On your way in to Dollar-A-Pound, a man hands you a large white plastic garbage bag. You won't see him again until it's time to pay.
There are no racks or shelves here, just heaps of clothing. Old fluorescent lights hang from exposed plumbing, and washing machines as big as cars emerge from a sea of garments. Nothing comes between you and the clothes. You can sit in the midst of them; big through them, tossing them over your back; or just wade through the stew of fabric until something catches your eye. Other customers are bent over the musty piles, searching, holding sweaters or blouses at arm's length, occasionally pausing to try one on. There are no dressing rooms, just a couple of mirrors propped up against bare walls. When you have finished your scavenging, you haul your sack to the door, where the man weighs your bulging load. One dollar per pound. The man makes change from a roll of dog-eared singles. No cash register, no receipt. It is a no-nonsense ritual which repeats itself every weekend, starting at 5:45 a.m.
Meanwhile, on Newbury Street, stylish clientele slip into slightly-worn Levi's, and admire soft plaid wool jackets. At Strutter's, a clean, refined boutique on the trendiest street in the city, modern track lights illuminate brilliant white walls and the expensive hand-embroidered shirts which hang there. Salespeople serve as fashion consultants, hovering near dressing rooms, offering advice on how to coordinate outfits. Their customers admire themselves in full-length mirrors, examining the cut and style of a vintage piece. An earth-toned flannel shirt and matching hunting jacket are prominently displayed together as one of the many luscious combinations to be assembled from the racks. Pearly costume jewelry is carefully arranged in a long glass cabinet. Whenever the front door opens, the traffic of Newbury Street disturbs the tranquility of the bright store.
To most people, used clothing is something to be boxed up and sent to Goodwill. It's something that they never want to see again, a contribution to the poor. After all, second-hand clothing is dirty, full of holes, and it's worn by hippies, weirdos, and drunks on the street. It marks you as a second-class citizen if doesn't give you a disease.
Boston's used clothes industry, however, proves otherwise: there are gems to be found in this forgotten heap of hand-me-downs. "There is a stigma in American culture attached to buying used clothing, and customers are shocked that they find things they really like," says Kristie Russell of Strutter's.
In Boston, boutiques and basements alike offer a broad spectrum of apparel to a diverse market. But Bob Garnett, the founder of Strutter's, sees a clear distinction between the recycled clothing sold in the vast rooms of The Garment District, and the vintage clothing displayed in Newbury Street shop windows. "I consider vintage clothing to be clothes made in the 1940's and maybe 1950's. The jeans and the flannels and everything that is really popular today is just recycled clothing...it depends on how and when it was made," explains Garnett.
100% Recycled Raiments
Post-'50s chic, however, tends to fall under the "recycled," not the "vintage," label. Youth countercultures during the last ten years have created a new market for used clothing, and stores that provide the crucial accoutrements for their wardrobes have flourished. The 1970's revival, the punk style of the eighties, and the recent Seattle 'grunge' look have combined to move used clothing out of small, intimate boutiques and into opera- tions of a warehouse scale.
Located four blocks from the Kendall T stop at200 Broadway, Cambridge's Garment District andDollar-a-Pound are manifestations of the recycledclothes trend. And the history of the organizationtypifies that of the new generation of usedclothing stores appearing across the country.Founded in the 1940's, the company produced"wiping clothes" (i.e. rags) to smokestackindustries, such as sugar manufacturing. Thesweatshirt your dad outgrew in 1958 may have endedup here; it would have undergone a simple processwhich included sorting bales of discarded clothingfrom various sources, cutting them into 18-inchsquares, and adding chemicals to improve thefabric's absorbency.
A number of factors lead to the demise of therag industry in the mid-1970's: Cambridge waterrates rose, making high-volume washingeconomically unfeasible. Many of the smokestackindustries who were buying the rags shut down ormoved to Mexico, and to top it off, a 1973 fire inChelsea obliterated many of the businesses whichhad supplied the company with its raw materials.
The company survived, thanks to a Vermonthippie's arrival on the scene. He offered to buyall the flowered shirts from the '60s they had.His request made co-owner Bruce Cohen see a futurefor the struggling rag warehouse. "This stuff isactually worth something," he remembers thinking,and the company shifted to the recycled clothingbusiness: Dollar-A-Pound opened in 1980, and whenthe printing company upstairs moved out six yearslater, The Garment District was established.
Today the company receives clothes from acrossthe country, grades, sorts, and then sells them.The best merchandise is steam-cleaned and soldupstairs in The Garment District; the lower-gradeitems are sold in the basement at Dollar-A-Pound,and the rest is shipped out to wiping clothmanufactures or other used clothing stores acrossthe country.
The Garment District is by far the largest usedclothing store in Boston, with over 13,000 squarefeet of floor space. It is a clean store withdressing rooms and funky decorations, including apair of hanging motorcycles, a mechanical monkey,a bust of Elvis and a life-sized pink plastichorse. The Garment District caters to both youngand old, who generally learn of the store by wordof mouth.
Many of the clients flock to the Districtparticularly for its bargains. "About half of ourcustomers are more practical....they are studentswho see that they don't have to pay $50 for a newpair of jeans, they can buy them here for $10,"says Chris Cassel, the store's manager. Thestore's most popular section is the grungedepartment, where they sell worn-in jeans for $10,flannels for two to six dollars, overalls for$15-$20, and work jackets for five to 10 dollars.
The back of the store is devoted to clothesfrom the 1970's, as well as other vintage pieces.The store also has a large collection of suits andsweaters. Cassel admits that the high volume ofclothing, while overwhelming, offers just aboutanything for the customer who has everything. "Itis a store for people who don't mind searching alittle... you can really find anything here," hesays.
Downstairs, Dollar-A-Pound presents clothing ina much less-structured environment. The hours,too, are somewhat unorthodox: 5:45 a.m. to noon,on weekends only. There are no motorcycles ormonkeys here, but the prices are certainly muchlower. And a visitor can find anything here, aswell--as long as he or she doesn't mind digging,or having to wash that one-of-a-kind shirtdiscovered at the bottom of