All Photos: Temniet Mesgna
Words and Interview: Mare Lewicki
The Deal: Every other week, we go to a thrift, vintage, or consignment store where we interview the store owners and speak to them about anything related to fashion and the style of the store.
This week, we spoke to owner, Derrick Kennedy, who co-owns the store with Gayle Herrmann. They have owned Mustard Seed since it first opened its doors in 1991. Mustard Seed is located on Wisconsin Ave in Bethesda, MD.
So I guess we will ask the obvious, why did you name the store Mustard Seed?
I discovered the name reading this book called The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. It is actually a book that has, well a religious book, about positive thinking that has religious overtones which is kind of ironic because now I am a total atheist. At the time that I read it, I thought it was inspirational. There is a story in there about a guy who was down on his luck and ended up starting this company, making these mustard seed pendants that were really popular back, in I believe… the 1940’s. It became a real fad like a rabbit’s foot or something [of that nature] that people would carry around their neck or put it in their pocket and carry around as a faith jewelry. The mustard seed itself is a really small seed but it grows into, like this humungous plant. It’s kind of like a freak of nature cause usually, the bigger the seed, the bigger the plant, but the mustard seed plant is really tall but it comes from this tiny seed.
Awesome! What then made you want to start a clothing boutique?
Well we [Gayle and I] stated hanging out and [we both] had backgrounds in retail so we started talking about [opening a store.] Gayle had an older sister who was kind of like her mentor. She is like 7 years older than Gayle is and she used to take her to thrift stores that were in PG County. Gayle had worked in Nordstrom’s and Commander Salamander and she told me about this one time where she went down to Eastern Market and there was this one rolling rack of clothes and she made a couple hundred dollars. I thought that that was really interesting! We then started having this idea of having a used clothing store but paying cash up front instead of doing consignment which would then be geared towards a younger population. [I think] a lot of consignment shops are more dressey, designer, higher end, old customers so at the time, we were in our early-twenties, and thought it would be a cool idea. We spoke about doing a younger thing and the same sister who I had mentioned that used to take Gayle to thrift stores, moved to San Francisco. Gayle was telling her about our idea and she [Gayle’s sister] sent us all of these ads from San Francisco, basically the equivalent of City Paper, the San Francisco Guardian, and there were ads for stores out there that were already doing what we had spoke about. Gayle’s sister was like “Hey, people are doing that already!” So we did some research and decided that that would be a good idea to do here.
Where did you initially start selling clothes? Did you always have a physical store?
We actually started out selling in flea markets. We did that for almost 3 years before we got our first physical store location. We used to sell at the farmers market right down the street every Wednesday and Saturday. We also would sell at Eastern Market and Capitol in Capitol Hill on Sundays. We also sold at colleges a lot, too. Primarily [we sold] at American University ’cause it was fairly close and they were really receptive. They had a good program for letting vendors come on campus and sell stuff.
Would you guys term yourselves as a consignment, vintage, or thrift store, or possibly neither?
None of the above. We classify ourselves as a new and used clothing store but we don’t say consignment because we don’t do consignment. Consignment is kind of like, you know people call a hot tub a Jacuzzi cause Jacuzzi was the brand name, so people say consignment for used clothing but it’s not consignment unless you pay people till if and when something sells. We pay people up front so basically we call ourselves a buy-sell shop for the used clothing. The used clothing is about 70% of what we sell but we also carry new clothing too and it does pretty well.
What is your favorite part about owning the store?
Being your own boss. I wouldn’t say working your own hours because we have set hours that I have to come in for but just not having to answer to someone is nice. The gratification of being able to have an idea which you are then able to implement right away. You don’t have to be like “hey! I have a great idea…” and then it never transpires. You get to see instant returns on your investment in terms of your work. Generally, you get to see whether it works or not. You don’t have to wait. As far as this type of store, it is fun because there is a lot of activity. I think that at a high-end new clothing store, it would be kind of boring [to work there] cause you are waiting for that one person to come in and spend a lot of money and you don’t have as much to do there. Here, you are always kind of busy. I like to be busy.
What’s then the worst part about owning the store (if there even is one)?
You know, the shoplifters… the occasional shoplifters… that sucks. When you have to fire people, that sucks. We also do have some difficult customers at the buy counter that just don’t get it. They get upset when you don’t buy their clothes. Or they don’t think you know how to price their stuff. They think that they are an expert on what their clothing should sell for.
What do you think having style means?
I think it means just putting effort into what you’re wearing everyday. I appreciate people that have style. I could never get away wearing a man-scarf or something like that but I like it when people do and can get away with it. I kind of prefer the customers that have a little… edge to them, you could say. I don’t do those things myself but if I see like a good tattoo or if they wear a little chain or something, I appreciate it. We have a lot of office workers [that come in here] at lunchtime. It is a big part of our business and they are good for our business but a lot of them are middle of the roads kind of dressing. It’s cool to see some city kids come in here occasionally. I can kind of tell the difference between, like if a kid went to high school in D.C. like Wilson, versus if the kid went to high school here. A kid here will want more of the Hollister, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch, while the city kid will want more flare because they have a little more attraction to downtown.
Would you guys say then that while you are buying clothes, you also are following the trends?
Absolutely! Our store is a chameleon. That is what we are. We don’t set the trends; we are two years behind everything. We tell people that we buy items that are less than two years old. We also buy vintage but that just is kind of hard to get. It doesn’t sell that well because we are in Bethesda and we’re more suburban. If we had a DC store, we would probably have a bigger vintage section but we don’t get that much vintage and it doesn’t sell that great. [Going back though] we totally don’t set the trends. We follow the trends ’cause we are just buying stuff that is in good condition and less than two years old.
What would you say sets your store apart from others in the DC area?
A lot of it is just that we are one of the few places that pays up front for clothing. It is also the mix of new and used clothes cause some of the used places, or the majority of used places, just do used. The fact that we are a mix of new and used sets us a part. That is basically it. We’re not really setting any style trends ’cause we sell used clothing. I also have this line of t-shirts which is dctees.net and I have been doing that on the side. We have sold my designs in the store for several years. There is several DC themes. Back in the day when that Kentucky, Urban Outfitters shirt was really popular… like “Everybody gettin’ lucky in Kentucky.” We had a shirt that said “Everyone loves a DC girl” and another shirt that said “Everyone loves a Maryland girl.” They sold really well here and were really popular. I have now gone forward with other designs for the website so that is something that other people definitely don’t have although I am trying to sell the line to other places.
Previously on “OTHER PEOPLE’S CLOTHES”: MEEPS