The Future of Thrift

by | Sep 16, 2020 | QUEER RVA

As the coronavirus pandemic reaches its sixth month in the United States, local boutiques and thrift store owners have been reevaluating their long-term business model, with some moving their operations online.

When Bill Harrison first heard news of COVID-19 cases popping up in Virginia back in March, he made the tough decision to close Diversity Thrift indefinitely.

“I said to [the] staff: ‘pack up, go home; I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow,’” said Harrison, president and executive director of Diversity Richmond, “because we were just so concerned about the spread of the virus.” 

It has been more than six months since the novel coronavirus crept into the United States. Parts of Virginia have since reopened, allowing non-essential businesses to let customers back in. Small shops, including vintage and thrift stores, have adjusted their business models to the “new normal” that is the coronavirus pandemic.

Retail spaces hurriedly reevaluated their online operations when non-essential businesses were forced to close or had capacities greatly reduced in March. Some secondhand boutiques, such as Bygones Vintage Clothing and Rumors Boutique, were fortunate enough to have well-established digital platforms prior to the pandemic, and were therefore better equipped to ride the wave of uncertainty. 

Photo via Bygones/Facebook

Bygones store owner May Cayton said she redirected business operations entirely to online. With over 11,000 Instagram followers and an established local presence since 1979, the pivot was a bit easier to manage. Cayton now has full-time employees dedicated to taking photos for the website.

“We’ve had an online presence and a website for years,” she said, “but we’ve never put as much energy to it as we had within the last six months.”

The pandemic afforded Bygones the opportunity to expand its online presence beyond its website and Esty, recently selling on Depop, a secondhand shopping app.

When Virginia Commonwealth University closed down in mid-March, Rumors Boutique said lost a majority of their revenue. According to Marshe Wyche, co-owner of Rumors, a great deal of their business came from VCU students. After VCU closed, Rumors closed its doors and shifted to online operations.

“We have moved our complete collection online,” Wyche said via email, “and we add 30 to 60 new items to our website each day.”

Other stores, like Circle Thrift & Art Space, had to ramp up and refine their digital presence, and have found themselves using their social platforms a lot more these past few months.

The thrift store, which also displays and sells local artworks, did not heavily rely on social media prior to the pandemic. According to Brendan Ginsburg, owner of Circle Thrift, it took some experimentation before they figured out the right techniques.

“Simulating the experience, vibe, message, and the mission, just everything now has to be conveyed digitally,” he said, “whereas before people could just come in and know what we were about.”

Photo courtesy Circle Thrift.

To best simulate the thrift-shopping experience, Ginsburg said the store was rearranged to be ‘window-shoppable.’ Customers could peek through the storefront to view the displayed items available for purchase.

Circle Thrift also ramped up a pre-existing technique, in which it would post walkthrough videos of the storeon its Instagram stories. Employees would ask followers what they were hoping to purchase from the store; they then would do their best to find products that fit the customers’ desires.

“That actually worked well during COVID,” Ginsburg said. “That was a great way to engage people, and people were already used to it.”

Several of these thrift stores also serve as vital spaces for the local community. Circle Thrift have hosted classes on career transition skills for students at North Star Academy, a school for special needs kids. Since the arrival of COVID, these are now indefinitely paused.

Diversity Thrift is part of Diversity Richmond, a nonprofit organization that works to serve the local LGBTQ community. The organization’s event hall had been booked nearly every Saturday night from April to December; unfortunately, those events all had to be canceled.

Though for the time being Diversity isn’t holding indoor events, they are still able to use their space for some events that follow social distancing guidelines, including 12-step program meetings. The Richmond and Henrico Health District have also used the location to hold COVID-19 testing.

“Diversity Richmond has a huge responsibility to do the best that we can to take care and nurture our community,” said Harrison. 

Despite the closure of their thrift store and event hall, the nonprofit has found creative ways to engage and support the community during these uncertain times. It has hosted Drive-In Drag shows and food drives for local Hispanic families in need, which were held in the parking lot. 

“I love the drag shows here, because we are helping the entertainers who are out of work now,” Harrison said. “They don’t have the accessibility to perform shows like they did in the past.”

Photo courtesy Diversity Richmond

Harrison said it was crucial for Diversity Richmond to lend a helping hand to drag queens during the pandemic, because they themselves lended a hand during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

“There’s no way to begin to estimate the amount of money that [the] drag community raised for our AIDS organization, and for people living with HIV,” he said. 

Along with the pandemic that has raged throughout the year, this summer Richmond has seen ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests against police brutality. Rumors Boutique was one of several businesses on Broad Street damaged during a protest the night of May 30.

Wyche, who is Black, said that while her store suffered damages, she is empathetic to the demonstrations. “People are angry. I am angry,” she said. “We are being held down by a system that refuses to see us rise.”

The day after her store was damaged, she launched a GoFundMe page to help with the repair cost. It has since raised over $40,000. Wyche was elated to receive the community support.

“So many days and nights have been dedicated to creating spaces for people to express themselves,” she said, “so when you see that kindness come back to you, it makes all the ramen nights worth it.”

Wyche said the storefront is still in the process of being fixed. The portion of the fund remaining after repairs are complete will go to local minority-owned businesses. Businesses in need of assistance can contact Rumors through its website for more information.

Since reopening, Circle Thrift, Diversity Thrift, and Rumors have taken necessary precautions to keep its employees’ and customers’ safety and health its main priority. All stores frequently sanitize all public areas, and require customers to wear a mask. Circle Thrift took an extra step further, prohibited neck gaiters and bandanas, which studies have shown may be worse than no mask at all. 

Circle Thrift and Rumors have set a lower capacity for in-store shopping, at four and five customers, respectively. Circle Thrift is taking appointments during certain hours. The store also has high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters located at the entrance and register for increased air circulation and filtration.

Diversity Thrift tries to make sure there are very little physical interactions between the employees and customers, Harrison said. With a separate entrance and exit, the store asked that the first thing customers do when they come in is to apply hand sanitizer; dispensers have been installed on the walls throughout the store. Plastered on the floor and walls are posters designed by the store manager Kris Woodson, offering fun reminders for customers to social distance by keeping six feet apart — “about one drag queen” — from one another.

Photo courtesy Diversity Richmond

Rumors is taking temperatures of customers and employees before they can enter. Wyche said her employees signed “COVID responsibility” contracts, and are frequently tested for COVID-19. Employees work in designated sections of the store; those who are buying secondhand goods from consumers wear gloves.

Bygones is currently open by appointment only. Starting Sept. 19, it will be open to the public on Saturdays. “We are trying to have sidewalk sales out front for people who don’t feel comfortable shopping inside a store,” Cayton said.

Once open to the public, Bygones will have an employee at the door ensuring customers have a mask and have applied hand sanitizer prior to entering. Cayton said the store will follow strict hourly cleaning procedures and limit the amount of customers inside to eight people at a time.

Across the country, business owners are feeling the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of small businesses owners fell 22 percent from February to April, according to analysis by Robert Fairlie, a professor from the University of California. That number significantly increased for minority-owned small businesses. Black business owners fell 41 percent and women-owned businesses, 25 percent.

Circle Thrift projects that profits may have fallen 40 to 50 percent. “[Before the pandemic], we were definitely hitting our stride and doing better than ever,” Ginsburg said. “It significantly impacted our sales.”

Wyche said Rumors would typically buy clothes from 40 people a day before the pandemic; now the store is lucky to buy from 10 a day.

For many consumers, the coronavirus pandemic has raised questions on whether secondhand shopping is safe and if the industry is viable in the forthcoming future. However, these thrift store owners do not see the secondhand craze going anywhere. 

“As a nation, we have all been tracing each penny we spend and growing to be more conscious about what we invest in, and the moral quality of the objects we are interested in,” Wyche said.

Ginsburg expressed a similar sentiment and said the pandemic definitely has affected the secondhand industries in the short term. However, he remains hopeful for the long-term.

Cayton believes the vintage industry will not die until time soon because it offers individualism, a stance that attracts younger generations, who are also more aware about sustainability and are more mindful about waste than previous generations.

“I think the timing of vintage is just going to continue to grow from a historical point of view,” Cayton said, “and I think it all has to do with environmental concerns, as well as the need for people to have new things — things that are new to them.”

Top Photo via Rumors Boutique/Facebook

David Tran

David Tran

David Tran is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying Print/Online Journalism. When he is not working on a story, he can be found trying out new vegan recipes or catching up on some readings.

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