Against all odds, business has been good the past few months for Laura Weiszer.
Many of Philly’s small businesses have been in financial freefall since the start of the stay-at-home order. But vintage furniture store Betsu Studio in Kensington has seen a 30% jump in sales from the months before quarantine began.
The top seller? Chairs.
“I made a joke about it when quarantine first happened, but 80% of our sales are all seating,” said Weiszer, the shop’s owner. “So I think definitely it’s because of that, people are just stuck at home.”
Several local antique stores and secondhand furniture shops told Billy Penn they’ve seen a big jump in online orders. The coronavirus-induced recession hasn’t stopped these vendors from successfully peddling their wares — especially the stores that had already established a robust online community in the before times.
Jinxed Philadelphia has four brick-and-mortars across the city. With all of them currently closed due to shutdown orders, the Instagram account has taken over as the top selling location. it has nearly 70,000 followers, and items often sell within hours of being posted. Sometimes they vanish in just 30 minutes.
“We’re posting about 10 or 12 times a day, which is probably up about 50% from normal,” said the shop owner, who goes by Mike Supermodel. “The change is pretty drastic.”
Problem is, the influx isn’t sustainable. During the pandemic, there’s no opportunity to source new merchandise.
“Whenever we do go back to normal,” Mike said, “whatever that looks like, we’ve been depleting our inventory and our back stock this whole time.”
The question for many shop owners has become, how do they make their merch last through quarantine? And if they can’t, how do they pivot to stay afloat?
Leaning into social media more than ever before
There’s likely never a good time for a pandemic. But the changing face of the secondhand furniture industry has positioned some of Philly’s antique stores well for a situation like this. Many of them were getting online and building loyal followers long before the coronavirus shut down in-person shopping.
Betsu, the shop with the 30% increase, actually started life as an Etsy shop in 2017. About a year ago Weiszer opened her Kensington warehouse for storage and shopping by appointment only — but in-person perusing has never been essential to operations.
“The idea was never to have a brick-and-mortar shop,” Weiszer said. “People can visit the warehouse where things are stored, but the aim was always to be totally shoppable online.”
Same with Tawfeeq Gaines, who owns the Brewerytown secondhand shop Search + Rescue General Store. He first started selling individual vintage items as a passion project in 2009, and didn’t open his store at 31st and Glenwood until last year.
Gaines has two Instagram pages for Search + Rescue, each with a few thousand followers, and he’s active on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.
“When things like this happen, I don’t have to reintroduce myself,” Gaines said. “People can already find me online. That work that we put in on social media, that was an investment that prepared us for something like this.”
That doesn’t mean his process has been easy. Gaines doesn’t keep a ton of merch on hand. Without the opportunity to bring in new materials, he sold out quickly.
Sourcing from local makers and adding groceries to the store
Normally, sourcing merchandise for a curated secondhand store means visiting auction houses and estate sales. Sometimes stores accept donations from strangers.
In a pandemic, that’s become all but impossible.
If he had access to unlimited mid-century modern dressers to sell on Instagram, Mike from Jinxed said, then maybe he could make up for lost business. But without any new merch, he’s limited by what he’s got in his backlog — and that’s not enough to pay the bills.
“I laid off the whole crew, and I just rotate one person in a day to help me with Instagram,” he said. “It’s not enough to keep the whole thing floating and help us through to the other side.”
The situation has required some creativity. Gaines has turned Search + Rescue into a general store, selling everything from masks to pickled veggies, beard oils and dry goods. Doing that, he’s been able to raise his profit margins enough to break even — “whereas if I didn’t make that decision, I would’ve really been doing badly,” he said.
And Weiszer’s been stocking Betsu Studio with more handmade items from local makers, which can be replaced more easily than vintage furniture. But she knows the smaller items can’t sustain her forever.
“Three months ago, the warehouse was full,” Weiszer said. “Now it’s not. Eventually it’s going to catch up with me.”