Living the Dream: I Own a Vintage Clothing Store

How do you start a vintage clothing business? We asked the owner of Madison's beloved Good Style Shop to give us all the details!

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Madison WI
Photo Courtesy of Peter Benck

Welcome to Living the Dream, a Livability.com series about people who made their big dreams a reality - and the places and communities that made it possible. Do you know someone who's carved out a unique lifestyle or business in a small town or small to mid-sized city? We're always looking for great stories. Email our editor for a chance to be featured!

Name: Peter Benck  
Age:  31 
City: Madison, WI
Occupation: Owner-Operator of Good Style Shop

Madison WI
Photo Courtesy of Peter Benck

Tell us about Good Style Shop. When did you open and how has it evolved

In 2009, Good Style began as a tiny vintage clothing buy-sell-exchange shop and arts venue three blocks from the Wisconsin state capitol. Since moving to 817 E. Johnson in October 2012, Good Style Shop has grown into a collective with an eclectic view of cool, accessible vintage clothing and accessories. 

How would you describe the vibe and aesthetic of the shop? 

Each of our seven vendors collects their weekly finds and merchandises them on their work day. From '30s finery to midcentury cocktail, men's denim to UW-Madison throwback apparel, each member delivers a niche stash every day of the week.

Our sellers relate clothing to a way of living — personal style is seasoned with a lifetime of experiences and weird little fascinations. Over the years, our best-selling items stay tethered to contemporary cycles, but don’t exactly replicate them. A lot of items we sell serve to set off, or personalize someone’s modern wardrobe, but then again, current trends often borrow vintage silhouettes, styles and materials. We love to serve vintage diehards and vanguards alike. 

How did you get into the vintage clothing business? Was this something you'd always wanted to do? 

This wasn’t really something I set out to do; I just kinda wanted to keep a special thing going at first. The original owners (Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis of the psych-pop music duo Peaking Lights) had a tiny venue supported by some racks of vintage clothing. I helped them run the register from time to time. They started a family and were about to shutter the little spot before moving back to California, and I found myself in need of a big project. So, I wrote a business plan and borrowed a little bit of money from a local nonprofit incubator here in town, WWBIC. They secured the initial loan, and I reincorporated the shop and kept pressing on with it in February 2011. 

What did you learn along the way of bringing the shop to life? 

I’d say no matter how you spend your time in the beginning — aesthetics, promotion, sourcing, gathering volunteers, writing up budgets — if it’s constructive to your overall effort, it’s time well spent. My personal stumbling block had always been worrying about effectively using my time and opportunity costs. Not to be too essentialist, but it all comes down to selling cool stuff to cool people. If you like what you’re selling, you get to know it intimately over time. Your confidence begets your expertise and pretty soon your store is a valuable resource for consumers upstream (resellers, pattern makers, wardrobe) or downstream (end users or classic casual customers). 

What does a "typical" work day look like for you? 

From early on, I had day jobs to sustain the business. So in the margins (weekends and evenings), I’d check in with the employees and do my admin stuff and source merchandise on a semi-regular schedule. Since 2017, I was able to leave my day job in fashion e-commerce to do this full time. My day starts late and ends late. I go on the hunt for stuff about twice a week. Planning, budgets and administration stuff takes another few dedicated 8-hour days in the week. 

What's your favorite thing about being based in Madison? Do you feel supported by your local community? 

Madison stays fresh. A lot of that has to do with the transient nature of a college town, but mostly it’s because the city is open-minded. People are generally tolerant and accepting of others’ novel ideas and niches here overall. Burnie’s Rock Shop up the street just celebrated its 50th anniversary. The harp store, Spruce Tree Music, a few doors down is another neighborhood fixture. It’s a testament to so many favorable local conditions and protections for small business here, that these little oddities are still here.

In my personal experience, the Midwest has the best vintage shopping in the country in terms of price, quality and really special pieces. Do you agree, and why do you think that is?

I can absolutely agree with that, insofar that I developed my own recurring festival, Midwest Vintage Flea, to draw some more attention to the quality of Midwestern vintage clothing. In 2016, I really wanted to get Madison on the map for vintage clothing once again. When I moved here, there were about six or seven vintage clothing stores in the downtown central business district, all of which have closed due to the nature of real estate development and the associated costs. In order to get a whole new wave of young people who hadn’t really been exposed to the inherent charm of a technicolor closet boutique vintage clothing store (the kind in which I’d been initially inspired by all those years ago), Midwest Vintage Flea was founded more as a campaign for the niche retail ‘industry’ here as a whole, rather than just my store. Ever since, we host that event twice per year at a rotating venue in the city limits. Fall 2019 included 27 vintage clothing vendors from five states.

You're obviously very involved in the vintage clothing community around the Midwest — how would you describe the community, and what are some of your favorite events you participate in?

There are always new pop-ups and recurring events here in Wisconsin and the adjacent states. The nature of Good Style Shop is that of a mini-pop up market in itself (seven vendors selling out of one store, each merchandising their wares on a dedicated day of the week), so we tend to bring the party to us as with Midwest Vintage Flea. However, in Madison there is an event called Good Day Market hosted by a retail-focused incubator/co-working space One-One Thousand here in town. 

As for vintage in Wisconsin more broadly, we were thrilled to bring Locals Only Vintage (a shared multi-vendor vintage space in De Pere) to our last event. Milwaukee has a recurring pop-up market of vintage and handmade things called One Trick Pony that I like to shop from time to time.

What advice would you give to someone who was interested in opening a vintage boutique? 

Just get started in any way you can. Self-imposed deadlines can be helpful, too, but really just get out of your own way and make a first step. Sometimes that’s building a social media following, a robust online marketplace profile or pop-up vending. Any combination of those are a good pathway to finding your front door. Real estate rentals are a constantly moving target, so don’t worry if your dream space isn’t the first space you start off with. Soon enough you’ll have the clout to have your pick, and if rental costs explode as they always do, it’s up to you to push back, find a new place or outright purchase a property. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Winona Dimeo-Ediger is the editor in chief of Livability.com. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Country Living, National Geographic and NPR. She lives for weekend road t... more

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Tue, 11/19/2019 - 16:58