BERKELEY’S TELEGRAPH AVENUE begs those who tread on it to remember its past. Black-and-white posters of loosely clothed, long-haired ’60s teens, decades-old record stores and a history-rich chess club line the street — an ode to all that’s old.
But perhaps what best captures the romanticization of Berkeley’s past are its vintage stores, chock full of clothes that defined the city’s golden decades of activism and revolution.
Each block of Telegraph within three streets of the UC Berkeley campus has a second-hand store. In a time where downtown Berkeley has been declared dead, and storefronts remain shuttered along the avenue after pandemic fallout, vintage stores remain stronger than ever. Why?
Young meets old
Stepping into Mars Mercantile, located just two blocks from campus on Telegraph, is less like walking into a clothing store than into a museum. Racks are marked by the decade: leather vests from the ’50s, slip dresses of the ’20s, muscle-tees of the ’70s.
Most of the shoppers at Mars are younger than the clothes themselves. This, observed store manager Cameron Rappaport, is part of a larger trend whereby younger generations are showing an increased interest in second-hand clothes.
“The younger demographic is constant,” Rappaport said. “I think that a huge part of vintage is recycling, and the ethical reasons behind it — how it’s better to wear older clothes than supporting fast fashion.”
There is no denying, though, that vintage clothes are “cool,” Rappaport said. So, the rise of interest in second-hand shopping could be borne out of a quest for style.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, social media sites like TikTok saw a rise in Gen Zers posting “thrift hauls,” whereby they show off second-hand items found at used clothing stores. The hashtag #thrifthaul on TikTok has amassed over 3.5 billion views worldwide.
This largely contributed to the sustained enthusiasm for Mars Mercantile, as young people flocked to the store to capture a certain style, Rappaport said. Right now, that style is “Y2K,” comprising mostly low-waisted jeans, Juicy Couture jumpsuits and bedazzled everything which defined early 2000s fashion.
Similar trends dominate Berkeley’s So-So Market, an outdoor market where individual second-hand sellers set up shop every few months. The most recent So-So Market, held on the second weekend of June, brought a flow of vintage-seeking shoppers to Telegraph, where multiple blocks were closed to traffic and filled with racks of second-hand clothes.
Behind the racks: Sellers and sources
How do vintage pieces make it to the racks of stores like Mars and sellers at So-So?
Anyone who has been to a Goodwill knows there is an element of treasure hunting. In other words, on a lucky day, a vintage piece will be found buried amid a sea of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles baby t-shirts and weathered dad sneakers.
At the core of vintage stores and individual vintage sellers is curation — clothes are sourced, selected and displayed such that they are all something a fashionable customer would want to wear as the treasure hunt is left for the seller.
This is the case at Mars Mercantile, which has a sister store, Held Over Vintage, in the vintage capital of San Francisco, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The two stores are owned by the vintage clothing company Retro City Fashions Inc., who operate six total vintage stores across the Bay Area.
“Anyone can start their own vintage reselling business, but how successful it is depends.”Cameron Rappaport, Mars Mercantile manager
Where they get their clothes, Rappaport said, is a secret. The vintage pieces that grace their racks are largely a result of the owner’s years-long connections with local sellers and warehouses.
“Our owner is the one who handles all the sourcing,” Rappaport said. “Anyone can start their own vintage reselling business, but how successful it is depends. Retro City Fashions has been a constant — they’re kind of like the godfathers of vintage in San Francisco and the Bay Area.”
Individual retailers push back
Can anyone be a vintage reseller? Some sellers would argue it’s not so easy.
For individual sellers, sourcing is a different ballgame. Some frequent local Goodwill stores, while others go to estate and garage sales or travel to thrift shops across the state and country.
Heidi Cantrell is a self-described “grandma” in the vintage reselling business. She has been operating her pop-up, Hotline Vintage, for five years. Hotline can be found at vintage markets and pop-ups in the Bay Area like So-So.
Getting a vintage reselling business off the ground, Cantrell said, is no small feat. For Cantrell, the whole endeavor started with an estate sale.
“I quit my job at a restaurant and went to this estate sale where I ended up buying this lady’s entire closet — and decided I would do this as my job,” Cantrell said.
She spent the next month listing the clothes on Depop, an online commerce platform dedicated to second-hand reselling. When Etsy bought Depop in 2020, it reported that the site’s gross merchandise and sales more than doubled in 2020, a testament to the increased interest in vintage buying and selling.
The biggest challenge that comes with starting and sustaining a store like Hotline Vintage, Cantrell said, is having a large enough inventory — and knowing what sells. On Depop, Cantrell was able to see which pieces sold the fastest, and these trends usually translated to in-person popups.
“I quit my job at a restaurant and went to this estate sale where I ended up buying this lady’s entire closet — and decided I would do this as my job.”Heidi Cantrell, Hotline Vintage
There are also additional expenses like the price of hangers, disinfectant and gas for driving to thrift stores or yard and estate sales, said Julissa Prado, owner of Shy Flower Vintage. The time that goes into curation, Prado added, is also an added expense. The other day, she said, she spent hours at the thrift store to walk away with one item.
But perhaps the fun of it all isn’t in the profit, but the joy of making a hobby into a business. A knack for thrifting — or digging to curate a defined and unique collection — is where it all starts for many individual sellers.
Take Olivia Hicks, a self-described “thrift store kid,” who sells vintage and handmade clothes on Depop. She recalled memories of going to thrift stores with her mom to find clothes and fabric for making theater costumes.
“When I got older, I definitely for a while was resenting thrift stores because of growing up with it, but then I realized that it’s the easiest place for me to find my own style without having to necessarily listen to what other stores are telling me my style should be,” Hicks said.
For some sellers, the love of thrifting carries into the calling to enable others to create their own unique look — even outside the bounds of the trend cycle.
“I’ll think back to a certain customer when I’m out digging for stuff,” Cantrell said. “I’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know the exact girl that would wear that type of thing.’ Be it someone who likes more goth fashion or someone with a more fairy, girly style — I’ll think of certain characters.”
This same care drives Leslie Padilla, owner of Les XO Finds and a first-time seller at Berkeley’s June So-So market, who said she was inspired to start her shop out of her own love of thrifting.
“I’ve always thrifted, and it’s a big stress reliever for me,” Padilla said. “Why don’t I share what I find? Instead of me not being able to wear it, I can share it with someone who can.”
Above all, perhaps vintage curation is about forming a connection — with the clothes that unify the present to decades past and to the people who end up giving them a second life.