Profiting from her mistakes

11/3/2011 - The Boston Globe



Embracing the virtue of thrift, she tries a consignment shop on for size

November 03, 2011 | By Beth Teitell , Globe Staff

I was browsing the racks at Second Time Around, a consignment shop that opened recently in my neighborhood, when I came upon a life-changing jacket. Velvet, quilted, black label Ralph Lauren - a garment worn by someone wealthy enough to buy pricey casual clothes.

At $189, it was up there, but as I pictured weekends in Ralph - wearing good boots and laughing on the sidelines of a polo match - my first thought was: I must own it.

But as I admired its rich navy color and its flattering cut, a second thought hit me: Wait, I already do own it. Or at least I did. But where was it now? Hanging in my attic? Crumpled in one of the giveaway bags cluttering my garage? Or maybe I had consigned it years ago, and the jacket I was holding in my covetous hands was my actual jacket, a former lover I barely recognized. Quickly, I thrust my hands into the pockets, but found no crumpled ATM receipts or gum wrappers from my kids. We were, to my relief, strangers.

But I began to wonder about myself. How could I be so enthusiastic about this jacket, when its identical twin was so insignificant that I didn't even know what had become of it? What if I did find it among my own possessions? Would it seem exciting and full of possibilities again, like the first time I laid eyes on it? Or would I understand it for what it was - outerwear, no more, no less?

My crush raised another issue: Had my style not evolved in five years? I'm pretty sure I bought my black label Ralph Lauren jacket in 2006, or 2007 at the latest. I got it at Filene's Basement in Downtown Crossing, and it closed that year. Half a decade had passed, and here I was, desperate to buy the very item I'd let drift away. Was I doomed to repeat the same wardrobe choices again and again, the sartorial version of "Groundhog Day''?

Apparently yes. "Can you hold this for me?'' I asked the clerk.

I had until the close of business to ransack my house, and, if I came up empty, rush back and make my purchase. Oh, here was the light blue coat from Mint Julep that I'd vaguely wondered about last spring, and a yellow one from Anthropologie, and a red trench from Cole Haan. If there's an app that can freeze credit cards in the presence of overpriced coats that have been marked down to the price they should have been to begin with, clearly I needed it.

Standing amid my mistakes, I realized my spending habits need to change. I decided to allow myself to buy new clothes using only money that I'd "earned'' by selling clothes I shouldn't have bought in the first place. Consignment stores sell items for a fraction of the original retail value, and then give consigners a percentage of that. If you do the math, which I didn't, you'll realize that supporting a clothes habit on consignment income is not a sustainable plan. But who cares? She who buys on impulse sells on impulse.

I packed up a pair of Cynthia Steffe boots, which were a steal at 75 percent off, except that the arch is in the wrong place; and black suede Calvin Klein pumps with a wedge heel, which I bought because my mother said they looked "professional,'' forgetting that in the news business, no one cares about your feet. It's your writing that matters (and maybe your hair).

With mixed emotions, I also decided to part with a pair of Adriano Goldschmied jeans that I stopped wearing because they were extremely snug, a failing I attributed less to weight gain than to an increasing unwillingness to suck in my stomach. Well, that's what I'm telling myself. Otherwise, I would need to keep the pants, because selling them would be to admit defeat.

I thought weight gain would be a major trigger for selling clothes, but Jeanne Nicholson, the director of marketing at Second Time Around, told me that weight loss is a larger motivator. "It's a big cathartic moment,'' she said. People also consign jewelry from former lovers, and holiday gifts that can't be returned. Talk about chutzpah! I've gotten presents I'd love to convert to cash, but how would I face a gift giver who happens upon her present in a resale shop?

I've dabbled in consignment before, but for some reason the Ralph Lauren episode triggered a rapid-onset, full-blown obsession, and it turns out I'm not alone. Precise statistics are hard to come by, but a trade group reports that resale is a multibillion dollar industry, with the number of stores growing by 7 percent a year for the past two years.

Adele R. Meyer, executive director of NARTS: The Association of Resale Professionals, told me that her St. Clair Shores, Mich.-based group has grown from about 800 members a decade ago to 1,200 today.

It's not hard to see the appeal, both from the sellers' and buyers' perspective, particularly in this economy. Second Time Around stores regularly get calls from the suddenly unemployed eager to unload work clothes and make some cash. And even the employed like paying $60, rather than $180, for designer jeans. And there's another plus: "I don't have enough closet space,'' said Magda Schleicher, 29, of Brookline. "It's an excuse to be able to buy more clothes.''

When you make an appointment to sell your clothes at STA, which is a chain with 26 stores, both locally and in Chicago and New York City, you learn that the company generally doesn't take anything more than about two years old, although exceptions are made for high-end designer items (like the Ralph Lauren jacket).

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