Some people think the best shopping in America is in New York City. It’s true, we have all the Diors and Guccis you could want, but our vintage shopping can be just as expensive as designer shopping, which, if you ask me, just ain’t right. Sure, we have used-clothing shops like Beacon’s Closet in Brooklyn, and Cheap Jack’s (which has truly fabulous vintage clothing, but is not all that cheap), but what most savvy New Yorkers know is that vintage clothes can be bought much more inexpensively in other states, or at least upstate. In New York City, the demand for vintage clothes is high, and sellers know when they have a great item — and they price it accordingly.
In my travels across America I’ve always found the very best vintage clothing, shoes and even jewelry in small towns, where the cost of living (and demand) is low. A size 2 vintage dress priced at $150 might sell in a day in New York City, but in the middle of say, southwest Michigan, it might never leave the mannequin in the window. Jewelry enthusiasts might have an eye for a setting that a used-clothing store owner in the middle of Kentucky might not notice; and in some rare cases, designer labels are all but ignored, and you’ll find Prada on the same rack as Express. There is no Antiques Roadshow for clothing, but if there were, contestants would flock to tiny shops two hours from nowhere.
Salvation Army and Goodwill are also not to be ignored once you’re out in small towns, as in some cases, these are the only places for miles around where people can bring their used stuff.
With that info covered, here are five tips for great vintage shopping — specifically for those out-of-the-way towns you pass on your way to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving.
1. Talk to the owner. No need to go bragging that you’re from some big city; if the town is small enough, the owner will know you’re not from there. He or she will also probably appreciate your interest in their wares, and you’ll often hear a great story about whose Aunt Mildred wore what to which wedding, find out which the newest items are (not picked over by other shoppers) and sometimes even get a discount.
2. Turn it inside-out. Try things on, of course — especially as, over the years, we’ve all grown a bit taller and carry our fat in different ways — but when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, you often don’t see the garment for what it is. Turn it inside out and check the seams, check the lining for stains, definitely check the underarms (no matter how pretty it is, those stains will never come out) and look for holes. If you find something small, ask for a discount — but only if you know you can fix it or live with it.
3. Look for the rocks. If you’re jewelry shopping, keep an eye out for real stones. Often, there will be a honking gem on display in a hideous setting — so buy it at a great discount and spend a little money having it reset once you get home. Your local jeweler will love you; everyone loves a project.
4. Load up on un-used cheapies. I know, when you’re at some vintage store in the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t seem that exciting to pony up for Donna Karan tights, but if they’re selling them in-the-box for $5? Load up, or you’ll be kicking yourself when you get home. Unused items like tights, underwear, socks, gloves and more often somehow make their way into used-clothing stores. Sometimes, they’re even vintage items themselves.
5. Check labels, then ignore them. Obviously, you want to know if you’re getting a Chanel for the price of a coffee, but if you don’t like it, don’t buy it. Trying to resell your brilliant but non-wearable finds is a full time job. Get the coffee instead, or something someone made by hand that looks fantastic on you.
So, on your next road trip, when you see a tiny store on the side of the road boasting “vintage,” “antiques” or “used clothing,” pull over. You could snag a million dollar look for the price of a New York City lunch.