It’s been a year since COVID-19 came in and interrupted all of our collective lives. In the process of staying safe and staying home, COVID reconfigured how we connect, how we work and even how we define our homes in the first place. Instead of a place to rest, recharge and occasionally entertain, our homes became the epicenter of everything, and everything inside of them our universe. Now, a year in, many of us have come to know that living out the day-to-day of one’s life confined to a single space changes the way you feel about it. There is no heavier eye of scrutiny than that of someone bored in a lockdown, and for many, a large sum of that scrutiny fell upon furniture and the other smaller components that make a home feel like a home.
It comes as no surprise, given the circumstances, that more people than ever are re-examining their residences. People have taken the opportunity to try out new cities, to change their living arrangements — upsizing and downsizing, buying and leasing, becoming plant parents even — all to the tune of creating an arrangement worth staying in. Instead of the big box bliss (and return policy) of expensive corporate furniture factories like American Furniture Warehouse and Crate & Barrel, many have found another way, a binge-worthy alternative — vintage thrift furniture.
Selling used furniture is not a new idea, but it’s one that became a fully reimagined Millennial zeitgeist amid COVID-19. While some were content building toilet paper forts, others set their sights on building online aesthetic agoras on platforms like Instagram and Facebook Marketplace, curating their finds in a gorgeous gridlock of mid-century, ’80s modernism, Bohemian and other hand-picked era-defining pieces. From quick-triggered online bidding to rabid pre-planned drops, there’s a sense of mania to have something that others cannot and to find what cannot be found again. On the other side of the coin, it’s creating an image and following that captures an idyllic time-stamped fantasy and flipping it for Benjamins. For most people, thrifting is a casual treasure hunt, but for these sellers, it’s a rat race, and they’re selling more than furniture — they’re selling a feeling.
Few people embody this new age hustle better than Rhea Harless (@milehighcoop). Selling a menagerie of tessellated stone and travertine tables, squiggly mirrors and ’80s modern era cream-colored furniture du jour via her Instagram page straight out of her home, Harless lives and breathes the aesthetic that’s quickly making her a name in the scene.
“It started with me obsessing over and scrolling deep Craigslist, estate sales, Facebook marketplace — everything that I could think of just trying to find furniture that I liked for my apartment that was in my budget,” recalled Harless. “It sort of turned into a hoarding situation because I felt like I was like collecting all of these gems that people didn’t even know existed.”
The obsessing soon got out of hand, as her main living spaces filled with furniture and so too did the guest room in her apartment. Pressured by her partner to deal with the quickly deteriorating situation, Harless opened her Instagram account in July 2020 to 60 followers as a project to get rid of some of her collection. Fast forward only eight months, and her page has grown to nearly 5,000 followers who wait with bated breath week after week for her highly-anticipated drops, some of which she has sourced all the way from Nebraska. It’s not even her full-time job.
“I feel like we’re sort of like a gateway drug into people thinking about buying vintage. People who want to shop at West Elm or whatever might find our page, and it might be the first vintage thing they ever buy because it makes sort of looks like West Elm but it’s like a quarter of the price. Then they’ll see who I’m following and then they’ll (soon) realize it’s like this whole sort of ecosystem.”
Within that ecosystem of closely tied resellers are Allie Sutterer (@star.power.vintage) and Nicole Balgley (@hereinheaven.vintage). Sutterer began her page in August 2020, after being tired of the day-to-day of being a nanny, finding solace in the search and discovery of thrifting. In her words, it gave her, “a reason to shop all the time.” Eventually quitting her job in December, and through connections from her page, she’s now working part-time in the home staging industry in addition to running her shop out of her small apartment.
Balgley took things a step further, doing what she called a financial feat in renting two units in her the two-story house she resides in, dedicating the entire ground level to her thrift shop to provide an in-person shopping experience. Recently, with the boom of the pandemic, she closed in on her first legitimate retail space, on the back of a style fusion like, “if the family from Beetlejuice and Botticelli got together and put a room together.”
“Sometimes I feel like a crow collecting shiny objects, but it’s fun,” remarked Balgley. “I started selling on Instagram in 2018. But, I went to college and got a BFA in sculpture from UCD. After that, I didn’t have access to a lot of the studio space that I had access to in college. So, I had to find a new outlet for my creativity and that really came out in treating rooms sort of like installations.”
For Balgley, her ambitions hit on something deeper than indulging her own creative juices, the hustle of the scene also became a means to create accessibility and ultimately a means of self-care.
“@hereinheave.vintage for me is very much about mental health and self-care. You know, making the concept of luxury accessible and common. You don’t need to be rich and bougie to have something in your house that just makes you happy.”
In line with the surge of sales, so too has there been a surge of interest in others creating their own shops much like like Harless and Sutterer, nearly to the point of saturation. But Balgley sees as a good thing, as it supports and rewards small business and the entrepreneur-minded among us, instead of large corporations.
Like many of the other side-hustles that emerged from the pandemic, amid corporations earning billions while the average person at the bottom suffered, thrift furniture too, is a revolution to take back power. On a more micro level, it’s about reclaiming individuality in the face of a progressive uniformity within consumerism. As Balgely said, “everyone’s an artist and I’ve always believed that that was the case and people are really trusting their creative selves more.”
Trust in one’s self and one’s vision is something heard throughout the thrift furniture scene — a bona fide necessity to compete. Intention, discretion and timing have to meet in the middle for many of these sellers to get the sorts of treasures that set them apart from the rest of the pack. While Instagram and the online sphere are bustling, those who have the ability to have storefronts and physical outlets, especially with COVID, find the need to strike a balance and others find they need to dig deeper and dive further down the rabbit hole to stake their claim in a congested industry.
Carlye Tomasello (@shopthriftcult) based out of Modern Nomad in RiNo knows this all too well.
“I definitely have learned my avenues — furniture sells best on Instagram, which is so funny because even I’ve always been lucky enough to have an in-person experience with my resale and I’m a very in-person person,” said Tomasello. “I feel so lucky, but I could have a piece in the store for a couple of months and if I post this on Instagram, it’ll sell instantly.”
As simple as it sounds, the process is anything but.
“The hustle is just crazy. So many things have to align for you to have a successful reselling business. Like, not only do you have to find the right thing at the right time, but you have to find it before the next person, and it has to be within an aesthetic or trendy.”
Tomasello quit her job at Il Posto back in 2018 to start a resale clothing business out of Modern Nomad. It wasn’t until the pandemic however, that she started selling furniture, and when she did, it was hard not to take notice of the palpable hype (and potential payday) behind her thrift furniture finds.
“For a while, I was very uninspired by clothing and I think that’s a huge part with the pandemic too is during quarantine and everything, no one wore anything — it was very uninspiring and I was in a funk. I also turned 30, and I think that that was a big transition in my personal style. So, it was just so easy to go for furniture and be so timeless. And, people go crazy for furniture like I never saw them do for clothes before, ever — that’s exciting.”
With so many resellers popping up, and even individual shoppers taking more matters into their own hands, the saturation can strain the limited vintage resources. While Harless has gone out to Nebraska to score travertine fortunes and Tomasello has sourced certain wares from California, no one has gone deeper and farther than Evan Stallworth (@retroroomfurniture) — a kingpin of sorts in the mid-century modern scene.
Walking into his vendor space within Antiques Etc., the room reads like a mid-century candy land full of bright red velvets and flowing clocks and sleek lighting. It’s the backroom however, that displays Stallworth’s commitment to his taste and his hustle. In a sparse room — the “inquire within section” — Stallworth boosts, two space-age 1973 – 1976 Lee West “Alpha Chairs,” and a chef’s kiss of a massive yak-fur lined Lee West “Chamber Egg Loveseat” which Stallworth estimates only 300 were ever made, and now only 100 exist. He calls this his most prized possession, and it took him flying to Chicago to get it.
Stallworth essentially came of age with the art of thrifting in his blood. Growing up, every Sunday, instead of going to church, he and his mother would religiously visit antique malls. He’d eventually go on to be an actor, and then a flight attendant, quickly finding an admiration for lighting. As a vintage camera collector as well, he’d merge both worlds, creating lamps from vintage camera parts. A vintage store eventually contacted him about selling his lamps therein, and over time, he began to learn the tools of the resale trade.
Stallworth who now considers himself an expert, runs estate sales, is involved with cleanouts, gets hired on for interior design work and since he’s full-time now in the scene, he travels across the continental U.S. finding treasures, like the Lee West articles. For him, he only purchases items he’d be ok with keeping should the items not sell. He’s emboldened by a personal mantra that, “if you’re chasing what people are buying right now, by the time you buy it and go to sell it, then that trend has already moved on.” In the fast-paced world that resale is, it very well may be the secret weapon to his longevity, four years in. His next frontier is opening up a vintage clothing store, with much of the same mentality that’s brought him success with furniture.
On a base level within this community, and we mean community — of buyers and sellers is a search and seizure of meaning. Furniture is by nature inanimate, but a common note shared throughout was how much more meaningful vintage furniture felt. In a year where most of the meaning of our collective lives was changed, the furniture these people were finding brought some meaning back. The materials, the designers, the quality all transcend simple materialism, into something that is deeply personal for not just the sellers, but the buyers as well. These pieces are all outward reflections of their owners. People often talk about the “real deal,” but real is a feeling too, and the adventure to find that feeling is more than worth the search — it’s what it’s all about.