Oliver Munday

Professional thrift shoppers find riches on the racks.

Ethan Ransom is after big game.

Catching the Thrift Drift
Want to make big bucks, or just enhance your wardrobe, at thrift stores? Here are some tips from the pros:

Thrift stores are full of treasures, but they’re also rife with counterfeit goods and out-of-style clothing. Learn the difference between what’s cool and what’s obsolete, what’s real and what’s not,
by going to retail stores and combing the Internet at sites like StyleForum.net, AskAndyAbout
and ThriftStore

If one item out of 100 is worth buying, you’re doing well.

A large number of thrift stores don’t accept returns, so make sure there are no stains or holes before you buy.

Let’s face it, you don’t know where this stuff has been. If you don’t want to fork out for dry cleaning, at least put all woolens in the freezer for 72 hours. That’ll kill any moth larvae that could devastate your wardrobe.

To confirm a shirt’s value, put a button against your chin or lower lip. Buttons made from mother of pearl, a sure sign of quality, will feel cool compared with less-expensive plastic.

You can easily cure ring-around-the-collar on cotton shirts. For instructions on how, visit www.americanwaymag.com

“I only get the ones made in Italy,” Ransom says, eyeing a Ralph Lauren shirt hanging amid hundreds of men’s dress shirts on a rack at a Village Discount Outlet on Chicago’s north side.

The best of Ralph Lauren is the goal today, as is most anything made by top-shelf clothiers apt to charge upward of $300 for a shirt and thousands for a suit or sport coat — when it’s brand-new, that is. But at places like Salvation Army or Village Discount ­Outlet, which operates 10 thrift stores in Chicago, Ransom expects to pay less than $10. To do that, he must dig, flipping through 20 or more shirts per minute as he walks slowly down the rack, eyes glued to labels.

“Your arms do get tired,” he says as he flips.

Finally, he makes the day’s first find. “Turnbull & Asser,” Ransom announces, pulling the blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt in for a close-up examination.

With shops in New York, London and Beverly Hills, Calif., Turnbull & Asser has supplied shirts to big-screen studs like James Bond and counted such dignitaries as Winston Churchill, Prince Charles and Ronald Reagan as real-life customers. If you have to ask what a Turnbull & Asser shirt costs, well, you probably can’t afford it. But here at Village Discount Outlet, this one — made from Sea Island cotton, a fabric woven from the fibers of plants native to islands off the coast of the southern United States — has a $3.90 price tag. And it is in flawless condition.

The shirt is too large for Ransom but will easily fetch $25 or more on eBay or from online fashion-sales forums. And this is merely the beginning: Over the course of a 14-store binge, Ransom will score sport coats from Brioni and Brooks Brothers, eight shirts from makers ranging from Paul Stuart to Thomas Pink, an anorak by Willis & Geiger, a handful of ties, a Schott leather motorcycle jacket and a vintage suit by Campus, a long-defunct maker that’s back in style thanks to Mad Men. Total cost? Less than $100. Most will go in his closet, but Ransom could quad­ruple his investment if he sold everything.

For Ransom, who works as a cook at a grocery store, shopping at thrift stores is a passion that is more hobby than business. For others, it’s a way of life — and a living.

Connor Higgins of Kansas City, Mo., considered his prospects three years ago while thrifting part time during college. After earning a degree in business marketing from Rockhurst University, he opted to become a full-time thrifter. “Once I graduated, I figured I could make more money doing this than at an entry-level job,” he says.

It’s not easy. When he’s on the hunt, Higgins drives 100 miles or more in a day, hitting 20 or so thrift stores in sprees lasting 10 hours. He does this three or four days a week. “I don’t think you can go out too often,” Higgins says. “I’ve gone to the same store twice in the same day and found new stuff.”

When he’s not shopping, Higgins posts wares for sale online, answers questions from prospective buyers and mails goods to new owners. While clothing is the focus, he also shops for electronics that can be resold for a profit. “I honestly didn’t think I could do it in Kansas City because I didn’t think there was enough high-end stuff,” says Higgins, who recalls his first big score: several Loro Piana shirts he scooped up for $4 apiece and sold for $70 each.

Based on customer addresses that correspond with Hollywood studios, Higgins figures some of his finds have ended up in movies. He’s ready for the next level: selling goods from other thrifters so that the treasure finds him, not the other way around.

But even that’s not easy work. Just ask Matthew R. (who prefers to remain anonymous due to the competitive nature of the business), a full-time thrifter who lives in New York City and got his start with a trip to Salvation Army in 1998.

“I’ll never forget it,” Matthew recalls. “I saw an Emporio Armani sport coat. The tag said $12.99. And I had heard about this thing called eBay … .”
Matthew knew nothing about fashion, but he had heard of Armani. He bought the jacket and sold it online within hours for $50. So began a career that has ballooned into an operation that grosses $500,000 a year.

Matthew has a knack for selling goods for top dollar — sometimes for more than what an item costs new. A pair of Gucci crocodile loafers found in a Denver thrift store for $10, for instance, recently fetched $2,225 on eBay. The shoes needed new soles and plenty of TLC, but the thrifter who found them knew Matthew from StyleForum.net, a fashion website where thrift-store aficionados brag about finds, exchange tips and otherwise compare notes. A deal was struck: Matthew and the finder split the cost of new soles and reconditioning, which totaled a bit more than $200, and Matthew took care of the rest, posting the shoes for sale online and splitting the profits with the finder.

There’s no magic to it, says Matthew, who sells more than 300 items a month on eBay and recently started LuxeSwap.com, an online consignment store. He has spent countless hours on the Internet and in clothing stores, researching fashion so he knows what’s popular and how to tell a fake Hermès tie from an authentic one.

“You learn stuff,” says Matthew, who works about 70 hours a week, “then you go to Salvation Army.”

Women’s clothing, he admits, is tough, mainly because styles change so quickly that items are out of fashion by the time they hit the secondhand market. Patience is key. Not long ago, Matthew spent eight hours shopping and found just one thing: a Dior suit for $35. He figures it will fetch about $1,100.

After more than a decade of selling, ­Matthew gets much of his stock on a consignment basis from thrifters who trust him to get top dollar for their finds. But even though the goods now come to him, he still hunts.

“My friends call me the sartorial stock­broker,” he says.

Frequent American Way contributor Bruce Rushton is a slave to fashion, and thrift stores are his master.