Trying not to tear at the seams

How Toronto's vintage shops are able to stay in business

To some people, vintage clothing might seem just a fashion trend. But to others, it’s their life’s work.

Owning a vintage shop on Queen Street West isn’t easy, says John Christman.

The vintage store Bungalow, in Kensington Market, sells furniture and house wares as well as clothing.
The vintage store Bungalow, in Kensington Market, sells furniture and house wares as well as clothing.

“The rent on this part of Queen Street has become way too expensive,” said Christman, one of the three owners of the Black Market.

The Black Market, in business since 1984, has two stores in the heart of Toronto’s fashion district at 319 Queen St. W. and 256A Queen St. W.

There used to be many more vintage clothing stores on Queen Street West, Christman said, but because the rent has increased on these small businesses, many of the stores have had to close.

“The rent has whittled them down to maybe just a couple of stores now on that strip at Queen and Spadina [Avenue],” Christman said. “The rent there for a small boutique can often be about $15,000 a month.”

His business got off to a rocky start at the beginning, Christman said, but during 25 years, he has been able to hold on to his Black Market stores. He said many of the other vintage shops haven’t been as fortunate.

The reason the Black Market has been able to stay in business is because of their constant low prices and their large amount of stock, he said.

“Shopping vintage at our stores is a great alternative when money is tight, which it is especially now,” Christman said.

The Black Market’s 256A Queen St. W. location is a large basement warehouse store and one of the largest vintages stores in Toronto. Christman said this is where one can find the best deals on vintage clothing.

During the winter season the Black Market specializes in $10 wool coats. He said his stores hold a price advantage over others.

“The wool coats are heavy and warm and the right price,” Christman said. “I think for a similar coat, it’s going to be about $100 at the cheapest of the quick fashion places.”

Right now is the best time to shop vintage, Christman said.

“These days with the economic crisis, soon enough the allowances for the young crowd are going to run dry or be challenged,” Christman said. “A parent isn’t going to have as much money to give their kid anymore, so we think it’s an alternative to shop here instead.”

Another major advantage of shopping vintage, as well as the low prices, is the fact that vintage pieces are usually better quality, said Victoria Dinnick, who is a vintage expert.

Dinnick is also the owner of a vintage store called Gadabout, at 1300 Queen St. E. She credits her ability to stay in business to the great quality of vintage clothing.

Vintage clothing is much better made than clothing being made today, she said.

Victoria Dinnick's store Gadabout includes such items at this 1940s purple velvet coat.
Victoria Dinnick’s store Gadabout includes such items at this 1940s purple velvet coat.

“The cut of [vintage clothing] is better, the fabric is better, and the pieces will last your lifetime as well as having lasted somebody else’s lifetime.”

Christman said vintage clothes are quality pieces because older clothing that was made before the 1990s was constructed better.

“When a piece of clothing is 20 years old already, it’s probably still got another 20 years in it,” Christman said.

Dinnick is a vintage jewellery curator as well and she sells this jewellery along with vintage clothing at Gadabout. She said her necklaces and other accessories start as low as $10.

“I get jewellery made out of old beads,” she said. “I also buy old broken necklaces and bracelets and I’ll have them remade, so they get made to be new again.”

Another vintage store in downtown Toronto is Bungalow, at 273 Augusta Ave. in Kensington Market. Bungalow carries vintage furniture and house wares as well as clothing and accessories.

Jessica Zimmermann, co-owner of Bungalow, said her store is able to stay in business because it offers so much more than just clothing.

“We sell a variety of items because we want to give people a good shopping experience and give them a good deal,” Zimmermann said.

The quality of vintage clothing is much better, Zimmermann also said. Vintage clothing lasts much longer than newer clothing.

“The nice thing about shopping vintage is you know that if you buy something, if it looks good and it’s still in good condition, it’s likely to last you, as opposed to if you buy something at H&M you know it’s going to last you a season and then you’ll throw it in the garbage,” Zimmermann said.

Dinnick said what she likes about vintage most is its character. She said this is why customers shop at her store.

“[Vintage] allows you to not look like you’ve just stepped out of one of the nine million mocha coloured shops that sell all the ready-to-wear-now stuff,” Dinnick said. “You can look different, you can a buy a style that suits your body versus a style that just happens to be fashionable right now that doesn’t suit your body.”

It is mostly because of this character that people buy vintage clothing, Christman said.

The Public Butter is a new vintage store that has recently been opened in Parkdale by the owners of the Black Market.
The Public Butter is a new vintage store that has recently been opened in Parkdale by the owners of the Black Market.

“The vintage stuff just has more character and is authentic to the style that the kids are trying to copy these days. Fashion just kind of shifts in decade cycles the way it always has, so the leading folk and kids are buying the bright neon pants and colours from the early ’90s, going back to the rave days.”

Christman said the Black Market has been so successful over the past 25 years that he and the other owners have recently been able to open a new store. It’s called the Public Butter, at 1290 Queen St. W. in Parkdale.

“We have slightly higher-end product at the Public Butter,” Christman said.

Like Bungalow, the Public Butter sells furniture and house wares as well as vintage clothing.

“We also have stuff that we call architectural remnants at the Public Butter store,” Christman said. “So it’s stuff like a big door frame or something, so if you’re fixing your place up, you can go there and look for materials.”