Last year artist Maia Ruth Lee did a lot of thrift shopping out of necessity. She and her husband, Peter Sutherland, also an artist, decided during the pandemic to give up their apartment and art studios in Manhattan’s Chinatown, put everything into storage and move to Salida, Colorado.
“I love thrifting,” she said. “It’s something that has always been where I get inspiration for my artwork. I was getting plates, silverware, cups, mugs. But once we got our basics, my husband was like, ‘No more. We’re good.’ ”
So she opened an Instagram store called the Spiral, where she sells objects she finds.
“I thought maybe I could sell these interesting things,” she said. “It took off right away.”
Some items that Lee recently sold include an abalone pen holder with a felt base ($38, plus shipping), a set of yellow melamine containers ($28) and a turquoise-and-purple landline telephone ($32). The first customer to message her with a Venmo account and a ZIP code gets the item.
There is a vibrant marketplace for thrift store detritus on Instagram. Some have obvious purposes like drinking glasses, but many are in the realm of tchotchkes: decorative objects with no real purpose other than delighting the owner.
Tchotchkes can include the enduringly chic (a wooden trout from the 1950s, sold by a store named o.g.g.e.t.t.o), as well as Instagram chic (a Grecian-inspired cup and saucer set, $32 at Fig Library). Puppy Pillow sells a blue flower trivet for $26, and there’s a blue-and-white ceramic piggy bank from Theodora Home for $32.
Some items are examples of the aphorism that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, with prices that some may consider a steal and others, well, a bit ridiculous. For those with not enough used plastic products in their lives, Mysticmarketfl sells a yellow pitcher for $12.
These are not Salvation Army or Goodwill prices, where a glass may be $2; customers are paying a markup for the eye of the seller.
“I bought a red ceramic angel because it was grotesque and beautiful,” said Camille Okhio, an art and design historian who lives in Brooklyn, New York, of her first acquisition from the Spiral. “It’s now hanging in a corner of my living room. Maia understands nostalgia and plays into it in the healthiest way. She sells old cannons alongside cassette players, candlesticks and weird little vases.”
There are sites like Etsy, First Dibs, Object Limited, the Real Real and Depop, where sellers can list items of various degrees of fanciness.
“You can use all those apps, but nothing is as good as Instagram,” said Anna Gray, owner of Club Vintage, a roving vintage pop-up production company. “If you’re saving and categorizing by collection, you can have a pretty good list of vendors, so you can tell yourself, ‘I know I like this vendor for Depression glass and I know there’s something I will want later.’ ”
But even if most Instagram shoppers are not as organized as Gray, that’s all right, too.
“The impulsive aspect is important,” said Gray, who recently bought a set of green vintage tumblers from home wares shop Betsu Studio ($50, with shipping). “They just have to be cheaper than West Elm and Crate & Barrel, even if your pieces are more special and one of a kind.”
Blame the pandemic-era focus on our homes, which now extends to what Gray calls “the vision of the perfectly curated tchotchke area.”
“It’s the fastest way for someone who comes to your home to understand your psyche,” she added.
Part of the allure of these Instagram thrift stores is the thrill for people who lack the time or interest to do it themselves.
“You’re paying for someone to curate it for you,” said Gray, who sold a glass carrot from Instagram store Rosemary Home at a recent event. “Someone doesn’t always want to spend hours scrolling through Etsy to find a glass carrot.”
Tchotchkes can be a kind of design gateway drug.
“There is no limit to how many tchotchke things you can own,” said Annie Auchincloss, the home buyer for the MoMA Design Store in Manhattan. “It’s just really endless, what can become an objet. A beautiful postmodern design teakettle can be totally impractical to use but can be displayed on a mantel.”
“But I do wonder what people are seeing when they see a brown-and-yellow 1970s diner dinnerware set, and it sells moments after it posted,” Auchincloss added. “Is it how it’s photographed? Is this exactly what they’re looking for?”
Instagram purveyors are “a version of a mom-and-pop store,” she said. “I’m not sure if it was spurred by the pandemic or just Instagram individualism, but now our homes are representative of who we are and our own style. Our most basic items like drinking tumblers, serving plates, even our flatware — we don’t want to buy the CB2 or restaurant supply version. We want something that speaks to the personality that I’m infusing the rest of my home with, that singular story I’m creating.”
The many nods to cartoons (Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger glasses, $18 at Starlight Vintage Emporium); to so-called granny-chic or grandmillennial style (hand-carved duck figurine with red bow, at opalessence antiques); or to bygone items (so many plastic phones) all suggest a market for childhood nostalgia.
“It’s optimistic and cheerful,” Auchincloss said. “But then I also have this theory: It’s these economic, arrested-development millennials who have been hit by a recession and a pandemic and are in this perpetual state of childhood, returning to parents, being like, ‘Can you help me?’ ”
Selling on Instagram is a kind of entrepreneurship championed by young women whose lives have changed during the pandemic: moving or losing employment.
“I’ve been going to estate sales for 20 years,” said Amanny Ahmad, an artist and chef in Denver and the proprietor of Puppy Pillow. “Typically I’m the youngest and often the only woman. Now there’s a line out the door, and a lot are younger women buying things to sell for their Instagram stores.”
The competition has bred a bit of secrecy. “I don’t ever give up my specific sources,” said Emily Crist, who runs her store, 7 Layer Home, out of her apartment in Brooklyn. “I check Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, thrift stores. I do some estate sales.”
In one of her tightly guarded locations, she found a vintage teal Handi Holder carton handle, which she priced at $18.
“I was so excited; it’s such a quirky old thing,” Crist said. “Who needs a holder for their milk? I got a lot of comments over it saying, ‘My grandma used to have it’ or ‘This is so weird.’ ”
Crist doesn’t make enough from her Instagram store alone to support herself.
“Things have slowed down a lot since June,” she said. “Maybe people are out and about or maybe it’s the algorithm.”
Courtney Novak is beginning to channel her Instagram store, Theodora Home, into a different sort of job.
“I’ve been commissioned to find bigger pieces: furniture, vintage art, design consulting for interiors,” she said. “I want to be building a home business that is not just small objects.”
Another Instagram seller, Vanessa Kowalski, started her store, Fig Library, last November and has paid the rent on her apartment in Brooklyn quite a few times from her earnings. Two of her most loyal customers — Charles O’Leary and Meghan Herzseld — are best friends from high school and live together nearby. They take turns buying each other gifts.
“I bought a porcelain toilet that we learned is supposed to be an ashtray,” said O’Leary, a manager for an arts nonprofit. “I spent $100.”
Herzseld, who is a manager at an acupuncture clinic, said: “I like to collect a lot of low-priced things, like $20. When we get into $30, $40, I am questioning my need for more things.”
O’Leary, who has a “less rigorous set of criteria,” said, “I am imagining the hottest person that I want the love of, or trying to imagine my greatest critic looking at it.”
Herzseld took a more sanguine view. “Whether we’d love it or not, it becomes loving because it’s offered,” she said. She mentioned a porcelain dachshund they bought together from Fig Library.
“It’s currently sitting on magazines, holding our spare key, looking out the window,” she added with a sigh. “My beautiful object.”