Two days after Halloween, Jessica and Mark Modeer will close the doors on their beloved Zeezo’s forever. But the downtown costume store — a Springs institution after 40 years — has already steered them into a new venture that’s taking every spare moment.
It came to Jessica after “a bad day at work” last November. She went home and decided to build an estate sales company website.
The idea didn’t come out of nowhere; she’d been going to estate sales for years, finding vintage clothing to sell at Zeezo’s.
“I was like, ‘This is just like retail — just mobile retail in different locations. I can do this; this might be fun,’” Jessica recalls. “… We had our first estate sale in January of this year — and it was tinier than anything I would ever even accept now as a job. I think I made like $7 an hour, if I’m lucky, working that one. And then our second one was bigger than anything I will probably ever see again.”
That second sale was for a collector.
“There was so much, that we had to bring things out in waves. It was the bulk of her possessions,” Jessica said. “It was a big house, like 5,000 square feet — but packed. So I learned a lot.”
Vintage Estate Company has earned a good reputation and a strong following and — at least while Jessica’s still working at Zeezo’s — is already turning work away.
It won’t have to be that way for long. Jessica plans to expand to two crews handling estate sales, and for many Zeezo’s staff it’s already proving a good fit.
“I’m fortunate to be able to bring a significant portion of our current staff into the estate sale business,” Jessica said, adding that it takes “a special personality” to work in the field.
“Every situation you walk into is different …,” she said. “Working at Zeezo’s you have to know a lot of super weird stuff like, ‘What kind of hat do you put with a 1940s outfit?’ and then also, ‘What does the new Aquaman look like?’ You have to know all of those things all at once. And estate sales are kind of the same thing, like, how do you price a Turkish copper pot, versus how do you price tourist-quality Persian artifacts.”
Having a knack for organization and merchandising is also critical.
“I can have the same item in a lovely home in a great area of town surrounded by other amazing items and that’s top dollar,” Jessica said, “and I can have that same item surrounded by subpar things in kind of a junky neighborhood, and they’re not going to get anywhere close. So it’s … all about merchandising and marketing and placement.”
The fee structure is 40-60 percent commission, depending on the level of staffing needed for the job. Immaculate, organized homes lean toward 40 percent; 60 percent is usually for collectors, or hoarding situations, or households that need a lot of cleaning. Most fall around 50 percent, Jessica said.
Unburdened by rent or inventory, Vintage Estate Company became profitable very quickly.
“Well, we had reached the point where the estate sale company was helping to pay the bills for Zeezo’s,” Jessica said. “Starting in September of 2016 our sales [at Zeezo’s] just started trickling, trickling down. The first Halloween that it went a little south, we were like, ‘OK, this is a fluke, it was an election year.’ That can affect sales in a really weird way, and it was such a contentious election year that nobody really wanted to go out and have fun.
“So we were like, ‘Okay, this was our fluke. Next year, it’ll be fine.’ But it was even lower. I’m like, ‘This is a trend nationally, this is a trend in our industry.’ So that’s when we started doing more vintage clothing and diversifying in that way. Very quickly, vintage clothing became 20 percent of our business, which is a good amount — but it wasn’t really enough, and we weren’t doing the volume that we had been doing. We just reached the point where the amount of work involved and the revenue that we gain, it’s not worth it.”
Of the nation’s 10 largest independent costume stores (Zeezo’s is among them), seven have closed over the past two years, Jessica said.
“I mean even San Francisco can’t support their biggest costume store,” she said. “… We were a total anomaly that we even existed in a city under a million anyway. We would go to trade shows and people would be like, ‘Wait, how many square feet do you have? How many people are in your city? How is that possible?’ But we held our own and we thrived, and then we had some bad years and we had amazing years and it balanced. But it’s just not balanced anymore.”
Jessica loves the pace and excitement of estate sales, and believes there’s a new audience just waiting to get hooked on them.
“We’re literally digging through drawers that people might not have looked at in 40 years,” she said. “We find family photos, we find diamond rings, we find weird little toys. …
“I think that there are people who’d really love estate sales, who don’t think about going. They think they’re expensive, or they’re depressing because somebody died — when in fact, most of the ones we do are downsizes, so the owner is not necessarily gone. And even if they are, they’re not using their things, and most people would want somebody else to enjoy their stuff. So I think that estate sales should be more accessible.”
Jessica is broadening her marketing focus, using social media not only to reach people who need to sell their things, but to people who might like to buy those things.
“That’s kind of something that’s going around in the back of my head, because I would have loved to go when I was like 18, 19, 20 — I would have loved that,” she said. “But I remember thinking estate sales can be expensive, and it’s going to be stuffy and there’s no way I can afford it. But it’s not the case.”
Closing Zeezo’s will relieve the month-to-month pressure for the Modeers, but after more than a quarter-century as owners, their feelings are mixed.
“Today I’m just relieved,” Jessica said, “but people come in with tears in their eyes, really. And it happens every day: ‘We can’t believe you’re leaving.’ And some people are angry and some people are just sad, and some people it’s very bittersweet, like, ‘We’re really happy for you. But this store has been around forever.’”
As it turns out, Vintage Estate Company might not only bring Zeezo’s staff along for the next adventure.
“I noticed today a whole bunch of Zeezo’s customers came to our estate sale, and I’ve never seen them at estate sales before,” Jessica said. “So I think that link to Zeezo’s is making it feel accessible to people. We’re finding new ways.”