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SPRINGFIELD — There is a Chinese proverb about crossing the river by feeling the stones.
And it’s what wife-and-husband team Wenting Jia and Nels Frye say they are doing as they open and refine the Springfield branch of Keezer’s Classic Clothing, the oldest second-hand fashion store in America with its roots going back to 1895. Take a step. Survey the next step. Take another step.
And the first big step was for Jia to partner with Dick Robasson — owner of the two Keezer’s locations in Cambridge — to bring the concept to Springfield.
“Springfield has space,” she said. “Springfield has space that’s affordable. Springfield has space that’s affordable and near the highway.”
Frye added: “We could never do something like this in Boston.”
The store, which opened three weeks ago, sits in a former bank office on the first floor of the MassLive Building at 1350 Main St. It is the first store to open in the incubator of new downtown businesses called 1350 Market overseen by Latino Economic Development Corporation. MassLive owns the naming rights to the building where some of its offices are located.
Evan C. Plotkin, president and CEO of real estate company NAI Plotkin and a partner in the Masslive Building, said he’s been told by those “hipper” than himself that the clothes are trendy.
“We need other retail downtown,” he said. ”I think the vintage clothing store is a really great start. I’m excited about that.”
The next step is to refine the concept, building on Keezer’s long history of used and vintage menswear to add women’s clothing, upcycled goods and Jia’s own brand, J.W. Frye, which is a line of decorative objects made of recycled plastics.
“There is so little competition it’s hard for me to do market research,” said Jia, who ran vintage clothing stores in Shanghai before coming to America.
Keezer’s Springfield location is open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Robasson — who took over Keezer’s five years ago and moved it from its longtime location near Harvard University — said Jia started as a frequent shopper who helped him sell clothing via a livestream video when the store was closed during the pandemic.
Jia and Frye moved to Springfield (Frye grew up in Western Massachusetts) and hatched the idea to locate in Springfield.
“It was a good opportunity to expand a little bit,” said Robasson, himself a Haitian immigrant to the United States who worked as a tailor.
“So I did visit Springfield a couple of times,” he said.
Jia said she visited cities across New England and Pennsylvania looking at revitalized downtowns and business opportunities.
“One thing I noticed is that they all had a vintage or upcycled clothing shop, often coupled with an art gallery,” she said.
At the Springfield Keezer’s, Jia has coupled used clothing from Keezer’s Cambridge inventory with vintage clothing from her own collection, goods made by local artisans including local makers of goat milk soap and Chef Wayne Hooker’s Big Mamou hot sauce and seasoning.
“Someone came in looking for Chef Wayne’s seasoning because they heard it was here,” Jia said. “It’s hot. I tell people if they taste it, and if they regret it, don’t come here and complain!”
J.W. Frye recycles plastic into art objects, like vases and display jars, using 3D-printing technology. There are also T-shirts made from recycled plastics.
Jia displayed a box of plastic bottle caps, material donated by customers to be made into new products at a factory in New Hampshire.
She wants to key into the trend of used clothing and recycled and upcycled goods sold together as a themed retail experience.
“That’s the new department store,” she said. “You see that all over Northern Europe.”
At Keezer’s, a $1,100 blazer might sell for $120.
“Keezer’s has the largest reservoir of used clothing in New England,” Frye said. “It’s an extensive library.”
The threads are culled, Robasson said, from shoppers who come in to sell pieces from their collections or from buying whole wardrobes from estates or as people downsize and jettison dressy clothes.
“There are never two items exactly the same,” Robasson said. “I might have something in Springfield I don’t have anywhere else.”
He said he’s trying to branch into vintage clothes. That is, items that might be older and display a distinctive style.
“Of course now we are trying to open a women’s section also,” Robasson said.
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