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Q&A: Paisley Vintage curates thrift finds for Berkeley and beyond

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Rifling through clothes hangers to find secondhand ’90s t-shirts, classic Levi’s jorts, heavy-duty military jackets and cozy grandma sweaters can often be a shot in the dark.

So when Michael and Kevin Dong — now 26 and 27, respectively — opened up Paisley Vintage in downtown Berkeley in August 2021, they wanted to make the odds of a successful thrift less like getting lucky at the casino and more like a curated shopping experience.

Despite coinciding with the ongoing decline of brick-and-mortar retail stores after the pandemic, the brothers, who grew up near Concord and are currently living in Oakland, transformed a years-long hobby into a profitable day job — largely thanks to a dual presence in online shops like Depop, eBay and Poshmark.

As Paisley Vintage rapidly approaches its second anniversary of being open for business at 2181 Bancroft Way, just one block west of UC Berkeley’s campus, Michael Dong reflects on the business’ beginnings, how tech has been a boon for sales and what their patrons can discover on the racks.

Q: Headlines about physical stores stuttering seem to be never-ending. What made you both want to dive in and take the risk?

A: I feel very fortunate, because so many things just worked out in our favor. We started seriously considering the idea when our mom told us that we better stop joking about it around the end of 2020. We were not wealthy, but had some savings from our prior jobs, and unfortunately when the pandemic hit, a significant number of businesses around downtown Berkeley had to shut down — opening up many commercial leases that are regularly never available, especially pre-pandemic. When we found this spot, we just loved it. While we really couldn’t (predict our success) with everything that was happening at the time, the place had been vacant for almost a year and we got a pretty good discount.

We actually quit pretty solid, safe careers at engineering firms to do this, so we knew we needed to do it right. It was still a little bit scary, but I think part of it was that we’re not breaking the mold in terms of being the first vintage shop in Berkeley or anything. Growing up as East Bay kids, we were super familiar with Berkeley’s reputation and knew these businesses could succeed here.

Q: How did you two try to set Paisley Vintage apart from other existing thrift stores?

A: When I talk to young adults or high school students, which is the majority of our shoppers, I hear how secondhand shopping nowadays at Goodwill or Salvation Army is totally different than a few years ago. My brother and I used to go to four or five stores in the 2010s and could probably fill up the whole trash bag with clothing for $40 or $50 bucks. Now, you’d be happy to find only five to eight things for that same trip. And at the higher end of the spectrum, in the really curated vintage stores that you might find in San Francisco or Los Angeles, you might grab a t-shirt that’s $65 or $70.

I think that’s kind of a stigma with vintage stores; if you want to pay for a curated shopping experience, it’s going to be super expensive. We’re kind of in that middle ground, where it’s almost like a real life online shop. We wanted to create a store that’s already curated but isn’t a place where you have to break the bank to snag something you really like.

We don’t really shop at thrift stores anymore, but we’ll go to antique markets or swap meets at different flea markets all over the Bay Area. We’ve met a lot of friends in the vintage or secondhand clothing community that help keep a nice balance of different, unique things in the shop. I can only count maybe less than 10 instances where we actually sold the same item twice.

Q: How does tech play into this business model?

A: Our shoppers are always eager to see what new things we have in every day and week, so we always recommend checking out our Depop shop, where we have a couple thousand items listed on there. What’s cool is that if someone sees something on one of our platforms, they can actually come into the store and try it on — with no obligation to buy anything.

But that’s usually a tricky element with online shopping; even if you really like an item, you don’t know how it’s going to fit, and if you’re buying from small sellers, it’s not really easy to do a return or refund. Whereas with (only physical shops) you really don’t know. You could commit an hour-and-a-half inside a store and still not find anything.

When I used to shop on Depop, eBay, Grailed and all these secondhand sites with my roommates and friends in college, we used to spend way too much money, but it helped us find the type of styles we were looking for. Kevin and I tried to take that element of the experience with us. We’re very organized and give all of our items a SKU system number, so we can quickly find it and identify it if it sells on a single platform and remove it from the others. If we weren’t doing that, I think business would be a lot tougher.

Q: What does it mean to you to be able to operate in the Bay Area as a family business?

A: I just feel very fortunate that I get to do something I love with my brother. My sister’s pandemic hobby was making little crochet plushies and keychains, so we have a little display for her at the front shelf where she can sell those, and my dad collects little vintage toys that we sell throughout the store, as well. It’s a fully encompassed family business, which I really love.

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