Hot Off the Curb: Rich Pickings in Brooklyn Bins

Among bags of old food, worn magazines and other refuse that line the streets of downtown Brooklyn in New York City, lone figures look for hidden treasures in the trash.

It is a Sunday evening in late February, the night before garbage collection: the best time to go out on the hunt. Walking along the tree-lined avenues, the picker is every so often drawn to a bag with what might look like rags to the undiscerning eye.

“This!” exclaimed Natalie Jacob, 24, as she begins to pull clothes out of the trash bag and lay them out on the curb near the streetlight so she can see them better. “This is what I am talking about!”

“You never know what you are going to find when you start looking,” she said. “Sometimes there is nothing but a few old books you can take to The Strand. Other times, you pick up a pair of Manolo Blahniks. It ranges from Forever 21 to Chanel!”Rummaging through the old clothes and towels, she extracts a pair of barely-worn emerald green J. Crew shorts, and a pair of crisp, white Banana Republic linen trousers. They are unmarked and in near-perfect condition, ideal for selling to one of the up-market clothing consignment stores on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The pants retail for $90, the shorts for $45. Together, they will make Jacob about $30.

Usually the reserve of garbage men, the destitute and the occasional foraging dumpster diver looking for free food, going through trash is a strange habit for a young woman to cultivate. But come nightfall, ladies with a keen sense of thrift and an eye for designer labels are cashing in on their neighbors’ cast-offs. Anything too good to resist swiftly finds a new home in the picker’s closet.

A weekend trip to the consignment store with a collection of clothes and shoes can net a picker several hundred dollars. Designer labels, current fashion or something that looks vintage make the most money.

For people like Jacob, who works a minimum wage job in an arts and crafts supply store but aspires to be a jewelry designer, picking clothes and accessories to sell provides extra income she can’t do without. She uses the money not only to buy her own clothes, but also for groceries, supplies to make jewelry and other expenses.

“If I didn’t do it, there is no way I could afford to live like this!” she said. “But I would probably still do it even if I didn’t necessarily need to. It is just too much fun.”

Though their lifestyles are not extravagant, the pickers interviewed find the additional money keeps their finances healthier and provides a far better wardrobe than they could otherwise afford.

A cream J. Crew sweater worth $180 and a pair of Jill Stuart pants that for a similar pair costs $498 claim pride of place in the closet of Anna Obikane, 24, a Brooklyn-based artist. They are beloved pieces of clothing and allow her to experiment with her style more than if she were on a cash-strapped budget.

Everything that isn’t kept by the picker is supplied to local vintage stores and clothing exchanges. It is a straightforward stoop-to-storefront system.The value of things that people throw away is shocking, said Jacob. Some of the few finds she has been unable to resist keeping include Christian Louboutin black pumps, barely worn with a retail price of $625 at department store Barney’s New York, and a Dries Van Noten skirt worth more than $500 at retail.

Vintage stores and exchanges don’t ask questions about where the items come from and they go straight to the racks for sale. At Beacon’s Closet clothing exchange, the items sell for about one-tenth the original price tag, and sellers get a 35 percent cut. At Buffalo Exchange in downtown Manhattan, women selling clothes merely lay out their wares on a counter for buyers to appraise, and all being well, the new price tags go on there and then.

In designer consignment stores, the criteria are stricter. Buyers want to know where clothes come from, which collection the pieces were originally in and the retail price. By doing a little research on the Internet, a picker can usually find enough information to pass as the original owner of a piece.

If the store takes the item, the larger payoff of 50 percent is worth the trouble. A Chanel necklace Jacob brought in to one store is being sold for $700 – that means $350 of pure profit if it sells. The necklace was worth even more money when it was bought – a purchase pickers cannot imagine just throwing away.

“I do sometimes wonder how people can give up such good pieces, but in the end it is my gain!” said Kimi Selfridge, 26, a Brooklyn-based photographer who has started to supplement her income and wardrobe by finding others’ cast-offs on the streets.

Her best street find was a pair of Frye men’s boots worth between $250 and $350 that she decided to give to her boyfriend as a gift rather than sell.

Most pickers don’t know one other, though they sometimes spot each other out on the rounds on trash nights. Every once in a while, the pickers meet their benefactors. Earlier this year, Jacob and Obikane found five bags filled with designer gear on a curb in Carroll Gardens.  The man who left it there happened to come out of his apartment, and they started talking.

“He just told me to take all of it, saying it was his ex-girlfriend’s and he wanted rid of it,” Jacob said. “I could hardly believe he was just throwing it out, but hey! I am not complaining! It was just amazing.”