Good times for repair shops and secondhand stores
Economizing Americans look for ways to stretch the useful life of everything from shoes to computers.
Americans are rediscovering the fusty fix-it shops and unassuming secondhand stores on their local Main Streets. These businesses, once the left-behind nooks of gentrifying downtowns, are busier than ever amid an economic slump that's emptied out neighboring bistros, boutiques, and day spas.Skip to next paragraph
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On a Saturday afternoon in downtown Alameda, Calif., Gabe Morgan waits in a line of customers at The Watch Hospital to get a timepiece fixed. The economic downturn has made him think more about repairing than buying new.
"For the first time in I don't remember how long, I got some shoes repaired," says Mr. Morgan. He dug out three pairs from his closet for resoling. "I wanted to save some money."
For decades, repair and reuse have been fading ethics, upheld mainly by environmentalists and people on the economic margins. As hard times drive these values back into the mainstream, champions of reuse caution that some government policies and business practices threaten to set back the movement.
"We were a mend-and-make-do society, and we have completely changed. We don't fix anything anymore. We use, throw away, and buy more," says Bruce Buckelew, a former IBM engineer who has repaired more than 30,000 computers and put them into public schools, nonprofits, and low-income households in Oakland, Calif. "The worse the stock market gets and the bleaker the job market, the better for reuse, actually."
Some early signs:
•Sales increased year-over-year this fall at 74 percent of secondhand stores surveyed by the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS). Ninety percent of the stores saw an increase in new customers.
•Business is "booming" at the estimated 7,000 shoe repair shops in the US, according to John McLoughlin, president of the Shoe Service Institute of America. "At some shops, you have to wait three or four weeks, which ordinarily is just unheard-of," he says.
•Shops around California's Bay Area – from vacuum, bicycle, and watch repair to cobblers and secondhand clothing stores – report sales growing or holding firm in one of the toughest times for retailers in recent memory.
"This week has been really good," says Anne Hartford, owner of Maribel, an Oakland store selling used designer clothes. She hasn't seen a drop in sales from the previous year, while two of her friends who run other businesses have been forced to close shop recently.
Though many thrift stores and secondhand shops are thriving, they nonetheless operate on the economic margins. That can be a difficult place to be when it comes to regulation. The federal Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that goes into effect Feb. 10, for instance, requires businesses that sell children's products to prove that their wares meet safety standards for lead content. Initially, that included resale, thrift, and consignment stores, who objected on grounds that they could not afford to test all the items from all the manufacturers whose products landed on their shelves.
The stores would have had "to clean out their inventory [of children's products] because they have no way of proving that it's below the lead standard," says Adele Meyer, NARTS executive director.