I’m weak. When social distancing ordinances were first put into place, I knew there were two things I was going to genuinely struggle without, because I am an entitled jerk who enjoys a certain consumerist standard of living: concerts and thrift stores. Live music has found a quick fix in intimate Instagram performances, but thrifting feels impossible. The hunt for a good piece is transfixing and potentially rewarding; shopping online simply does not give me the same sort of rush. But when 2 a.m. rolls around on a school night, my mind wants only one thing: to find the vintage fits I’d normally cop at a Goodwill for $7.
And so I began perusing some old favorites—the reliable eBay, the pricer but curated Etsy—and found some gems in the form of a matching two-piece set and a romper. When they arrived, they were cute, but I felt a pang of guilt—I had ordered non-essential items, which an essential worker had to deliver to me, potentially endangering himself like he does all day for, ideally, more responsible shoppers. I tried to rationalize my decision by coming to the conclusion that selling thrifted clothing online may be the main source of income for a lot of people, or at the very least, supplemental in a trying financial time. But even then, I wondered: where did the sellers get the clothes? Do they regularly flip through thrift stores, pulling the best pieces from communities that could benefit from them in order to make a profit? Is there no winning here?
Instead of simply questioning my decision and opting not to thrift online without getting answers, I reached out to a few Etsy sellers—some I’ve purchased from in the past, others I admire—to see how they view their businesses while so many others have shuttered. Turns out, they, too, feel conflicted, but see online thrifting as an opportunity to support small businesses.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Heather, Maryland, owner of QueenLaceVintagePlus:
[Etsy] is not my main source of income. By day I am a teacher. I find the items I sell in a variety of places: thrift stores, consignment [shops], second hand stores, my closet, and my grandmother’s closet.
I have found that I’m selling much more [during this time.] Typically I would be lucky to make one sale a week. But I just dropped off four items at the post office, sent three on Saturday, and three more the previous Monday. So, this week’s total sale [amounts to] ten. One of the reasons I’ve kept my shop open is because my post office has kiosk machines that I can use to mail items without needing to be face-to-face with another person. I wear a mask at the post office and use hand sanitizer as soon as I return to my car. When I get home, I shower and change.
I struggle with asking myself “Is this essential? Should I keep my shop open?” particularly since it is not my main source of income. I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. I don’t know if I would keep my shop open if I did not have a kiosk at my post office—that is certainly an encouragement to do so. But a part of me is very happy that I am able to bring a tiny bit of materialistic happiness to people by giving them a venue to shop 24-7, and in sending them quality, clean vintage. (I am still able to push out items daily—which helps give my day some structure and purpose.) And, maybe, by being “careful” out and about, sending vintage packages is helping people’s mental health, helping people to stay sane, and [giving] people a sense of normality.
But perhaps we all need to re-assess what is essential. I find myself darting around the post office to maintain safe distances with other customers, who do not seem to have that same priority. Then, I wonder, what is going on in the Home Depot that my post office is next to, as I see the parking lot is full everyday. Do those people also consider their errand to be as essential as mine? Are we both wrong?
Shay Chestnut, Utah, owner of ElbertaVintage:
My partner provided our main source of income, but because of covid-19 he was furloughed (on the same day we brought home our first baby from the hospital, but that’s another story.) So like millions of other Americans he had to file for unemployment, and even though my Etsy shop hasn’t been our main source of income, we’ve had to rely on it more than usual. Surprisingly, sales have increased and it’s been pretty consistent despite social distancing.
I’ve had to change things in how I run shop during the pandemic. Since thrift stores are closed and estate sales were temporarily put on hold, I haven’t been able to go out and build an inventory like I used to. Since having a baby I have all the more reason not to go out, so I focus on the inventory I do have and work through my backlog of clothes that need cleaning and mending.
It is scary to have a business that doesn’t provide an essential service, so of course I worry about maintaining my business long-term. A lot of things are up in the air like wondering when I can go thrifting or attend an estate sale again and go about business as usual. But the fact that sales have increased and have remained consistent shows that people still want to support small businesses—even if it isn’t essential—and all I can say is I’m grateful for that. If people weren’t buying clothes from Etsy shops, they would be buying clothes elsewhere, where practices are less sustainable.
Like I mentioned before, my husband was furloughed and we had a baby all at the same time, and getting that notification on my phone that I’ve made a sale on Etsy is so comforting and reassuring. It’s also been interesting to feel more connected to my customers from all around the world. A little while ago, I had a customer reach out inquiring about a package that was taking a while to ship to her outside of the U.S. After some digging, we found out the country she was in was limiting incoming packages to only essential items so we had no idea how long it would be stuck before reaching her. Even though it was a huge inconvenience, the customer was so understanding and the experience reminded me that we’re all in this together (as cheesy as that sounds). Each correspondence with customers includes a “I hope you’re healthy and safe,” or something similar. With each package I send out, I really hope that it’ll bring joy to the receiver wherever they are during this time.
Creda Perilli, West Virginia, owner of SolePurseSuit:
Thankfully, my Etsy shop is not my only source of income. But it is about one-third of my income. Because of this ever-changing climate, many online shop owners find that diversification is the best way to find any semblance of financial security, meaning selling on various platforms, not just one. I have chosen not to go that route because I have late-stage Lyme disease and [with] all of the complications that come along with that, I can barely keep up with all of the work that is required to have a really nice Etsy shop.
[To find items,] I scour the internet, thrift stores, vintage boutiques, etc., on a regular basis, and I also have made many connections through selling vintage handbags for so many years, and that helps. Also, because I now have a well established client base, a lot of my time is spent trying to track down specific vintage handbag requests.
I thought for sure that my sales would drop drastically at the beginning of this whole fiasco. Instead, my sales actually increased a bit, which was a beautiful thing since my finances have plummeted due to so many things outside of Etsy. [I lost] one-third of my monthly income via my rental property, because the tenant lost his career. [This situation] keeps me from being as productive as I usually am. I am trying very hard not to worry too too much about all of this, but it is very hard not to. I am struggling to see my way out of this.
My Etsy shop is listed as a US-only shop, meaning that I sell only within the US (it is just less stressful, less complex for me this way). But a few times a year I will be contacted by someone from outside of the US who really wants a specific handbag in my shop that they have fallen in love with. Just a couple of weeks ago a really awesome woman from the Philippines contacted me. I found out, after spending quite a bit of time getting nowhere when trying to find a shipping price estimate for her from the US to the Philippines, that the reason why I could not get a price quote is because USPS, as of April 3, is no longer shipping to a VERY long list of countries, including the Philippines! Who knew? What will they think of next?
Jenny Zigrino, California, DollFace Productions:
Etsy has always been my side hustle. When I first started my store I was able to have it be about 70% of my income and as [my] comedy [career] got better, I used it less and less. However, due to the virus, my main source of income is pretty much dead [and] hopefully [Etsy] can become my main source.
The numbers for me have slowed down. But to be fair, with all of the drama of the virus, I have not been able to post as much as I should be. I’m currently moving to a bigger space which will allow me to pay more attention to my shop.
I know that what I sell are luxury items. If things get really bad, people [will opt] to buy essentials rather than 1960s shift dress. But I also think that people like to treat themselves, and even [in] a pandemic, people wanna look cute.