Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Pants For the Cost of a Postage Stamp

Let me tell you how I got involved in the business. Alright. So my father was a tailor in the Middle East. He started buying used clothing and repairing it and selling it. And little by little he’d buy more, and eventually he started buying a huge amount, way too much for him to repair. He would buy clothes from the Europeans and sell them. He finally opened a store in Beirut, and found that the European clothing was getting worse and worse. He left his two nieces there to run the store, and he came to the U.S. in 1946 or 1947, and started buying used clothes here.

At that time the market was on the Lower East Side, in what’s now Chinatown, around Delancey Street. All the stuff he would buy, he would take to a very small warehouse on Cherry Street. My dad would tell me stories about how, when you needed to move bales, you’d go to the Bowery and give the drunks a couple dollars.

He’d take the clothes up and bale them and send them to Beirut and Lebanon, where his nieces would sell them. That business grew, until he bought a Free Zone warehouse in Beirut, which meant you didn’t have to pay import duty. They’d send merchandise there and sell it in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. In the mid Seventies there was a terrible civil war in Lebanon, and everything was actually exploded and destroyed.

In 1963, he finally bought a warehouse on the edge of Hoboken, where we still are today. I would go to work with him as a teenager in the late Sixties and early Seventies, and I eventually expanded the export business into West Africa and East Africa. That’s the logistics of it. Now I’m going to tell you the down and dirty of how it worked in those days.

People would donate their clothing to Goodwill and Salvation Army. Goodwill and Salvation Army would sell their ‘Number One’ products – the cream – in their own retail stores, then bale all that junk that wasn’t sold and give it to graders, like ourselves. A three-cents-a-pound pack of commingled used clothing, once you separate it out, sells for various prices. Children’s baby rummage at twenty cents. Cotton shirts at twenty-eight cents. Cotton pants at twenty-nine.

You’d grade, oh my god, a few hundred different items. One hundred percent cashmere sweaters were sold to Italy for reprocessing. For jeans, nowadays it’s all about torn this and torn that, but thirty years ago pair of jeans with a hole in the knees used to be cut up and sold to the Navy. You’d clean your machinery with these wipers. One hundred percent polyester wipers would go to computer places, where you can’t have any lint whatsoever, ok? The best kind of wipers were made from men’s underwear, called gansies. So there’s like, a hundred different grades of wipers.

The overseas people would distribute clothes to people who would take bales, put them on their heads, and take them over to a local market, which very often would straddle railroad tracks because they’re wide and long. And they’d open up bales and sell them. And after that, just the hardship of being in Africa – the sweating and the salt in the body – would just disintegrate the clothes and then they’d need more clothes. Our claim to fame in those days was we could deliver a pair of pants overseas for the cost of a postage stamp.

by Alice Hines, Vestoj | Read more:
Image: Victoria and Albert Museum.