A veteran of vintage

Tatters general manager Doug Derham looks back on the store’s 30 years in business

Selling used is nothing new for Doug Derham.

He’s been doing it for nearly three decades at Lyn-Lake vintage retailer Tatters, which turned 30 this month. Since taking a job working Sundays at the store back in 1981, Derham, now 60 and general manager, has seen fashion come, go and return.

“Now we’re selling stuff that we were selling when I first started,” he said. “Things like skinny ties are back. And the flat-front skinny pants. In the ’80s we were selling ’60s, but now it’s like an ’80s thing because in the ’80s a lot of it was a copy of the ‘60s.”

Wearing an old pair of Levis 501 jeans, a red, yellow and green western shirt of the same brand, an unlabeled button-up mohair sweater and a black wool Kangol cap, Derham sat in the chilly unfinished basement of Tatters earlier this month to share a bit of the store’s history with the Southwest Journal.   

“Everything I own comes from here except for socks and underwear,” he said of his daily attire.  

Here are some highlights from the interview:

SWJ: Take me through a brief overview of the store’s first 30 years.    

Derham: Well, Marc Luers, he’s the owner, and he opened Tatters on March 1, 1980 at a store at 24th and Hennepin.

He was involved with Ragstock for a number of years before that, as one of their buyers and he set up some of the retail stores and supplied the retail stores for a few years and then decided to strike out on his own. …

He was doing it a little bit differently. We buy by the piece, even back then we bought by the piece, rather than by the pound. …

It was sort of like getting kind of the best of Ragstock where you’re getting good used clothing at a decent price, but not as exclusive as you might say the real vintage stores were. We also keep a pretty good stock of new, especially the accessories.

So, 24th and Hennepin was there for about two years and we decided to expand a little bit. We moved to the Herkimer spot [at 2922 Lyndale Ave. S.]. We were there from 1982 to about ’94.

During that time we hooked up with [local DJ] Kevin Cole who introduced us to music so we built a record shop on the second floor of the building next door. And along with that in order to expand a little bit we opened up a store on the West Bank that did half records and half vintage clothing.

As much as I love Kevin Cole, it nearly put us out of business, just because we were selling vinyl right at the time when CDs came on the scene and although vinyl is very hot right now, at the time it just ruined the vinyl business. Then we had that horrible snowstorm in ’91. That shut down the West Bank store and we couldn’t even reopen. So we hunkered down back here [on Lyndale].

In the mid ‘90s, the Japanese became very interested in American vintage and sort of defined it. We did ton of wholesale business with the Japanese. They showed most of us in the business what vintage was, what a vintage pair of Levis was compared to a modern pair.

Right about the time that we lost our lease next door, the Japanese business just fell off.

Just by luck, this space came up for rent. … It was like a no-brainer. It was right next-door. That was right around ’95 or ’96.

And that’s about it. It’s taken us a while to get used to not having all that wholesale business. We’re strictly retail now.

SWJ: How does Tatters get its merchandise?

Derham: We buy most of it from rag houses … so we’ve gone to rag houses out of state and we buy by the piece, but we buy huge quantities.

SWJ: What are rag houses?

Derham: You see out in the world these places with collection boxes. What they do is they will sell to a rag dealer and that’s like an old, old business and they call it rags because they virtually turn everything into rags. …

So in the early days we would go to these rag houses … and we kind of taught them how to sort stuff for us. We would go and break them open, a 150-pound bale and go through that. That’s one way that we get our stuff. …

We still buy from rag dealers, still by the piece.

SWJ: Where are these places?

Derham: They’re all over the state, all over the country. For years we went to a place in Nebraska and now we’re down in St. Louis a bit, or on the border in Texas. There’s a lot in Texas.

SWJ: Is that a fun part of the job?

Derham: It’s exciting to go there and look. It’s getting hard on my 60-year-old back, but it is fun to dig through stuff and find that one golden piece that maybe doesn’t pay for the trip, but it certainly makes the trip worth it. It’s just like, wow, here’s something that’s 60 or 70 years old and it’s in perfect shape.

I don’t know what to compare it to. You’re going down there and picking by the piece your whole inventory. So say you run into a good little run of vintage T-shirts. If you can get a couple hundred, that’s a really good day.

SWJ: Is the cost of the trips a big factor in pricing?

Derham: Certainly, we have to make the trip worthwhile. You’ve got the flight and hotel and if you’ve got to rent a car, you rent a car and you have to feed people when you go, so it adds up quick and you do have to factor that into what you sell something for.

SWJ: What else goes into pricing?

Derham: If it’s a really nice vintage piece, it has a really nice wash to it, and a really nice design on it, then we might price it a little bit more. And then a brand name might come into it. …

A men’s long-sleeve shirt will be $18, a blouse $14, skirts $16, dresses $18. That’s our target, but nobody’s going to come in here and get a ’40s dress for $18. You get a really nice old prom dress and we can still be cheap by selling it for $65 or $75. If we have a Hawaiian shirt from the ’40s or ’50s, then you could expect maybe a $300 or $400 price tag. I just watched one go on e-bay for $500. …

We’ve got that average pricing we’re going for for any one item, but if it’s something that’s really good, really vintage and it’s got the right label, than it’s more. If we get it back and it’s ripped or has a button missing or a stain on it, then it’s less.

SWJ: What styles and eras are you looking for?

Derham: Well, you’re always looking for the unusual. Say someone takes a denim vest and it’s got patches all over it. Then it’s better than just a denim vest. Something that’s a little folk art maybe is what it is. But I think we’re just always looking for our basic items. Shoes and boots is one thing we’re doing a lot of now. …

Seventies is probably what’s most available right now, which really describes what you can sell and a lot of the ‘80s fashion is coming back so we’re looking for that a bit more. Sixties stuff, that’s still sort of available.

SWJ: Would you say vintage has become mainstream?

Derham: So many people have copied the look. Gap is famous for it. …

It would just infuriate me, it still does every once in a while, when I’m going through [clothes] and I just see this perfect denim something and I pick it up and it’s the Gap. Not that that’s bad because now vintage Gap is pretty good.

But yeah, it’s gone mainstream. Target even, they have their designers doing retro-look stuff.

SWJ: Does that make business harder for you?

Derham: It does keep you on your toes. … I think right now, especially younger kids, they’re just getting wise to Gap and all that stuff. They’re coming here more often. Our demographic is getting younger. Because kids, they don’t just want a carbon copy of something half the other kids in their school have. Now they can come here and get it original. And it’s cheaper.

I think competition is good.

SWJ: Even competition with the many other vintage shops in the area?

Derham: Yes. We’re all going after the same thing, so there is that competition, but we also work together. I’m amazed at the number of times that somebody comes in and says I was just at Ragstock and they suggested I come here for this. Or Via’s or B-Squad or Lula. There’s a sense that there’s a bit of a community — that we’re all in it together.

SWJ: Why have you stuck with Tatters for so long?

Derham: For one thing, Marc’s a fairly generous guy. Nobody’s getting rich here by any means, but it’s allowed me to buy and maintain a house.

And it’s interesting. Every day we deal with interesting people. Our regular customer base are the same people, not so much anymore because I’m 60 now, but they’re the same people I would run into going out at night. Not to say they’re my friends, but they’re like my contemporaries, or they were.

So it is kind of like dealing with your friends. The music community and the artist community, that’s our customer base I think.

SWJ: What has kept Tatters successful?

Derham: I think once this trend started, even before Tatters, when people started realizing there’s good stuff in old goods, I think that has just maintained throughout the years.

I think there’s something about the demographics of cities now. You’re just getting a lot of young, single people living in the cities and they’re looking for an inner-cities look. They live here. They shop here. I don’t think that was very true in the ’50s and ’60s. Maybe it started a little bit in the ’70s. …

And Marc is stubborn and he wouldn’t give up on this place. Even through the worst of it, when they dug up Lyndale. … I think we were 40-percent off at one point, but fortunately we managed to get through that.

And at the same time, as much as possible, we’ve tried to keep our prices reasonable because we know the people we’re dealing with. Maybe if we were in L.A. or New York we could get three or four times the price, but here we’re dealing with people who don’t have a bunch of money.

A lot of people sort of think of us as a costume shop. People come here all the time for ’70s parties, ’80s parties and bowling parties.

SWJ: Do you think the store will be around another 30 years?

Derham: I don’t think that there’s anyone beyond Marc and I who will take it over. I could be wrong, but right now Marc is half out of the business, he spends a number of months in Arizona and I don’t know if it’s true, but the younger folks that are working here have said if I’m not here they don’t want to be working here.

I don’t know if there’s anybody next who is willing to take over, so it might go as long as I can last or as long as Marc can last. But I’ll be here as long as I can.