After a year of lockdown, lots of people are in redecorating mode—whether that means full-blown home renos, a bright new coat of paint or simply acquiring new decor items. To satisfy this impulse, a plethora of Instagram shops have popped up overnight, offering up vintage glass candy dishes, Murano mushroom lamps and teak furniture to soothe the crushing burden of sameness. Some of these shops were borne out of quarantine boredom, while others provided vendors with a much-needed financial lifeline. We spoke with nine Instagram shop owners about starting a business in a pandemic, how they source items during lockdown and why there should probably be a reality show about this under-the-radar Toronto community.
Owner: Hilary Smith, a former brand strategist
Launch date: August 2020
What you’ll find: Vintage framed prints, marble coffee tables and cushy armchairs. “I can’t say that hauling heavy marble tables has been great for my back, but there’s something irresistible about it,” Smith says.
“In August, after a four-year stint working for a design agency in Sydney, I moved back home to Toronto. During my mandatory quarantine in my parents’ basement, I had a lot of time to contemplate what I wanted to do next and decided on a vintage furniture store. Before the two weeks were up, I had registered the business, launched the Instagram account and scheduled three pickups for my first day out of lockdown. Most of the pieces I source are from online auctions, so there isn’t much Storage Wars–type drama. I’m mostly glued to a computer screen, frantically following the final seconds of an auction. My proudest win is a Finn Juhl Chieftain chair reproduction, which I won at auction against a collector in Vegas. It had originally been purchased for the set of a high-profile sci-fi series (I’m sworn to secrecy on which one). It’s been living untouched in my parent’s house for months because I haven’t been able to bring myself to let it go.”
Owner: Aline Bouwman, a freelance journalist
Launch date: October 2020
What you’ll find: Teak coffee tables, floor lamps, desks and chairs. “I primarily buy furniture that hasn’t been restored for over 60 years. Then I refinish and resell it,” says Bouwman.
“After completing a masters program in English at UBC and moving back to Toronto, I started Teakbone at the end of October to keep myself busy and generate cash. I’m now a freelance editor and journalist, but I spend more time selling vintage wares than I do building my ‘real’ career. Still, the profit margins are razor-thin. I spend hours sanding drink rings out of coffee tables, desks and bar carts. Sometimes I wait days to photograph an item in order to get the best light. Then, there’s the additional work of editing photos, listing the items and marketing. The thing about running a vintage shop on Instagram is that you need to have a hyper-flexible schedule to drop everything and drive two hours to get a great scoop. Last October, on an early Saturday morning while still in bed, I saw a listing for a three-seater R. Huber barrel sofa listed just north of Barrie as ‘old couch.’ It was one of those moments where I thought, I’m going to have to do this, aren’t I? Miraculously I made it to the sofa first, and it fit in my 2001 Honda CR-V once I put all the seats down.”
Owner: Quinn Fleck, a community support worker and student
Launch date: October 2020
What you’ll find: Kitschy SpongeBob landlines, ceramic sculptures and novelty salt and pepper shakers
“I’m a chaotic Gemini who needs to have a lot on the go. Currently, I’m studying to become a mental health counsellor, and during the pandemic, I’ve worked in community support and at a shelter. I’ve always had a thirst for thrifting: my pipe dream is to open a psychotherapy practice with a thrift shop at the front. I opened up Odds n Ends in October, and to my surprise, the shop has done really well. I had no idea just how much I was missing social interaction until I found it through the shop: I often go to other thrifters for help with pricing, photography and editing tips. The items I bring into the shop are curated to my own taste: pink, flamingly bisexual and kitsch-meets-cute. I once spent a solid 12 hours picking up different items, including a four-hour drive to collect a sought-after Interdesign swivel organizer. It had been in the seller’s family since the ’70s, a favourite of his recently passed wife. I wept tears of joy when I finally got my hands on it and held it in my lap on the long drive home.”
Owner: Nagmeh Phelan, an advertising strategist
Launch date: May 2020
What you’ll find: An eclectic mix that might include Italian purses, ceramic tigers and travertine tables. “I curate items that are timeless, sustainable and cross-generational,” says Phelan.
“I got hooked on antiques visiting estate sales with my mom as a kid. Now, I’m hoarding an insane number of vintage items in my house: every cabinet and bookshelf is filled with vases, glasses and cups. For a while, I had so many coffee tables I was practically sleeping under them. I’ve always wanted to open a vintage shop, but it took the pandemic starting—and my work contract ending—to motivate me. One night at 4 a.m., I designed the logo and threw the shop up on Instagram. Somerset General brought some much-needed stability into my life during an uncertain time, and I’m grateful to be a part of the expansive and fascinating vintage community in Toronto—I’m sure there’s a reality show in there somewhere. One day, I was at an estate sale and spotted an extremely rare antique Murano Salviati bowl from the 1900s—truly timeless Italian art. I saw an elderly woman dashing toward it but I grabbed it first like a deranged fiend. No regrets. I also look on Facebook Marketplace, but it’s a kill or be killed environment right now. Last week, I responded to an ad for a 1970s Treco dresser I’ve had my eye on for a while. Within minutes, the listing had been edited by the seller to: ‘Highest bidder takes it. Accepting offers until March 5.’”
Owner: Hayley Schofield, a former tattoo shop owner
Launch date: July 2020
What you’ll find: Lamps, chairs and couches. “I appreciate different styles, from art deco and ’80s deco revival to Memphis Group and Italian modernism, to Hollywood regency,” says Schofield.
“My business partner, Alex, and I closed our Dundas West tattoo shop Holy Noir shortly before the pandemic hit. For the last year, my main gig has been wheeling and dealing vintage and antique home furnishings. I try to stick to selling items I personally love, which makes my Instagram—also technically my storefront—look a bit jumbled. But I like that it mimics a traditional antique shop, where the thrill is never knowing what you’ll find. I started out storing the furniture in my walk-up bachelor apartment, but that got old fast—friends are only willing to help you carry a dresser up and down the stairs so many times. I now have a storage space at an offsite facility. It’s pretty rare to find those big American designers up here in the wild, but the best thing I’ve ever scored was a burl and brass bedroom set by Milo Baughman for Founders in a Hamilton online estate sale. It was so beautiful I ended up keeping the highboy dresser for myself. I can’t give away all the goods.”
Name: Larisa Mancini, a former stylist and public relations manager
Launch date January 2021
What you’ll find: “I sell post-modern pieces, as well as timeless items like cane and marble furniture,” says Mancini.
“I used to work for a home decor brand, but my contract ended during the pandemic. In January, my partner and I moved into a new apartment and decided to switch up our decor. We wanted to swap out our wicker and bohemian furniture for a minimal, postmodern style. After we furnished our entire apartment, I continued to find amazing pieces. Now, selling vintage furniture is my main gig. During my first few weeks sourcing items, I came across a stunning travertine coffee table for $250. When I went to pick it up, I realized it was 48 inches wide and over 100 pounds—the size of a boulder. Luckily the seller owned a lot of machinery and used a forklift to place it in our truck. But then we had a monstrous table in the bed that needed to be cleared out by the morning for work. So I reached out to friends in the industry for help. We were able to sell it to another vintage seller who had a forklift for $550. If I had sold it on Instagram, it could have fetched $1,000.”
Owner: Jamie Rajf, a former marketing manager
Launch date: August 2020
What you’ll find: Glassware, kitchen accessories and small furnishings
“Before the pandemic, I was working in the music and events industry. When lockdown hit, I got laid off and found myself with a lot of free time. Opening up a vintage shop had been a dream of mine for many years so, when I wasn’t applying to jobs in my field, I sourced items, photographed them and worked on branding. I’m now working full-time again in e-commerce and run the shop in my spare time, specializing in mid-century housewares. I’ve store most items in the foyer of my apartment and larger items in my parents’ garage, which is a 25-minute drive away. Once, I sourced a pair of Cesca chairs from a woman in Kawartha Lakes. I drove two and a half hours to get there, and then drove around forever trying to find her house. It was all worth it though—the chairs were in excellent condition and had their original made-in-Italy stickers.”
Owner: Ashlyn Garcia, a former tech worker
Launch date: September 2020
What it sells: Home goods from the 1970s and ‘80s and travertine stone objects
“Last year, right before the pandemic began, I was laid off from my job at a startup. Building this shop has turned my life around. Every item I sell is authentic. For example, Murano lamps have become very popular recently, so I always make sure that the ones I’m sourcing are actually from Murano in Italy, where the glass is made. If I do get a hold of replica items—like Cesca and Wassily chairs or Togo couches—I disclose that they’re reproductions and price accordingly. For in-demand items, I do a countdown on my Instagram stories, so people are waiting for the release. One time I was driving to I pick up a mirror in the outskirts of Cambridge in the middle of a winter storm. It was getting late, around 9 p.m.—and the roads were super-slippery; I saw a number of cars slide off the highway because of the black ice. But I wanted the mirror so badly, I didn’t think twice about how dangerous it was. Two weeks later, the mirror broke, and I think I almost cried. But it’s all a part of the process.”
Owner: Nannan Wan, a fashion designer
Launch date: September 2020
What you’ll find: Mirrors, vases, armchairs and chess boards
“Selling vintage furniture is not my main gig. I run an online sustainable fashion shop that’s currently rebranding—hence the name, Side Muse. This shop is born out of my love for trendy vintage, sustainable home pieces. I’m really drawn to creating a circular economy, where lightly used items end up in new homes instead of the landfill. My family is pretty thrifty, and I grew up visiting thrift shops and antique stores with my mom. Once, I found a vintage lamp collector through Kijiji and drove all the way to Kingston to pick five lollipop Murano glass lamps. I sold each one for $450 to 600—a profit margin of about 60 per cent. The rarest vintage piece I ever got my hands on was a ’70s Vertebra chair, designed by Emilio Ambasz and Giancarlo Piretti, for $100 from an elderly couple doing some redecorating. It is one of the first automatically adjustable ergonomic chairs ever created, and I’ve kept it for myself. It’s the comfiest office chair ever.”