For anyone shopping on Queen Street West in the new wave of the 80s or grungy 90s who needed stylish, fashionable clothes on the cheap, there were few places like Black Market Vintage.
“Do you want a pair of ripped jeans?” says co-owner Bernie Chung. “You want army parade boots?” Fancy a cool rock t-shirt? Want your full set to go to a show?
“It’s still the place.”
That may still be the case, although apparently everything else around the black market has changed – not just the shops and clubs in Queen West, but also the vintage and second-hand clothing market itself. A form of gentrification is taking effect, as large thrift chains open their own more expensive boutiques and high-end department stores enter the scene. At a time when thrift shopping is back in fashion and prices are skyrocketing even in long-standing dens, Black Market is steadfastly doing what it has always done – selling old clothes really cheap – and, in the stride, this Toronto institution has even managed to expand.
One August day, a familiar sight greeted passers-by on the north side of Queen West, near John. The black sign with a white swirl and the words “Black Market” must have stopped some in their tracks. Wasn’t there already a Black Market Vintage right across the street?
Well yes. But now there are two within 150 meters of each other. The black market has existed in various incarnations since it was born out of the punk and art scenes of Queen West and Kensington Market in the early 80s. But downstairs at 256 Queen Street West was the place that most Torontonians associated with the brand.
Since the start of the pandemic, this space had remained empty with a different sign, the one that said “For rent”, on the door. But now there is life again at the bottom of those stairs.
“Black Market grew up here,” says Roy Levine, one of the store’s partners, along with Chung and co-founder John Christmann. “He belongs here.”
Animal Corpse Party
For those who haven’t been in a while, Black Market Underground (as it’s now called) still has shelves and shelves of jeans, jackets, sweaters, flannel tops and t-shirts featuring artists like Leonard Cohen, the Misfits and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The stereo is still screaming Metallica and Joan Jett. And, best of all, everything is still priced at $10 or less.
Officially, Black Market never closed. It’s been open since 2018 in a bustling spot, now called Black Market Upstairs, at 347 Queen.
A brighter, slightly less gritty cousin to the Underground, where prices can top the dozens, Upstairs is full of more unpredictable one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. Further west on Queen, another outpost, a “vintage premium” sister store called Public Butter, where designer footwear coexists with 2000-era Backstreet Boys and TLC merchandise, caters to a trendier Parkdale set.
The Upstairs store was originally intended to replace the Underground. When a home organization store called Solutions opened above their downstairs store in 2018, black market owners expected they would eventually be kicked out. After announcing their closure and beginning to sell shares at bargain prices – $5 instead of $10 – obituaries poured in from nostalgic Torontonians mourning her loss as another nail in the coffin of cool Queen West.
But the metro did not close. Instead, the partners moved to a month-to-month lease and continued to renew it for as long as the landlord allowed.
When the pandemic hit, they had no choice but to close the doors.
“It was too much to keep paying for an 8,000 square foot space, not knowing if we were going to bring in another client,” Chung says. “We didn’t know if it was going to be a year or three months, and we couldn’t go on without knowing.”
Meanwhile, Black Market has ramped up its web presence. He’s built a more detailed online inventory, posting unique pieces, rating their condition (a 1988 Sea World t-shirt and a ’70s Montgomery Ward micro-mini beach dress are each priced at $39.99 ). He started a blog, exposing topics such as the evolution of the band’s merchandise, how to care for vintage clothing, and the difference between “used” and “unsold”. And, as the lockdowns loosened, business picked up in the other two physical locations.
But this underground space, still vacant, beckoned me.
“I walked past it every day,” says Chung, who became a partner in the ’90s after working at the now-closed warehouse on Phoebe Street, known for what he calls its “gigantic wall” of overdyed jeans in a full rainbow of colors and styles. “I just kept staring longingly and there was no activity. There was no action. So we decided to take it over. »
It was easy to slip inside. The black and white spiral floor at the bottom of the stairs in the entryway is still there, although a little more faded than before (the plan is to restore it soon). Prior to its closure, the sprawling garage-like space had been home to other businesses, which also returned: Mad One Barbershop, Dead Dog Records and vintage “antique to kitsch” concept Ransack the Universe. They are all stores within a store – a kind of black market.
However, if Underground seems a little smaller than before, it is because an entire section is now a reception and sorting area for the three stores. This is where new stock is processed and inventoried before crossing the street to be washed in one of the tall stacks of washing machines and dryers in the Upstairs store.
“We have an amazing buying team, and they’re there Monday through Friday, hoarding loads and loads of merchandise,” Chung says. “Probably at least three full vans every day.”
This abundant stock is what allows partners to operate three sites without cannibalizing each other. The stores all exist at different points on the same music-fashion continuum, and the clothes are organized into one of these three piles.
Where these clothes come from is “top secret,” Levine says, but there are second-hand warehouses all over the GTA. Black market buyers also go to estate sales and sniff out wholesalers whose collections might be auctioned off or sold off.
“I was in London, Ont., a few months ago at a former army surplus distributor,” Levine says. “It’s been closed for 10 years, but they dusted off the lock on the door and said, ‘Come and pick whatever you want.’ It was like walking into a vault. A lot of it goes back to WWII, Vietnam, the Korean War. Sometimes you walk into these old warehouses that you never thought would hold what let it be in a million years.
Vintage vs Thrift
One of the big differences between a vintage store and a thrift store, Chung says, is conservation. In a thrift store, everything is in place, and it’s up to the customer to do the hard work of finding the gems among the dross. But with the second hand become very fashionable, face-to-face as well as online (on sites like Poshmark and Facebook Marketplace), the thrift store is no longer necessarily synonymous with antiquing.
Value Village, one of the largest for-profit thrift chains, has recently come under fire for raising prices and “gentrifying” used clothing, essentially excluding customers who could really benefit from a discount. Recently, this chain opened two local Value Village stores, a more upscale concept geared towards fashion lovers. Some have argued that switching to more expensive items — including those from high-end stores like Holt Renfrew — will keep less desirable used parts confined to donation bins. “Sustainable buying” is currently a buzzword in retail, but could its popularity kill its sustainability?
“One of the big things that drew me here was the circular economy,” says Levine, who recently started at Black Market after years in marketing and advertising. “How many hundreds of millions of pounds of clothing end up unnecessarily in landfill over the years? »
According to the sustainability campaign Waste Reduction Week Canada, this number is estimated at 10.5 million tonnes in North America each year, or 73% of all post-end-use clothing.
And while the black market can help get some of these things out of landfills, Levine says, “we’ve done our job.”
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