Distressed denim and graphic T-shirts make up just part of the extensive, nostalgia-inducing collection of attire found at Ragtime Vintage Clothing in downtown Asheville.
“I try to get stuff that I can picture people wearing and enjoying on a weekly basis. I kind of focus on more casual stuff and stay away from the more gaudy or costume-like stuff to some extent, but you know there’s some pieces like that in there too,” said Matthew L’Esperance, Ragtime’s owner.
Ragtime sells an eclectic mix of handpicked vintage clothing for men and women. Merchandise changes seasonally with new items added each week. Located at 20 East Walnut St., the store is open seven days a week with varying times, L’Esperance said.
“Ragtime has a really great selection of vintage clothing for reasonable prices. They’re also really great about keeping good quality clothes in stock,” said Leah Atkinson, UNC Asheville sophomore.
Before opening Asheville’s Ragtime in 2004, L’Esperance worked at and eventually took over a shop with the same name in Rhode Island.
“There were a couple changes of ownership, but at the time it was more of a women’s boutique vintage store with more antique clothing, Victorian through the ‘40s, so Ragtime really suited the era of that clothing,” said L’Esperance.
After L’Esperance, 37, took over ownership, he changed the inventory to a more modern and casual style but kept the name. Today, he continues to sell newer vintage items in his shop downtown. Most of his merchandise ranges in time from the ‘50s to ‘90s, he said.
“Nineties stuff is selling the best right now with younger people. I enjoy finding stuff that I saw people wearing in high school or wore myself. I’ve been doing it for so long, stuff that was brand-new when I first started thrifting and shopping for vintage, is vintage now,” L’Esperance said.
L’Esperance and his employees carefully clean and inspect the items in the store before they go on the racks. He said it is important to him to have only what he considers good enough in the store.
“You could have a pair of jeans that are really holey, but I wouldn’t buy a pair of suit pants in the same condition. It’s just a lot of having to nitpick. It’s important to not have some stuff, just as much as it is to have the right stuff,” L’Esperance said.
L’Esperance said some of the items in Ragtime fulfill utilitarian purposes, such as work jeans or jackets. But other more expensive items attract people who enjoy a certain time period and the people and movements within them.
“Certain T-shirts that are from political movements or events, or even sports T-shirts from a World Series or something, things like that strike a chord with people,” he said.
The practicality of items remains one of the biggest factors L’Esperance uses to decide if an item will be sold in the store.
“I like the style of the casual stuff because the practicality is big for me. You have to wear clothing every day, that’s just the society we live in, so finding stuff that you’re actually going to feel up to the challenge of wearing every day is important. Overall, I want people to be wearing stuff that is comfortable for them to wear,” L’Esperance said.
In order to find enough merchandise to fill the store seasonally, he continually shops at different flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores and estate sales.
“It seems glamorous, but a lot of times my Friday nights are getting home from a trip with bags and boxes of stuff, sorting it, staying up until midnight and doing laundry all weekend,” L’Esperance said.
In the past few years, many wholesale providers L’Esperance used to frequent stopped selling clothes or went out of business, he said.
“It’s really tough to be in a rhythm of buying and being able to get a consistent product from people and all of the sudden they’re like, ‘Oh, we are moving,’ or, ‘We are going out of business,’” L’Esperance said.
This does not stop L’Esperance from doing what he loves, though. He said he finds joy in selling vintage clothing which encourages recycling and a practical solution to finding new clothes, he also likes helping people find items to represent them and make them happy.
“It’s fun because I really like all the clothes I get to buy and obviously you need to wear clothes, like it’s a necessity, but I’m flattered that people buy the stuff I find and enjoy it,” he said.
Erin Hurley, employee at Ragtime, said she hopes the store remains the same in the future in terms of prices and aesthetic appeal.
“I like the way it is and the way it hasn’t really catered to the tourist side of Asheville. It’s still loyal to its locals and regulars,” Hurley, 30, said.
According to L’Esperance, that is exactly what will happen in the future.
“We will just keep doing what we’ve been doing, improving the selections if we can, or just keep the level of stock and style we have. It’s challenging and I like a challenge,” L’Esperance said.