Bobby Garnett is a well-kept secret among serious vintage seekers—including Hollywood costume designers and Ralph Lauren—who flock to his 5,000- square-foot storage warehouse in Lynn for bygone-era clothing, accessories, and camaraderie.
On a late-summer day, Bobby Garnett—better known in certain circles simply as Bobby from Boston—is kicking back in the South End retail space that bears that same nickname, picked up over a long career buying and selling vintage clothing. He’s wearing an old school rugby cap, a pair of worn-in Levi’s, and a grin—always the grin.
After two years of enduring health issues, Garnett is confined to a wheelchair—an ironic twist of fate for a man whose life and career have been built scouring the globe for things to buy and sell—but his physical limitations don’t seem to dampen his mood. Occasionally, he’ll pluck a cigarette from the pack he keeps nearby and call on one of his nattily dressed worker bees for a light. If the generally hip clientele notice, no one seems to care.
In the 30-something years he’s been in business, Garnett has established himself as one of the country’s most respected and relied-upon vintage dealers, with nods from national arbiters of style like GQ, Details, Esquire, and Lucky. Locally, though, he’s maintained a fairly quiet profile. Shoppers who do know him do so through the South End retail space that’s subtly existed, in some form, for 16 years in a space off a formerly gritty stretch in Boston’s South End.
But the real magic happens behind the scenes at Garnett’s 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Lynn, a place he set up to handle the overflow from his constant buying, and where the high-profile clientele he has cultivated—including fashion designers like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Marc Jacobs—come to buy design inspiration. He’s helped supply the wardrobe for more than 40 films, too, including Road to Perdition, Casino, Ali, and Men in Black 3. “Just last week, I had a pair of girls on a buying mission for Abercrombie & Fitch,” Garnett says. Next week, the warehouse will welcome Hollywood costume designer Susan Lyall.
Garnett has been picking for as long as he can remember. “I always thought I wanted to buy stuff; I just didn’t know what,” he says. As a 7-year-old in the mid-1960s, he’d sell his toys from his front stoop; later, he and some buddies would build bicycles out of salvaged parts to sell for cash. “My mother stopped wanting to give me anything,” he says. “She was like, ‘He’s just gonna sell it!’ I always had something going on.” He’d use the proceeds to buy himself clothes: iridescent sharkskin suits, skinny ties, porkpie hats. “I was 14, 15,” he recalls. “My mother was like, ‘You’re dressing like a 35-year-old man.’ I just loved that stuff. I still do.”
After two years at Gordon College in Wenham, where he ran a small leather shop out of his dorm room just because he could, Garnett dropped out to open Muddy River Trading Company, a leather goods store in Brookline Village. Three years later, in 1974, he expanded, with a second shop in Provincetown. But it was a friend’s business, a Cambridge vintage boutique called Dazzle, that interested Garnett more. “I was always running around to antique shows and fairs and thrift shops,” he says. Cufflinks, palm tree pins, and picture ties were among his favorite items to collect. “Now I had a real purpose—to look for stuff to sell to this guy.”
Eventually, Garnett amassed enough stock to open his own store, which he called Uptown Strutters Ball—later just Strutters—with locations in Provincetown and Allston, as well as one on Newbury Street. He operated a regular vintage booth at the Brimfield Antique Show in Western Massachusetts, where he began to attract attention from Manhattan-based designers and buyers. At Brimfield, he was in his element. “People try to avoid crowds, but I like crowds,” he says. “I always want to be around a lot of people—where the folks are at. And I was so happy to turn my obsession into a job.”
In the ‘90s, when vintage first began to become trendy—and the demand Garnett fielded from designers and costume directors began to skyrocket—he opened the South End space as the country’s first appointment-only vintage showroom. Nine years ago, as part of a neighborhood-wide gentrification effort, he converted it to retail and moved the showroom operation to Lynn. The second-floor space now houses an immaculate, if overwhelming, collection of Americana—stacks and stacks of vintage denim, walls of stadium hats, piles of luggage, racks full of linen and gabardine suiting, wool college sweaters, and children’s wear from as early as the 1940s: a virtual Never-Never Land for clothing. There’s also an assortment of vintage paraphernalia—odds and ends that seem to require a category all their own, like ‘50s-era roller skates and U.S. postal mailbags.
Once a season, staffers circulate the merchandise, moving current-season items into the South End store and organizing the showroom to better suit the fashion designer clientele. While fashion and costume designers make up the bulk of the visitors to Lynn, the showroom is open to vintage lovers with time to spare; otherwise, visits are on an appointment basis.
Though much of the merchandise he sells now comes to him—from collectors looking to downsize or relatives cleaning out a parent’s or grandparent’s house—Garnett remains as active as ever, despite the wheelchair. He continues to go on buying trips as often as three or four times a week to look for pieces that fit his classic-preppy aesthetic. He makes regular visits to New York, Miami, London, and, closer to home, to Brimfield and Todd Farm in Rowley.
“You can travel all over the place, but it’s all better in New England,” says Garnett, who once purchased a “shipping container’s worth of vintage clothing” that had originated in Worcester from a dealer in the South of France. Sometimes he buys with a specific customer in mind; mainly, he just buys what he likes.
And while prices have necessarily gone up as vintage has become trendier—jeans he not long ago sold for $2 to $3 now go for $25 to $35—Garnett’s love of classic fashion supercedes his business sense. “I try to keep everything in the range of what prices were in the ‘80s, because I still want vintage to be fun and affordable for everyone,” he says. However, he admits that he once sold a pair of collectible ‘50s-era Levi’s for $2,800 and recently paid $44 for a ‘50s gabardine-patterned jacket that he’ll turn around for $600.
“I’m a buyer, man,” he says. “I wish I had more customers like me.”