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Preserving, Adapting, Reusing: Good for Buildings, Good for Clothing, Good for Small Business

We here at Village Preservation are in the business (so to speak) of trying to help ensure historic buildings are preserved and, when necessary, adapted and reused rather than destroyed. Historic buildings lend character and tell stories that newer ones typically cannot. But they’re also good for the environment — there’s a truism that the greenest building is one that’s already been built. The same can be said for clothing — older clothes are rich in character and history, and reusing rather than throwing them away is good for the environment. It’s also good for the many small businesses in our neighborhood which sell them, and preserving small businesses is another key part of Village Preservation’s mission.

So on National Thrift Shop Day, August 17th, we’re taking a look at some of the great secondhand stores in our neighborhoods, many of which are offering deals to encourage people to give back by shopping. And while people have been re-purposing used clothing for as long as clothes have existed, thrift stores are a relatively new invention in American history.

In an earlier era nothing went to waste. “If you had a dress and it got worn out, you’d tear it up and make a pinafore for your daughter, and when that got trashed, you’d tear it up and stuff your chair with it,” explains historian Jennifer Le Zotte, author of From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies. 

According to Le Zotte, that changed in the late 19th century for a variety of reasons. Cities grew rapidly—partly because of the historic wave of new immigrants to this country in the late 1800s. But the industrial revolution was a key factor. It introduced the mass-production of clothing, which made clothing more affordable, and the more affordable it became to buy new clothes, the more people thought of clothes as disposable. As urban populations grew, the size of living spaces shrunk, and more possessions were being thrown away. And so with the the disposal of clothing items, there became an interest in the possibilities of making money from their resale.

In the early stages of resale in the U.S., a stigma was attached to wearing used clothes that had been owned by a stranger. Not only were the items themselves a sign of a lack of money, but there was also bias against the people selling them. Used clothes were often available from pushcarts predominantly started by Jewish immigrants, whose professional options were often constrained by anti-Semitism. That prejudice rubbed off on their wares. For example, the May 3, 1884, issue of the Saturday Evening Post ran a satirical story about a girl who got smallpox from a dress she bought from a Jewish-owned resale shop.

Pushcarts on the Lower East Side

Around the turn of the last century, however, another constituency emerged of those who saw the possibilities in making some money from repurposed items, and their entry into the resale market began to fundamentally change peoples’ views about the practice. Christian ministries looking to fund their outreach programs began to see resale of clothing and re-purposed items as a lucrative source of income. The religious affiliation of groups such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill, as well as the philanthropic nature of their missions, arguably offered legitimacy to the practice of clothing resale, and the market for such items began to grow at a rapid pace.

By the 1920s, the terminology of resale shops began to change. The word “thrift” began to replace the previously-used term “junk.” This renaming further attracted middle-class housewives who felt virtuous about their purchases, because they were considered both thrifty and philanthropic at the same time.

Consignment shops catering to a high-end clientele started to emerge in the 1950s, and wealthier customers began thirsting for “vintage” clothes. The thrill of the hunt for a piece of couture at bargain basement prices has only grown and grown since that time.

During late 1960s and early 1970s, the East Village became the place for vintage fashion. Limbo, the renowned vintage clothing shop, opened in 1965. It was first located at 24 St. Mark’s Place, and by 1967, made its home at 4 St. Mark’s Place. This second-hand shop, initially appealing to hippies, rebellious teens, and young adults, would elevate vintage to an unprecedented level of coolness, and Limbo became not just the place to shop, but the place to be. Clientele included Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Baby Jane Holzer, Nico, Viva, and Edie Sedgewick. The clothier frequently outfitted musicians playing at the nearby Filmore East, and was regularly featured in New York newspapers and national fashion magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue. Fashion designers Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger also frequented the shop and were influenced and inspired by it and its merchandise. Apparently even designers from Paris would make trips to the famous shop. Limbo made the East Village ground zero for thrifting, and New York City its mecca.

Limbo at its 4 St. Mark’s Place location

The East Village is still teeming with thrift stores, and the South Village and the West Village still have a few choice shops as well. On a casual jaunt through the neighborhood this past weekend, we found dozens of fantastic thrift shops. On the stretch of East 11th street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, there are three right in a row!

Here is a list of a few of the shops in our neighborhoods. We encourage you to go out and explore! Thrift shopping helps the budget and it also helps the environment. Every item purchased from a thrift shop is one less item in a landfill. It’s recycling at its best! How’s that for a good excuse to shop? #RethinkReuse

Buffalo Exchange
332 East 11th Street

Tokyo Joe
334 East 11th Street

Flamingos Vintage by the Pound
338 East 11th Street

No Relation Vintage
204 1st Avenue

East Village Vintage Collective (a past Village Preservation Business of the Month)
545 East 12th Street

Meagan and Alex in front of EVVC

Cure Thrift Shop
111 East 12th Street

Madam Matovu, another past Village Preservation Business of the Month
240 West 10th Street


Vintage Thrift
242 West 10th Street

Housing Works
245 West 10th Street

Housing Works Thrift Shop

Beacon’s Closet
10 West 13th Street

Beacon’s Closet

Tell us about your favorite neighborhood thrift shop! We’d love to hear.

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