Rather than traveling back to Europe, he set up tables at fl ea markets down south and sold pairs of jeans for $5 apiece. It generated tiny profits but blossomed into an invaluable education. “I started to recognize that people were picking through my jeans and finding the ones that were worth something; I had three or four pre-1970s Levi’s in there, and they got snatched up right away,” he recalls. “Then I found out about a company called Farley that sold collectible denim to Japan. The company put out lists of what it was looking for and what it would pay. Then you could find the items and sell them to Farley. And if you had something exceptional, you could put it into the Farley auction. My first big score was a pair of Nike Air Jordans that I bought for $2 in a thrift shop and sold to a guy named Captain Steve for $200. Then I found out that he promptly sold them to Farley for $900.”
Eaton describes that experience as “bittersweet,” but it also served as a lesson learned. Soon after, he relocated to Colorado, targeted thrift stores and took his finds directly to the online auctions. Over the course of his most extreme period of thrift-shopping for collectible clothing, Eaton says he became “the foremost expert in the world on thrift stores in Colorado.”
He often spent half of each month traveling around the state while hitting a circuit of secondhand shops that tended to get good, old stuff. He eventually reached a point where he was able to presell the items he spotted. Others wound up on the auction sites or went directly to collectors in Japan.
Spookily good at recognizing what his clients want, Eaton says he can walk along a clothing rack, close his eyes and, just through his sense of touch, know what is valuable and what isn’t. Once, while driving his brother to an airport in Sheridan, Wyo., he came across a church sale that looked promising. Faced with only a few minutes to spare, lest his brother miss his flight, “I ran in like an eagle hunting a mouse. I spotted a pair of Lee cowboy jeans from the 1940s and threw a quarter to the lady at the counter. She gave me 15 cents change; turns out that it was ‘dime day.’ The next afternoon, I sold those jeans for 750 bucks.”
Of course, not every sprint through a church basement can be so profitable. In fact, one of the bigger busts of Eaton’s career required a trip to Alaska. Initially, it sounded very promising: A man up there had purchased a military barracks building dating back to World War II. He had all the clothing of soldiers who’d returned from the Korean War. The whole thing sounded so amazing, Eaton hired a film crew to capture the hunt-and-find in all its glory. “There turned out to be 10,000 square feet of clothing, 12 to 15 feet thick,” he says. “I wound up buying 10,000 items from the guy” — a fraction of what was there — “and it all turned out to be pretty basic stuff. None of it was collectible. I invested $12,000 in the trip and got back $6,000.”
Eaton hesitates for a beat. Then, in a tone that makes clear what really drives him, says, “That one didn’t pay off financially. But you know, it was a hell of an adventure.”
MICHAEL KAPLAN is a journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. He likes to wear Earnest Sewn jeans when he writes for publications that include Wired, Details and The New York Times.