Griffin Sendek | Multimedia Editor
Pittsburgh is a vibrant home for vintage fashion, as East Carson Street alone is home to two of the most comprehensive vintage stores that can be found: Three Rivers Vintage and Highway Robbery Vintage.
So, Pittsburgh City Paper annually conducts a readers’ poll to discover the “Best of Pittsburgh,” — and these top-tier vintage stores were decidedly missing from the list of winners.
The poll includes more than 200 nominees, placed into five large categories: goods and services; people and places; culture and nightlife; and food and drink. Within the goods and services category, crowned victorious by the readers of City Paper as the “best local place to buy vintage clothes” was Red White & Blue Thrift Store, followed by Avalon Exchange and Zeds.
While Red White & Blue is a lovely thrift store full of incredible finds for decent prices, a vintage store it is not. Avalon Exchange, a resale store with the occasional vintage item, does not have vintage as a focus. Zeds, coming in third place, is the only one on the list that better meets the criteria for the title of a vintage clothing shop.
The disagreements with City Paper’s consideration of “best place to buy vintage clothes” is in no way a point of contention between the paper and the shop owners.
“It doesn’t bother me — I’m actually amused by it,” said Scott Johnson, owner of Three River Vintage.
The whole situation is little more than an excuse to make fun of the more questionable choices for winners. However, it brings up the conversation of what difference the simple addition of a category could create.
“City Paper just needs to define the categories better, so it should be best ‘thrift store’ and best ‘vintage store.’ Not just ‘best place to buy vintage,’” Johnson said. “We can’t compete with a thrift store that gets their stuff for free, and doesn’t wash it or clean it or put the love into it.”
At a passing glance, it would be easy to amalgamate a thrift store with a vintage store. Both sell clothing that had previous owners, and both typically have older items, but among the Pittsburgh vintage clothing scene, that’s where the similarities end.
The most significant difference between the local thrift spots and vintage stores is the time, attention and care put into each item that goes on the shelf. At both Three Rivers and Highway Robbery, the curation process is by far the most important part of what makes their shops stand out — and puts their selection a rung above the rest.
“I think it’s good that a lot of different places carry vintage items,” said Kate Minton, the owner of Highway Robbery Vintage. “But I think proper vintage stores really spend a lot of time with their inventory, —we’re repairing things, we’re cleaning things, we’re reworking things to give them a new life.”
Every item is hand-selected, carefully cleaned and undergoes any necessary repairs. This ensures that the clothing sold is always top quality.
The careful curation and hand selection has created an entirely unique shopping experience. Three Rivers and Highway Robbery are stores full of vibrant color and life, with clothing that can’t be found anywhere else — everything is perfectly organized, run by people extremely knowledgeable of nearly every garment in the store. Shopping at these places is reminiscent of browsing through luxury boutiques — without the luxury prices.
“Red White & Blue is great, but [Highway Robbery Vintage] has a lot more curated finds, and I trust her quality,” Highway Robbery customer Emily Mull said. “You don’t have to really look for the good stuff — it’s just all good, so you just find whatever is your size and your style, and you can trust it.”
In a traditional thrift store, customers have to search for quality first before searching for style and size. In Pittsburgh’s vintage scene, the quality is always a given.
In the realm of fashion, the exact definition of “vintage” is up for debate.
Minton wholeheartedly disagrees with the assumption that if something is used, it’s vintage.
“They’re not vintage stores, you know, that specialize in the curation of vintage. I don’t have any problems with those stores and they do what they do very well, but I think no one is better at being a vintage store than a full-on vintage store,” Minton said.
“I think the term vintage means different things to different people, so I also could see it from that perspective,” she added. “I thought it was maybe a bit strange because it was hard to find vintage in those places, ‘cause they’re not specifically a vintage store.”
Perhaps next year, the categories for “Best of Pittsburgh” will be slightly adapted, giving some of the true best vintage stores in the city a fair shake. More important than a yearly poll, though, is taking a journey into Pittsburgh’s wonderful world of vintage fashion.