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A Labor of Love

Vintage clothing: Buy Low, Sell High. When I describe what goes into my business, people often respond that it sounds like a real labor of love.  In a way, it is.  I love driving around, finding unappreciated bits of our history and passing them along. Hunting for vintage clothes has brought me to out of the way towns I would never have seen otherwise. I’ve met a whole community of largely fascinating, wonderful people. But at the end of the day, what I do is a job, not a hobby. Dealing vintage clothes requires a huge amount of obscure knowledge, more time than I care to admit, and means taking on a lot of risk. There are easier ways to make money, and most of the time, the money isn’t that great.

It’s a lot like gambling. Montana still has a lot of good picking, but I never know what I’m going to find.  That’s half the fun. But if I drive to Billings, the closest “bigger” town (population 110,000) to go dig through thrift shops, I have to find enough to make it worth the 300 miles of driving, 20 gallons of gas and 10 hours of time. Every hour spent looking is time spent not able to sell. Sometimes a trip like that will yield something like the pair of deadstock Levi’s I sold a couple weeks ago, or a whole bevy of vintage hats,  sometimes I’ll find a single ’50s suit jacket that I feel obligated to buy so I don’t leave empty handed, and it goes unsold. It’s not even paycheck to paycheck, because I never know from month to month what I will be finding.

But every now and again, I make a big score and it feels worthwhile.  Non-dealers often think that the “picking” is the biggest part of my job. In truth, it is by far the smallest.  I’ve been selling a lot of ties lately, so let me just take one of those as an example to break down what goes into bringing a piece of vintage clothing to market.  Again, there’s a lot of time that goes into knowing what to look for, knowing the difference between a tie from the 1930s and one from the 1970s, knowing what the market is doing and what’s selling well at the moment, what difference a stain makes in the value of something, what to buy and what to leave behind.  I find a ton of mid ’50s ties, and almost as many 1950s overcoats, but I literally can not give them away, so they stay where they are. Let’s say I find a necktie at an antique shop for $5, and I buy it.  I take it back home and invariably, it’s been sitting for years in a box. So I steam the tie and fold it up. Onto the mannequin it goes, in front of the studio lights, to be photographed.  It gets folded back up, and once all the shots have been taken, that pile gets taken over to the computer to be scanned.  And then, folded back up (if I had a dollar for every time I fold a tie. . .) Every shot goes in the computer to be rotated, cropped, and white balanced, then the shot of the tie on the dummy, the shot of the label and the scan are composited.  This side of things is a lot more time consuming than the photography I see most dealers doing, but I think it’s really important to show everything as clearly as possible. Then it gets listed, the photos are uploaded, everything’s examined for condition and measured. It goes up, sits for a week, sells, and gets packed up. My average vintage tie sells between $7.50 and $20, and it’s just as much work for the $7.50 (As an aside, finding the one tie someone’s bought in a grouping of 100+ that have gone up that week is kind of like those old eye spy books, it’s even harder when someone has paid for a couple separately but they’re being shipped together). Off to the post office and a couple days later, they’re in your hand.  eBay takes their fees, paypal takes their fees. So, ignoring the time spent researching to know what’s what, and the time spent looking (with many strike-outs) to find anything at all, just the post-processing, listing and shipping can take nearly half an hour per tie.  My big batches of ties that go up often take the better part of a week of 10-14 hour days to get listed. If you got a ’30s vintage tie for $13, $3 goes to the post office, $0.67 goes to packaging, $0.10 goes to paper and ink, $5 goes to my initial purchase and between ebay and paypal, another $1.25, leaving me with about three bucks. Usually, only about 2/3 of the ties I list end up selling, so subtract the price of the remaining stock.  Now, sometimes, I get lucky and find a bunch of ties for a quarter a piece. Sometimes I get lucky and find a Palm Beach Cloth tie that goes for $70.

I work too hard and have too much pride in what I do to be anything other than honest. I risk a lot more than three dollars of my reputation on that tie being what I said it is, being in the condition I said it is. All I am is my reputation, it doesn’t matter the price point.

I have a lot of wonderful customers, who really know their onions and really appreciate something special when it turns up. I have my regulars, my repeat buyers, many of whom I consider friends.  I also deal with more (way more) than my fair share of kooks. “Do you have this 80 year old whatever in another size/color/style?” used to be pretty common. These days it’s much more along the lines of, “Hi, I see this is going for $150, would you take $25 as a buy it now?” or, “Hello, would you give me free overseas shipping on this $40 8 pound overcoat?”, or “Could you wait two weeks for me to pay so that I can save up the money?”.  I also have had a record number of people buy things but not pay. Maybe it’s a sign of hard times. People have consoled me by pointing out that I still have the merchandise, but as I said earlier, this is my business, my livelihood, not a hobby. That money is not theoretical to me, it is needed for bills, for buying stock, for putting food on the table and for paying student loans. I can offer something to the second highest bidder for less (still money out of my pocket), or I can relist. Re-listed items rarely go for what they did the first time around.  There always seems to be a suspicion that there was some sort of funny business, like shill bidding, that lead to the item not being shipped out the first time around. 100% of the time, at least with me, that’s not the case, and I would say 5-10% of my “buyers” any given month do not pay, whether they don’t have the money, or they forget, or it’s just how they get their kicks.

Every subset of vintage clothing has its own unique challenges, its own obsessive personalities. With hats, especially with ones with model names (the Stetson Open Road, The Stetson Whippet), it’s an obsession with color. (“Hi, would you describe this as a warm taupe or a mouse gray?). With leather jackets, it’s inexperience with vintage originals compared to reproduction hype combined with hypermasculinity (“hi, I was expecting this to weigh 7 pounds, and it’s only 2, it must not be of good quality”). With many pieces of outerwear, the challenge is an uninformed buyer. (I would like to return this waxed Barbour coat because it’s waxy and smells like wax.)

For me, the most difficult part of dealing in vintage comes after the sale. There is a combination of ignorance and entitlement that seems to come with online retail. A year and a half ago, I had a customer who bought a pair of vintage suspenders not reading the measurements and not understanding that pants were once higher rise. They did not fit his low rise pants or his girth, and he grew increasingly angry, and rather than returning them made a string of accusations and left negative feedback. People buying specialized products do not always know what they’re buying, and once someone’s made up their mind, they rarely want to learn. I get a surprising number of people who don’t read measurements, or who can’t tell the difference between colors. Every now and again, I get a random element, someone who buys something and flies off the handle without rhyme or reason. In my experience, these people usually either have guns of American flags in their ebay profile pictures. After years in critiques in architecture school and firms, I can take critique. But I’m not great with wild accusations. And then there are the times when I legitimately make mistakes. As the picker, researcher, photographer, editor, salesperson, customer service representative, stock manager, and shipping department for my business, sometimes I get overwhelmed and miss things. Sometimes things get held up or disappear in the mail. As the sole employee of my business, there’s also nothing that’s not my problem, and it’s hard to not take things personally, and despite my best efforts, customers or potential customers can ruin my entire day.  It’s hard not to get discouraged.

So thank you to the people out there who post pictures of yourselves wearing hats or ties you bought from me. Thank you to the people who send me hot tips on vintage stuff for sale. Thank you to the people who are nice or polite or appreciative. You are the reason this is still fun, the reason I keep at it.

 

1930s Levi’s Type 1 denim jacket

This vintage denim jacket was made by Levi Strauss in the 1930s.  Based on the one sided big E red tab, the silver prong type buckle on the buckle back, and the other details, this is the 1936 revision of the design. 

Chest (pit to pit): 19-1/2″ (doubled = 39″)
Shoulder to shoulder: 16-3/4″
Sleeve (shoulder to cuff): 23″
Length (base of collar to hem): 21″

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1930s US Forest Service Smoke Jumper jacket

http://www.ebay.com/itm/272520093278

This vintage jacket was made in the late 1930s, specially designed for use by US Forest Service Smoke Jumpers.  It is made of heavyweight canvas, with a padded layer and another layer of heavy canvas as the lining. The jacket has an extremely high collar with a double snap collar, which in conjunction with the padded construction, is designed to help protect the wearer. The underside of the collar has been reinforced with another layer of canvas, which in color and weave looks like Duxbak’s product. The jacket has a leather belt at the waist with a cast buckle and a zipper closure pocket on the right wrist.  The main zipper is a Talon with a sunburst stopbox and the sleeve zipper is also a Talon, with a sunburst slide. The back is stenciled with the US Forest Service crest and the front of the jacket has a US Forest Service Smoke Jumper patch.

Chest (pit to pit): 25″ (doubled = 50″)
Waist (side to side): 18″ (doubled = 36″)
Shoulder to shoulder: 20″
Sleeve (shoulder to cuff): 24″
Length (base of collar to hem): 23-3/4″
Please keep in mind the heavy padding of the jacket when looking at the measurements.

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B15D flight jacket

http://www.ebay.com/itm/272381184134

This vintage B-15D flight jacket comes from the Michigan estate of Captain T.J. Baker of the US Air Force. This variant of the B15 has a nylon body and mouton collar.  Made by Rolen Sportswear, this jacket has a Crown zipper on the sleeve pocket and a Talon main zipper, which may be a later replacement.  The shoulder is stenciled with the USAF insignia and there is a leather patch on the breast with Captain Baker’s name and rank.
Tagged size: 42

Chest (pit to pit): 26 (doubled = 52″)

Shoulder to shoulder: 21″
Sleeve (shoulder to cuff): 26″
Length (base of collar to hem): 24″
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B15 flight jacket

http://www.ebay.com/itm/272381184141

This 1940s vintage jacket comes from the Michigan estate of Captain T.J. Baker of the US Air Force. Though it is missing the tag, the Talon zipper, with its distinctive wide-rib Talon marked stopbox (only used c.1945-c.1948) helps narrow the dating considerably, as does the square cornered slider and the production run for this B-15 variant.  It has a full alpaca pile lining, offset windflap, handwarmer pockets and mouton collar.
Chest (pit to pit): 25-1/2″ (doubled = 51″)
Shoulder to shoulder: 19″
Sleeve (shoulder to cuff): 25″
Length (base of collar to hem): 24″

 

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More on the Road Ramblers

In about a week and a half, my fiance Alex and I will be leaving on a six month journey, crisscrossing America documenting small towns, through photography, illustration, interviews and the collection of artifacts. Think WPA photography meets Charles Kuralt. We call ourselves the Road Ramblers.
This project has been in the works since last fall. A couple of things in our lives happened all at once. Alex and I had been traveling extensively, picking for my vintage clothing business and for her senior thesis photo series focusing on boom towns in Montana, falling more and more in love with the places we were visiting and exploring. A TV show about vintage Americana I had been slated to host fell through after working through the summer with a production team in New York. My architecture thesis on authenticity took a turn toward examining places with a past vs. homogeneous sprawl. We got to talking about what the next step was- where do these projects go from here?

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And so, in early December, we bought thirdhand shuttlebus and started the process of gutting it out. After months of throwing away our money at secondrate motels every weekend on our trips through the west, we knew if we were going to pull off a trip of the length we were planning, we would need someplace comfortable, someplace that felt like home. We’re both the kind of people who, if we need something done, do it ourselves, so having the blank slate of the bus appealed to us. And starting way back with Further, there’s just something more romantic about a bus conversion than an RV. Now that it’s done, we’re fully capable of living off grid, with solar panels, batteries and an inverter, gas stove, composting toilet, foot pump water and a fancy cooler. We’ve got the work space to handle any and all of our needs while we’re on the road. With the bus finished and both of us recently graduated (Masters in Architecture for me, Bachelors in Photography for Alex), and everything we own either being sold off or put into storage, we’re just about ready to go.
It’s a funny thing tackling America. So many people have done it, from “On the Road” to “Blue Highways”, “Easy Rider” to “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. These days, there’s no shortage of people on instagram and the like, traveling full time in their Vanagons. What seems to be missing in these current projects is any sense of purpose or product. These are hipsters, out to find themselves, sponsored by outdoor equipment companies. At least the first generation hippie travelers worked odd jobs or craft fairs along the way. Thankfully, we’ve already found ourselves and our project’s about something bigger.

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This is a time of huge change for small towns. Manufacturing has either left entirely or shifted to larger plants elsewhere. Farming on an industrial scale has changed the way the town itself works. Other towns were bypassed decades ago by interstate highways and are slowly falling by the wayside. Meanwhile, new construction continues to sprawl, leaving with placeless places- strip malls, suburbia and endless chain restaurants. Pop culture idealizes the small town, but in a nostalgic, shallow way. The current trend in photography of “ruin porn” objectifies and exploits post industrial landscapes without addressing any of their content. Despite the transitions so many small towns are going through, these are places near and dear to our hearts. This is the fabric of America, and we try to come at it with an honest eye. Alex is heavily influenced by 1970s vernacular photography- think Stephen Shore, William Eggleston.

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In addition to her photography, I will be doing illustrations as we go (take a look above). As we travel, we will be conducting an interview series (think Storycorps or WPA interviews) as we go, to try to further get our finger on a regional pulse. We’ll be posting these on a youtube channel.
At the end of all this, we plan on taking our writings, photography, illustrations, portraits, quotes, experiences, etc. and compiling it all into a comprehensive photo book. This is where you come in.
All of this is a massive undertaking (but we’ve never been ones to make things easy on ourselves), and the books and web series are going to be hugely labor intensive and costly. We need your help to make these things a reality and to share them back with you. We recently launched a kickstarter to offset some of the costs of the production of the book and online components. Remember, if we don’t make the goal, we get nothing, so anything helps. We’d love to have you as a backer and to be able to bring our explorations directly to your computer.
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/263559793/road-ramblers
Spencer Stewart
And be sure to follow along at
https://www.instagram.com/roadramblers/
http://www.theroadramblers.com/
https://www.facebook.com/theroadramblers/