It is the dumping ground where some of underground New York’s best closets find new life. Tokio7, the inimitable East Village secondhand store, is in the process of resuscitating itself from the brink of near-extinction. After the store was temporarily shuttered due to coronavirus restrictions, its owner Makoto Watanabe considered closing it down for good. But after an outpouring of support from Tokio7’s dedicated following, including longtime customer Chloë Sevigny, the store is bending its own rules in order to remain afloat.
Watanabe, a Japanese transplant, opened his first store in 1996 at 64 East 7th Street with the aim to popularize secondhand shopping, which then still carried widespread taboo. By word of mouth, the store steadily grew a foothold among New York’s more avant-garde residents who stopped in to consign their Comme des Garçons, Versace and local indie brand discards and then stayed to browse racks of castaways from likeminded others. Nine years ago, the store moved to a store further down the block at 83 E. 7th Street — a cavernous space that in some ways recalls a suburban basement; it is widely beloved nonetheless.
“We wanted to make consignment more mainstream so that even people who were not rich could have nice clothes,” Watanabe conveyed via his store manager, Isaac Polonsky.
In this day of The Real Real and Poshmark, where shoppers can thrift at the swipe of a finger from the comfort of their couch, Watanabe was still committed to the in-person shopping experience. Without social media or a website, Tokio7 remained an in-the-know destination — a business model that, while honorable, was not enough to survive the coronavirus crisis and looting over the summer when half of the store’s stock was stolen.
“We weren’t going to do online, we were going to keep it offline and old school but we have been closed since COVID-19 started and then got looted so at that time we didn’t know what to do,” said Polonsky. “A lot of old customers and neighbors came by to say nice things and wanted us to stay open. Now we have a responsibility to make everyone safe. COVID-19 is so crazy right now, the only thing we can do is open online so people can shop safely.”
Tokio7 launched its first social media account on Instagram in late summer and opened its web store on Jan. 19. Its online inventory is representative of 25 years spent in a neighborhood once known for its boundary-pushing culture and fashion. Early Helmut Lang and Junya Watanabe are catalogued beside smaller, independent brands. While in-store shopping remains suspended, Tokio7 is only accepting consignments via face-to-face appointments to ensure product quality and a suitable price.
Said Polonsky: “We don’t just take high-end, we still take interesting items and handmade stuff. We grew up with our consigners and have our own color. A lot of people have been commenting since we opened our Instagram page, people located all over — it was just too sad to close.”