Second hand first

Why are Reno residents' used wares so great?

Kendra Crosby at Junkee Clothing Exchange.

Kendra Crosby at Junkee Clothing Exchange.

Photo/Georgia Fisher

This winter, some friends gave me my first ski outfit, which they had found for $1.50 per pound at a local thrift store. The pants alone retail for around $300, and create a fake little girly waist. Yes, please. I soon found accompanying boots—brand new—at the big “Doctors’ Wives” rummage sale in March.

As I type this, I’m engulfed in a leather sofa from Recycled Furniture on Virginia Street ($800, sold new), and my feet are propped on a solid, Crate & Barrel-ish coffee table from Reno Craigslist ($40). Our area rug hails from Belgium, and set me back a mere $20 at the Salvation Army store on Valley Road. It’s deep red, and so plush that our cat writhes around on it with her belly in the air.

Even our mint green, midcentury-modern end table was around $30 at Junkee Clothing Exchange, which excited me so much that my head started pounding, and I had to get ibuprofen at a gas station. So I guess that makes it $32. True story.

This isn’t normal. Not for me.

I’m from Austin, Texas, where used items can sell at retail prices, depending on a store’s hipness factor and/or the obscurity of the death metal playing on the stereo. Or they’re reasonably priced and feature authentic, coordinating pit stains. Or they’re good quality and cheap, but someone else bought them an hour ago.

So why are secondhand wares so decent here in Reno? What—or who—gives?

I started asking around.

Discreetly wealthy residents are probably a factor, figures Lulu’s Chic Boutique owner Tammy Borde. In a town like this, she says, “You don’t even know who you’re sitting next to. I’ll be sitting next to someone, and think he’s Joe Shmoe”—she pauses for impact, chuckling—“and he’s not Joe Shmoe. He’s Fancy Joe. And he puts his pants on like I do.”

Borde’s store is in Midtown, and it sports a mix of new and vintage clothes, Hollywood relics, and a wall of children’s garb that benefits charity. The décor is expertly balanced, and mostly Parisian-themed. The whole place looks expensive, to be honest, but it’s not.

“We’re an artist community,” Borde says. “We know how to reuse. We take something new, and then we take out a vintage belt, or take out a vintage necklace …”

And boom.

“We’re very talented people.”

Talented, sure. But wealthy? That’s even tougher to quantify.

The latest census figures, which are two years old, put Reno’s median household income at around $48,000, or a little less than the national median.

Then there’s the aging populace, or lack hereof. If we forget the recession for a minute and work on the assumption that age brings financial stability, downsized homes for empty-nesters, philanthropy, and, forgive me, eventual estate sales, then it stands to reason that a large retiree population could up the quality of your basic thrift couch. Just a theory.

Reno has proportionately fewer seniors than the rest of the country, though. So who’s behind the scenes? A young, artsy, secretly wealthy gambler who sells some of his vintage belongings, maybe, then brings the rest to Goodwill in a fit of guilt?

“Well, with gambling, most likely they’re pawning stuff,” says David Johnston, a manager at Goodwill on South Virginia Street.

Good point.

Reno “is a melting pot,” he adds, and donors are of all stripes: “Older people, younger people, and people who are moving and can’t take anything, so they’ll drop whole truckloads off.”

Goodwill also sells many items in original packaging. Johnston’s guess is they were returned to regular retailers who couldn’t restock them. If a product doesn’t sell at a nonprofit like his, it often goes to clearance outlets, and finally to recycling programs.

Some discards also go to third-world countries, explains Savers production manager Flower Hartung, whose Kietzke Lane store benefits Big Brothers Big Sisters and Friends of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

That doesn’t explain all the thrifty fashion sense, though.

“I don’t think this town actually looks for brand names,” Hartung says. “It’s just trendy. There’s a lot of Western [influence], and a lot of different styles.”

Honing the eye

In the Savers housewares section, two sharply dressed women admire a black-and-white chair. It’s $5.99, “and not wobbly or anything,” says Jennifer Bullock, who’ll use it in her guest room.

A minute later, Bullock sees a reed basket. It’s also $5.99.

“Now, this is a really well-made basket,” she begins, sounding like someone from Antiques Roadshow, “and I would say it’s probably an imported basket from, well—”

“—Pakistan?” offers her friend Susie Hillard, a clothing and jewelry designer.

“Or Thailand,” Bullock guesses, studying its tidy motif. “This one has a particularly fine weave,” she adds, “so at some point, someone will realize that it’s really a quality imported basket, versus the rest that are not.”

She waves a hand at other contenders on the shelf, which do look pretty bland.

“You have to have an eye for things.”

Jessica Schneider, for one, has got the eye.

An influential proponent of Midtown, she’s the founder of Junkee, which opened in 2006. Sippee’s, a sister boutique for kids, came along last December.

Junkee can suck you in with its ambiance alone. The music is good. The décor is good, too, and bizarre; think taxidermy, sideshow art, lush fabrics and killer chandeliers. And the goods, well, they’re especially good. You’ll find everything here, from gently worn Playa gear to refurbished desks and $7 pinup posters.

Employee Virginia Esty is a little miffed when anyone thinks Junkee’s wares are donated, they’re bought to sell, like the stuff at Lulu’s or any other true boutique.

As for quality, “you can also find amazing things in, say, Seattle,” she says, or San Francisco. “The difference is we don’t have Seattle prices.”

Competition from consignment shops hasn’t been an issue, for the record, and Esty has found the whole business to be recession-proof.

“We’re a funky junk store,” she adds with a grin, “and we don’t think we’re that cool.”

As for consignment places, well, they may shed light on the whole quality-of-goods mystery here in Reno. Like Borde, Labels Consignment Boutique owner Blythe Anderson mentions Reno’s nebulous affluence.

“There are a lot of really wealthy people in Reno,” she says. “They travel all over the world, they shop all over the world, and they change their wardrobes every season.”

Her 21-year-old store also draws tourists who’ll snap up Chanel, Escada and other hotshot labels that’re otherwise tough to find locally. Once those customers fly home, many sell their own clothes to Anderson through the mail.

At Veritas Empowerment Boutique on West Moana Lane, women sell items and also take workshops to improve their finances, health, and résumés, among other things.

Participants include cancer survivors, single moms, divorcees, and recent widows.

“They’re going to have a different life,” says proprietress Verita Black Prothro. “So they’re consigning their clothes.”

A different life—or a modest one—is also the mantra of my friend Ben Moseley, who buys all manner of used cookware, clothes, and construction supplies.

Imagine buying something brand new, “then having it, then throwing it away and driving a D9 Cat over it in a landfill somewhere, then covering it with a bunch of dirt,” he says. “OK, that didn’t help anyone in the long run. That was a really, really, really bad use of materials. … You’ve got to start paying attention to how you live, and not let somebody else dictate that you need a new Ronco tomato squeezer to make your life way better.”