Upon finding such hunting grounds, Eaton uses his naturally friendly disposition to get to know the people who can help him. Of course, when he lets slip that he pays for goods that seem like refuse, he’s greeted warmly. “I hit the town bar, get drunk with the locals and then go to their houses to look for stuff,” he says, explaining that his profession is not one that allows him to predict where he’ll be going next or what the outcome might be. “My whole career has been like a meandering river. You never know where it will flow.”
While out on his denim safaris, Eaton routinely goes to extremes. He will drop down into abandoned mines and climb up into attics where bats like to roost. Sometimes he’ll extract jeans that had been used as insulation, covering large cracks in walls. nursing a bunch of babies. I had to dig around without interrupting her.”
These trips have yielded a warehouse full of vintage clothing. Eaton estimates a treasure trove that includes 5,000 pairs of jeans, 10,000 T-shirts, 1,000 cowboy hats and 3,000 belt buckles. He employs a full-time seamstress who does repairs to make the clothing more wearable without removing the dings that render them unique. “Jeans become special because of what happened to them,” Eaton says. “Stuff is often worth more because it’s damaged or screwed up. For example, I’ll find a pair of jeans, lying in the dirt, that guys had been using for mopping up oil. Then I take it home, clean it up, and sell it. The market value for stuff like that is zero. But the intrinsic value is whatever a buyer thinks it’s worth. At that point it becomes a little like selling art.”
Other times the goods are not so evocative, but they’re capable of generating profits nevertheless. In the horse stall of a down-on-its-heels sheep ranch, Eaton uncovered a stash of leather jackets from the ’70s. “They were decrepit,” he says with a hint of resignation. “I search for age but settle for character. I knew I’d be able to sell them to someone.”
These days, eBay and other auction sites have brought efficiency to specialized scavenging, and it’s easy to imagine colleges one day offering courses on profiting via the site. For Eaton, though, the Internet and its auctions have amounted to a mixed blessing. “I find eBay to be more of a buying place than a selling place; my clients have deeper pockets than the people who shop on eBay do,” he says, acknowledging that market effi ciency is not particularly good for him. “And there can be problems with buying on the site. I spent $2,000 on Levi’s that were supposed to be from 1910 to 1920, but they turned out to be replicas made in Japan.” On the upside, he adds, “Anything really valuable is a bargain on eBay because risk gets factored into the price.”
Back when Eaton entered this business, some 15 years ago, selling used jeans was anything but organized. And it was hardly the sort of profession that anyone aspired to. Indeed, Eaton stumbled into it during a time in his life when he was content to scratch out a meager living in exchange for the freedom to travel the world. He worked a wide range of odd jobs that included picking grapes in France, selling wristwatches on the streets of Rome and importing vintage Harleys to Norway. He describes a tussle with Italy’s equivalent of the FBI and claims to have once been kidnapped by gypsies.
After a run-in that left Eaton with a couple of broken ribs and stabbing pains whenever he tried to kick-start old motorcycles, a Scandinavian friend suggested that he return to America and get into the business of importing used jeans to Europe. This was the mid-’90s, and old denim was already a marketable commodity. While convalescing in Florida, Eaton bought what he describes as “a bale of Levi’s.” It was 1,000 pairs of jeans — mostly 20 or so years old, generally in terrible condition — at a total cost of $1,000.