Spade and Cole Haan in the first place (which Buffalo Exchange says they’re always on the lookout for). The relatively rich stay looking rich and the broke reluctantly donate their stuff.
The problem might lie in part with our expectations. In an article in the New York Times, baby boomers expressed dismay that younger generations don’t want to inherit much of their stuff. “The competitive accumulation of material goods, a cornerstone of the American dream,” might have led them to buy solid oak furniture and Lenox china to impress the neighbors, but it also led to younger generations who follow their lead and accumulate their own status symbols. The value is in the sentimentality behind the objects, not the objects themselves. No one is entitled to having their kids want everything they’ve held on to for a generation.
The same goes for resellers and their clothing, says Goeller. “[Sellers] remember how much they paid for them brand new and expect to get that same amount back,” he says of people coming in expecting to sell everything. “Plus, a lot of times, the items have sentimental value, which to them increases the monetary worth.” But clothing is even more disposable than furniture, especially now that it’s easy to keep up with trends for cheap. No one wants something that’s old and out of style, no matter how much it once meant to you.
But that hope remains, and it’s what keeps sellers schlepping their closets across cities. While buyers feel cheated if they don’t walk away with the quality (one woman I interviewed brought home a shirt only to find that it was covered in a stain, and that “their whole attempt to shame me for daring to bring in old fast fashion clothes was meaningless once you consider this shirt was from ANN TAYLOR LOFT”), sellers bank on it. That could be your old, cheap shirt they bought. Your money. Your trash. Some sucker’s treasure.
We’re at a point where fast fashion has done away for much of the immediate need for secondhand clothing. New jeans are on sale at Old Navy for $15, and on-trend dresses are at Forever 21 for $10. You’d be hard pressed to find a better deal at the Goodwill. The point of resale, then, is not thrift, but savvy. We may have filled our closets with cheap clothing that was never meant to be resold, but perhaps resale will be our ticket out of the fast-fashion tier. We can sell our Old Navy jeans and upgrade to Everlane. We don’t have to look the way our wallets require.