On July 6, Wooden Sleepers, a destination men’s vintage store on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, announced it would be closing.
“When I opened the shop on March 15, I didn’t realize it would be the last time,” Brian Davis, the store’s owner, wrote on Instagram. “I figured Covid-19 would pass and I could get back to business as usual. Fast forward 4 months and here we are, still closed.”
While Phase 2 of New York City’s reopening plan allowed in-store retail to resume June 22 under certain mandatory guidelines, Davis felt that his roughly 400-square-foot couldn’t meet the social distancing criteria. And with a newborn at home, Davis, who had been quarantining since mid-March, still had concerns about Covid-19.
“I think that we are still in the thick of it,” he said. “Whatever I can do to keep myself safe, my family safe, and my customers safe, I’m going to put that first.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic triggering widespread financial security, “ “consumers everywhere are prioritizing value and accelerating the shift to thrift,” according to a study of the retail industry recently released by ThredUP, an online consignment and thrift store. The study identifies online thrifting as a “bright spot in [the] broader covid retail slump,” noting that it’s expected to grow 69 percent between 2019 and 2021, and that ThredUP’s own sales have grown 20 percent since shelter-in-place orders started. But the outlook isn’t as rosy for in-store sales of secondhand clothing, which have taken a 27 percent hit this year and are expected to grow just 2 percent between 2019 and 2021. For the destination vintage stores that New York City is famous for, re-opening is a difficult consideration, especially as the industry changes and the future of in-person retail is in question.
Among the many challenges these stores face, subway ridership has decreased by an average of 81.6 percent since Gov. Cuomo declared a state of emergency on March 7. “The reality in New York is that even if businesses can reopen I think what’s really hurting us is the subway,” said Sean Crowley, owner of Crowley Vintage, a Gowanus store that remains closed. “The very thing that is the lifeblood of New York in a good time is also just a total hindrance right now because people aren’t taking the subway.”
Richard Colligan, the owner of Metropolis Vintage on 11th and Broadway, has operated in a variety of storefronts in Manhattan but at his latest location on Broadway, business had never been better. With bustling tourist traffic and proximity to stores like Flight Club, a popular consignment shop for rare sneakers, Metropolis was having one of its best years yet. “It was a great block here and it was just amazing and we were just doing great,” he recalled of pre-Covid times.
Metropolis Vintage decided to reopen on July 6 with reduced hours. With a big storefront, Colligan felt he could implement the new guidelines effectively. But foot traffic near the store has come to a near standstill. “Iit’s kind of a desolate block,” Colligan said.
The state of rental agreements is another big issue for vintage stores. For Colligan, making rent was one of the easiest parts of his business. Now he’s attempting to negotiate a new rate. “The rent was according to what the market was pre-Covid,” Colligan said. “What is the market going to be post-Covid and when is it going to come back?”
His landlord, meanwhile, has cut off communication and taken his deposit, he said. “I spoke to my lawyer and sent them an offer. I called them 100 times and they don’t get back to me.” Colligan believes his landlord is waiting for the courts to open up before negotiation.
Vornado Realty Trust, one of the New York City’s largest commercial landlords, told The New York Times that 80 percent of its retail tenants did not pay rent at the beginning of April or May. The entire fashion industry is affected. High-end luxury brands owned by LVMH and L Brands have struggled to pay their rents as well.
Some stores are more fortunate. At Crowley Vintage, a charitable client paid for a month’s rent, which alleviated stress and allowed Crowley to focus on online sales. As Covid began Crowley focused on selling pieces on Instagram and capitalizing on the push to support local small businesses. Although he had success, vintage clothing poses unique challenges and Crowley found he preferred the in-store experience.
“Every sale takes ten times as long,” he said of e-commerce. “There is nothing better than someone walking in and saying, ‘Oh, wow, I love that hat. Can I try it on? Cool. I’ll take it. Here’s the money. See you later.’”
When Covid-19 forced Metropolis to close its doors Colligan moved his product to Etsy, where he estimates he only takes in around 15 percent of his regular in-person retail revenues. He believes selling online often does not do certain items justice.
“If you buy just a no-name-brand windbreaker that some old lady used to have but it has beautiful color and beautiful pattern and there is no name and you want to put it on the internet,” he said, “you can’t just lay it down on a piece of paper and take a picture. You’ll get 20 bucks or less. Why waste the time?”
Davis described a similar frustration about online sales. “With vintage, it’s this laborious process where for every single item you are photographing it, you are editing it, you are measuring it, you’re writing the description and listing it and it sells and it’s like poof. It’s gone,” he said. “You can’t use that same content you created 19 more times. It’s really labor-intensive which I think is why most vintage stores do not have e-commerce sites.”
Before Covid, Wooden Sleepers’ online sales were “just icing,” Davis said. Now they’re his entire business. Fortunately, there’s a silver lining to the turn of events. Davis had been considering moving Wooden Sleepers to a bigger space. Now, he’s determined to do so. “What I learned from this experience was that my entire business model can be inverted and actually function better,” he said. “For me, you don’t really know what you are capable of until your back is against the wall.”