REO Town's paradigm thrift

The Grammy award-winning song “Thrift Shop” may or may not be responsible for the fashion trend of secondhand store chic, but one thing is 100 percent certain: tags are a-poppin’ in Metro Lansing. In the past five years, the capital city has seen a flurry of vintage clothing and home furnishings stores pop up, and at least two more are coming within the next month.
 
Lansing’s historic REO Town district has been the hot spot for bargain shoppers looking to “take your grandpa’s style,” but the allure isn’t necessarily just getting top-dollar name brand clothing for pennies on the dollar.
 
“There’s something so powerful about finding something from the past that still has resonance in the present,” says Amy McMeeken, owner of Vintage Junkies in REO Town. “It’s a way to connect with history, to make it part of your life.”
 
McMeeken opened Vintage Junkies with a partner in 2014, about half a mile south of its current location on Washington Avenue. But after they split last year, McMeeken sought a more high profile location for the business on her own, albeit one that was slightly smaller — down from about 2,000 square feet to about 700 square feet.
 
“I did have to scale back on the some of the larger items in order to make this work,” McMeeken says. “But that’s forced me to keep focus. It also sort of led to me starting to work more with vintage clothing as well as local artists. Vintage Junkies has started to find its own niche.”
 
If Lansing had a thrift store district, then Vintage Junkies would be in the heart of it.  St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, located two blocks over, reopened in 2013 after a devastating fire two years earlier. The 23,000-square-foot building sells secondhand clothing, furniture, toys, housewares and art that have been donated. It also distributes those goods in emergency situations to Lansing-area individuals and families, and provides emergency financial assistance for utility payments.
 
Across the street from Vintage Junkies is Thriftique, a 7-year-old business that floated from Old Town to south Lansing before settling in REO Town in 2014. Owner/operator Atalie Buycks says she’s excited to watch this thrift store culture take hold in Metro Lansing. 
 
“I was glad to see Amy move in last year — we’re a good combination of styles,” Buycks says. “We’re just different enough from each other to create this allure for thrift shoppers. It’s great to see how this area is growing.”
 
Thriftique’s ware includes a mix of old and new housewares, small furniture, jewelry, and clothing for the whole family — babies, men, women and children. Buycks says she combs over her merchandise daily to see what’s selling, taking items off the floor when they’re not.
 
“I want to be competitive to (bigger retail) stores, but I want everything to function,” Buycks says. “I look for unique items, not just your ordinary Wal-Mart stuff. “
 
Buycks says she was inspired to get into thrifting by her grandmother, who introduced her to fashion when she was a little girl.
 
“Fashion was my passion growing up, but I couldn’t afford name brand items,” she says. “Thrift stores had them, though, and for pennies what they cost retail. After years of secondhand shopping, it became second nature, so opening a store made sense.”
 
Buycks sees herself as an educator of sorts, encouraging people to learn to not be so hasty when buying clothing.
 
“Buying a new outfit at the mall may be more convenient, but you’re probably going to spend too much money, and you’re buying something that you might see on someone else,” Buycks says. “When you shop in a thrift store, you’re expressing your individuality, you’re saving something that’s old, and you’re saving money. And if you do it regularly, it really pays off.”
 
Next door to Vintage Junkies, Trevor Hoover and his girlfriend Lindsay Leonard are putting the finishing touches on The Nook, a spinoff of the duo’s Junk in the Trunk upcycling venture. They’re shooting for a May 1 opening, and have to make some hard decisions about what’s going to be on the sales floor come opening day.
 
“Right now, our home is wall-to-wall with all the furniture we’re preparing for sale,” Hoover says. “It’s very hectic.”
 
In 2010, Hoover took over the Meridian Township Transfer Station recycling center, and launched his business, Reclaimed by Design. As more stuff came in, he said he and Leonard tried to be inventive with some of the bigger items, and in 2013 Junk in the Trunk was born.
 
When someone brings a desk, dresser or a table to the center — sometime even just scrap wood — Hoover and Leonard will pull it aside and refinish it. They’ve also recently branched out and started doing custom orders, including a Batman paintjob on an old dresser.
 
“Lindsay’s the real talent,” Hoover gushes. “She takes these things that people are just throwing away and uses her design powers to transform them into these new, vibrant pieces. And people love it.”
 
Junk in the Trunk primarily exists online, although Hoover and Leonard tour the flea market circuit and secondhand furniture fairs. At 350 square feet, The Nook is barely more than that — just a nook. But it’s a foothold in a bustling community.
 
“There’s something that’s just so desirable about owning something old that wasn’t mass produced and has a lot of usefulness left in it,” Hoover says. “Recycling and reusing old things is beneficial to everyone in that it keeps more (trash) from accumulating, but there’s also something to owning something unique. That’s what we take pride in.”
 
Hoover said he’s eager to take advantage of REO Town’s many festivals and fairs, but says he’s bummed that he just missed the neighborhood’s big annual event that would have connected him directly with his target audience — the third annual REO Town Thrift Store Gala and Burlesque Extravaganza. The costume party/variety show drew over 400 people to REO Town last weekend, and featured a mix of entertainment options. Even the venue itself fit the mold: a former thrift store that had been sitting vacant, practically begging for a second shot.
 
“The first year we did this, we assumed no one would show up, but now we’re in our third year and continue to be surprised at how well attended this is becoming,” says Ryan Wert, executive director of the REO Town Commercial Association and co-founder of the event. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
 
Wert said the idea started because of a habit he and his wife share: Whenever they visit a new city, they make sure to hit up the local thrift stores.
 
“It’s a weird way to see a city’s culture, through a specific lens,” Wert says. “It’s interesting to see what they’re getting rid of. Looking at one, we should throw a party. And I talked to my friend Autumn Luciano, and we realized it was a perfect fit for a burlesque show as well. And it grew from there.”
 
The event included performances by magicians, stand-up comedians, and musicians. There was beer by Sleepwalker Spirits and Ale, and food by Good Truckin’ Diner. Burlesque was obviously a big part of the evening, featuring performers culled from Luciano’s Decadence Dolls crew. Burlesque, of course, is steeped heavily in the vintage world, and has made an artistic comeback in recent years, but Wert thinks the aesthetic isn’t going away anytime soon.  
 
“I think there’s a certain do-it-yourself ethic in REO town that’s really unlike any other neighborhood in Lansing,” Wert says. “A lot of these buildings are owned and operated by the small business owners themselves, and many of these homes in the area are formerly condemned buildings that someone moved into, gutted, and made livable again. That reuse psychology exists here, and you’re starting to see that more and more.”
 
But Wert is quick to point out that the Thrift Store Gala and the area’s growing thrift store culture was a coincidence.
 
“A lot of things that are happening here are happening organically,” he says. “We started the Thrift Store Gala before any of the thrift stores were here, but the stars just aligned. Because REO Town is relatively up-and-coming, rents are still cheap, allowing a small business to survive and thrive. You can find some real diamonds in the rough here.”

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Allan Ross is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
 
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