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Vintage Item Dealer Finds Career, Beauty in Selling Old And Forgotten Objects

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Meg Maclean
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Spokane Public Radio

In a warehouse on east Riverside Avenue sits a stockpile of treasures of days passed. The walls and floor are lined with old military uniforms, candle holders from the 19th century and art of every kind. This is local vintage item seller Jon Swanstrom’s warehouse.

There is a sweet smell that permeates there, like that of a thrift store or grandparent’s wardrobe.

“Sometimes a pile of old t-Shirts that have been sitting in a drawer for many years and there’s a certain smell,” Swanstrom said. “It’s like ‘Oh, I like that smell.’ " 

Today, Swanstrom or “self-employed weirdo” as he calls himself, is clad in black Converse All-Star shoes, a graphic T-shirt and a fedora hat. He blends in well at his warehouse. His black cat Zelda perches herself next to him.

The Spokane native has been buying and selling vintage items for decades. Swanstrom has had an eye for the old and forgotten since he was in his teens.

“I moved into this house up on the north side, and it had a garage, and I went out to the garage and there was a trunk, and I opened the trunk and there’s this old flight jacket from World War II, and I took it downtown to this vintage store and the guy gave me like, 400 bucks for it, so I was like ‘Okay, there’s money in this garbage,’ “ Swanstrom said.

Thirty-five or so years later, Swanstrom splits his time selling clothes at Chosen Vintage on west Main Avenue and higher end items on EBay or other online services.

Swanstrom has owned his own stores around Spokane at different times in his life, but he says selling items through a shop is much easier than being the head honcho.

“Having Chosen as an outlet is really cool because I don’t have to physically be there and work there,” Swanstrom said. “I just have to bring it down a couple times a week, put a price tag on it, and then at the end of the month, collect the check.”

Swanstrom’s buyer base includes shoppers at Chosen Vintage and clients in Seattle and Portland, but he says that he also has buyers overseas. This all started when he met a student at Gonzaga. It was an English as a Second Language (ESL) student from Japan. Their relationship has resulted in monthly visits from Japanese clients who travel thousands of miles to buy stuff from Swanstrom.

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Credit Meg Maclean / Spokane Public Radio
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Spokane Public Radio
Jon Swanstrom's warehouse is filled to the brim with various vintage items. His clients even come overseas to buy from him throughout the year.

“Like there’s a couple guys from Tokyo that come here and they just buy classic, vintage men’s clothing," Swanstrom said. "You know, like this is a 30s vintage sweater, these are 501’s from the 60s. You know what I mean? Just like classic stuff like that. Then was a guy who came in two weeks ago who’s really into the 90s stuff, and he’s buying big, graphic, Simpsons-type stuff. You know, the big prints.”

Swanstrom says a lot of his items come from estate sales, people who seek out his expertise in selling specialized items and the Goodwill outlet.

“Finding the stuff is the fun part, I’m not super into selling it,” Swanstrom said.

Swanstrom has found everything from Nazi uniforms and WWI airplane engines, to old pairs of Levi’s Jeans. In some cases, a single pair can sell for $3,000. However, T-shirts are what really sell.

“Because it’s a statement they wanna make," Swanstrom said. "And it’s unusual because there’s not a lot of similar ones, and you know, if you go to a store now and buy one off a rack, there’s 20 more behind it. So I think people feel that they are being different when they find a cool t-shirt.”

And Swanstrom has cool t-shirts, from the eruption of Mount St. Helens to Grateful Dead concert tours. 

 

“I mean, in a lot of this stuff there’s a lot of art behind it,” Swanstrom said. “The aging of some things is just beautiful the way it looks, you know? They don’t make stuff like this anymore.”