Practicing

Before I gamble a lot of hard-earned money to buy designer furniture, stuff it into a steel box, and ship it from Denmark to Victoria, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure I know the market.

Can I sell this table? This chair? For how much? To whom, in what condition, and how long will it take? You can't run a business without knowing, and you can’t know without doing it.

coffee grinder
It's a coffee grinder!

I want to have my container here in early summer, which leaves some time to learn. And so on a rainy Sunday morning in January, Christina and I spent a day getting educated. Or rather, I got educated, and Christina, who knows everything already, came along for the show.

She met me on the corner outside her house at 8:30am. We went first to the Legion on Gorge Rd. There was a flea market there for 2 bucks entry. We went through the maze in 20 minutes and I found a wooden coffee grinder. Christina said “Cat,” and pointed out a brass cat.

“Cat,” I agreed. We pulled our hoods up and went back to the car. There was a bit of weather that day, so I took the Malahat slow. The conditions were perfect for getting the car into a hydroplane then blowing off the mountain on the next gust of wind. We survived, and drove on toward Chemainus. When we got to Cassidy I said, “Isn’t Chemainus before Nanaimo?” Cassidy is the last town before Nanaimo.

“Oops,” said Christina. The conversation must have been too good. We did a U-turn and headed back.

In Chemainus there’s an antique mall where people rent out floor space to sell their stuff. I found some Pyrex mugs with green polka dots. My phone told me that with the full set, including the punch bowl that comes with them, this design is quite desirable. However, the mugs were selling for seven dollars each, and there was no punch bowl in sight. The seller knew what they had already.

punch mugs with polka dots
I really love the polka dots though.

The thing about Pyrex is that a lot of people are super into it, often the same people who are into Danish modern, and it’s easy to fit a lot in a small hatchback. Also, I kinda really like it myself. I’ve spent more time that I’m comfortable to admit admiring the Pyrex section in Wal-Mart. I was shocked to learn that people collect it.

We poked into one other shop on the high street there, but there was little Danish modern and nothing underpriced.

autumn harvest mixing bowl
This design is Autumn Harvest, circa 1973. People will fight over it if you can find the nesting bowls.

There was a table in Campbell River that I wanted to see, and the owner was going to drive up to Parksville to meet us at 1:00. We still had plenty of time, so we went to the Value Village in Nanaimo. The furniture there was entirely cheap junk, but I found some neat Pyrex as well. Christina pointed out a square blue measuring cup and said it was a neat thing that I could sell. “You sure?” I asked, turning it over.

white mug with measuring stick for scale
The teacher's staffroom mug. They remind me of my childhood.

“Mmhmm,” she said. I didn’t believe her and left it. The following week, when I was trying to sell that day’s finds, she pointed out an identical one in a shop in Victoria. It was selling for triple the price of the one at Value Village. So it goes.

I found some mugs and a bowl I liked and bought them. A few minutes of research on my phone verified that some mugs were worthless, recent, Chinese Wedgwood mugs, not vintage, unique, made in Britain Wedgwood. I left them as well and we continued to Parksville.

generic mug
This is nothing. Absolutely nothing.

We found our sellers hanging out in their truck in a Starbucks parking lot. Christina had been talking shit about the table I wanted to buy all the way here. “It’s ugly,” she said. “In fact, it’s fugly.”

The table was not Danish modern, but a Canadian imitation. It was nowhere close to as elegant as what the masters make, and even though the line it came from had some very collectible pieces in it, this was not one of them. It’s a round end table with a teak top and a vinyl-wrapped column, by RS & Associates of Montreal.

I disagree that it was fugly – however, it wasn’t a statement piece that would make any room come alive. It was just a table. It would fit in somewhere.

A man got out of the truck and took the table out of the backseat. “Did you look up this designer?” he asked. “I’ve seen their tables selling for 3 or 4 thousand online. I even had an offer for $125 for this one last week. Eighty is a real bargain.”

large rs associates table
Some would say it's worth 3k. It's not the one I bought.

“We’ve got some other teak stuff too if you want to look,” called his wife from the front seat. She didn’t get out of the truck, just twisted back between the seats. She showed me a platter – teak, yes, but made in Thailand and nothing interesting about it except the wood.

“So why didn’t you sell the table for $125?” I wondered. I’ve seen the tables he mentioned. They are by the same designer, but they are not the same design.

They answered at the same time, saying a lot of words that included “Victoria” and “long drive”. I couldn’t sort them out.

“How about the Pyrex?” I asked. There were a couple of bowls hiding under her raincoat on the far seat.

friendship pattern pyrex mixing bowl
The Friendship Birds pattern.

“They’re worth forty each, easily,” she said. “This design, the Friendship Birds, is really rare. You want them?”

“Can I have them with the table for eighty?” I asked. I was having a moment of self doubt.

“No way,” she said. “These are really rare. You can sell them for sixty, I bet.”

I squinted at her, but agreed on a price. I don’t know, I liked the birds. Maybe somebody else will too.

That week I restored the table, which involves stripping off the finish with a nasty chemical, sanding, oiling, resanding and reoiling until it was smooth as satin. On Saturday I went around to the shops.

Shirley at Easy Livin’ glanced at a picture of the table on my phone and gave it a hard no. I looked around her shop quickly and saw nothing that looked like my Pyrex.

top of refinished rs associates table

Roshan was keeping the shop at Trig Vintage and told me to come back and talk to Ian, the buyer, tomorrow.

The Fabulous Find is too high end for this table, so I went to Charmaine’s and introduced myself to Charmaine herself for the first time. She agreed to see it and the Pyrex.

Charmaine admired my refinishing job – nice to see that pay off – and agreed on a price for the table. Not much profit for me, but right now I’m just trying stuff. Breaking even is okay.

refinished teak end table by rs associates
I got it so silky smooth.

On Sunday, Christina was free again, so I picked her up and we went back to Trig Vintage. Ian sniffed at the Pyrex and had no interest in the coffee grinder. Roshan was next door looking after the Fabulous Find that day, so we stopped in to say hello and commiserate.

“You could try Country Comfort for the Pyrex,” he said. “I see a lot of that kind of stuff there. And you can send me a picture any time you see something and you’re not sure if it’s worth anything. I worked auctions for 20 years, I know most of it.”

Ian had bummed me out a little, so the encouragement helped. Kahla joined us on the way to Country Comforts, and she and Christina poked around that shop, the one next door, and Charmaine’s across the street while I went through the box of Pyrex with the two women there. The owner liked the coffee grinder well enough to pay me for it. She recommended another shop for the Pyrex, Kay’s Korner in Cook Street Village. Kay wasn’t in that day, so I’ve still got the Pyrex and I’m starting to think, maybe the Pyrex business is not for me.

Next week I try again – instead of working with a hundred dollars, I’m going to try a thousand and see where it gets me.

As we left Cook Street Village Kahla said, “I like this new hobby of yours, Shannon! I’ve never been to any of these places!”

So I broke even and entertained some friends – it’s a good start!

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How long does it take to fill up a shipping container?

Here's a thing you can do.

Danish Modern Design is a style of furnishing and interior design that became a part of pop culture in the 60's. I mostly know it from Mad Men and the waiting rooms of high-end chiropractors. It's popular right now in Victoria and has been for about seven years. It's likewise popular in Denmark, the source.

Danes are bonkers about weird-shaped lamps, stuff made of teak, and interesting chairs. They create them and sell them to each other, then will them to their children, who resell them to other Danes. It's a whole world of fascination that I failed to notice in my life before 2017, because I was living in shared houses with degenerates who couldn't be relied on to keep plastic plates and cups in good condition, let alone fine furnishings (I admit, I was as degenerate as the rest of them). I cultivated non-interest to avoid wanting things I couldn't have.

Teak with the original upholstery

However, in the past year I helped open a Danish vintage and retro furniture store, in Denmark no less. I learned how to identify a Bumling lamp and a Bretoia chair, and god help me, started to appreciate them. When I returned home from Denmark, my first acts were to gift my father a Louis Poulsen lamp that I brought home in my carry-on luggage, and refinish my parents' teak dining room table.

Next I started thinking about a business plan that my partner in Denmark suggested to me. You could fill up a container with stuff for relatively cheap in Denmark, ship it here, ideally have every item sold before it came off the boat, and make a little money and a lot of entertainment. 

This idea gave me a fantastic excuse to go to each store in Victoria that buys and sells Danish modern furnishings, or anything remotely similar. I made friends with the owners, showed them a photo album, and tried to gauge whether they could be customers or not. Here's the catalog I showed them.

Easy Livin' is on Mason Street in an old brick warehouse. The owners are a couple who refinish stuff at home in their basement. Their style is middle-high end and they can sell small dressers, dining room tables in the winter, and some ceiling light fixtures. Cheryl didn't think she could use most of what I showed her, as it's too literally Danish, like traditional farmhouse type stuff, as opposed to Danish modern. Good tips, and she recommended me several other places in Victoria as well as Vancouver.

A teak vanity with mirror, one of the items Cheryl liked.

Trig Vintage is also owned by a retired couple who run the place more as a hobby than as a moneymaker. They have more inventory space than some of the other places I looked at, and a big showroom on Fisgard Street. Their style is lower end and more eclectic than Easy Livin', and more closely matches the style in my photo album. I didn't get to talk to the owners themselves, but their employee Roshan was enthusiastic about my plan. He thought I'd be more successful in Vancouver though. 

The Fabulous Find, further down Fisgard Street, is the most high-end of the lot – the owner, Trena, is younger and almost exclusively interested in brand-name designers and expensive pieces. She had a blue table painted with an extraordinary design that I'd call "unique", except that the shop in Denmark has one just like it in red. Nothing in my catalog got her attention, but she wrote me a list of designers she's interested in and told me to send her any other pictures of stuff I come across, and she'd be happy to give me prices.

Charmaine's, on Fort Street, had the most inventory, most variety, and also the most customers of any of the shops I checked. Unfortunately, the owner was busy the day I went there, and I got two jobs and started working more than full time before I had a chance to talk to her.

Arne Jacobsen "Ant" chairs

I also had a long conversation with the owners of The Old Attic in Saanich. Although most of their stuff is on consignment, not really Danish at all, and they don't buy much stock, they had plenty to share. The owner there gave me a long list of stuff she could move easily, a list that included "decanters", "copper lamps", "weird brass stuff", "records, as many as you can give us", and "mailboxes".

On January 3rd I have an appointment in Vancouver, so I'll probably stay for a couple of days and give the shops there the same treatment. Then the question is – how much is this all going to cost, how much money can I hope to make, and do they balance each other out? It's a simple math problem, but there are a lot of variables.

The Arne Jacobsen "Aegte" chir

For instance, what's the tariff? Here's the schedule of customs tariffs, which is rather detailed. Chairs, for example, are taxed at 9.5%. Lamps and lighting fittings are taxed at 7.5%. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a category for just "used furniture"? But it seems more intricate than that. 

What does a shipping container cost? We priced one at $15,000, shipped, back in March, but I've written to some other companies for quotes. You can apparently buy your own and reuse it if you do this a lot. When you're done, I suppose you could live in it, furniture and all…

And how do you get your stock? If my partner in Denmark is still on board, I can get help with that. He gets his stuff from people who bring it to his premises and sell it to him, from estate sales, and from containerpladsen auctions. Containerpladsen is the dump, in Danish. It's more than just garbage – it's next-level recycling as well. Plastic, metal, compost and paper are separated out. As well, anything that's still useful, like books, bikes, clothing and household items are saved and sold through a little shop located in the center of the dump. Anything valuable is put up for auction on the dump-run website. I love containerpladsen so much I could write a book about them, and maybe I will. But the point is, my Danish guy has got a good eye for craftsmanship and excellent negotiating skills, as well as a 700 sq. meter warehouse for inventory. So it could work.

My dad's Louis Poulsen lamp

I'm not too worried about sharing this killer business idea with you all, because a) ideas are worthless until you put in the work and b) lots of other people are doing this already, which shows that a market does exist. So if you want to try stealing it out from under me, here's the website of the containerplads auction, which is brilliant, and deserves another book: http://www.genbrugsauktion.dk. 

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