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Vintage-furniture scavengers turn trash into treasure online

At L.A.-based ThisIsNotIkea.com, visitors find thousands of moderately priced antique and midcentury modern furnishings they can be pretty sure won't be in their friends' or neighbors' homes.

May 12, 2009|Corina Knoll

Forget that you're standing behind a giant green dumpster in a driveway cluttered with dusty relics of someone's past. Forget the musty smell, the awkward silence. Now stare down that shabby $5 metal cabinet. Do you see trash? Treasure?

If you're Alexis Hadjopulos or Tom Whitman, you see an industrial vintage piece worth well over its garage-sale price tag. Which is why that metal cabinet is now pictured on their online furniture store, ThisIsNotIkea.com.

The official company name is TINI (to keep the Swedish furniture retailer's lawyers at bay), but the self-explanatory Web address of the small business the two began last year is probably its finest asset. Catchy and easy to remember, the site name assures curious clickers that what lies beyond the home page will not come in the form of particleboard dressers or ready-to-assemble tables. Instead, viewers find thousands of antique and midcentury modern furnishings they can be pretty sure won't be in their friends' or neighbors' homes, unlike those eyeing, say, IKEA's ever-popular Billy bookcase.

TINI's philosophy, its owners insist, is less about hating IKEA -- a store Hadjopulos once exclusively frequented -- and more about offering gently used conversation pieces at moderate prices.

"For what IKEA is, it's great," Hadjopulos said. "But we're something else."

Hadjopulos and Whitman spend their weekends scavenging yard and estate sales for the likes of yellow vinyl chairs, retro Coca-Cola coolers, Danish credenzas and fire-orange lamps.

"We don't buy your grandmother's antiques," Whitman, 38, said, "unless your grandma was really cool."

Advertised via word of mouth, Craigslist and sponsored links on Facebook and Google, TINI is headquartered at Hadjopulos' three-bedroom Miracle Mile duplex, where lamps and clocks and pillows and cabinets reside in organized chaos. In the back of the house are two garages stuffed with furniture, which are in addition to the four rented storage spaces TINI keeps in the neighborhood.

Giant capital letters on Hadjopulos' bedroom shelf spell out the attitude that began the overstock: M-O-R-E. The business was, after all, inspired by the 31-year-old shopaholic's obsession with bargain buys.

Born to a Greek father and a French-Mexican mother, Hadjopulos grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, and arrived in Los Angeles 10 years ago dreaming of becoming a singer-songwriter. Supported by his father, Hadjopulos attended music school, recorded in the studio and spent his days perusing secondhand housewares.

"I would always go to these sales and see things that I was surprised no one would know how cool they were," he said.

With an eye for design cultivated by his interior designer mother and architect father, Hadjopulos continued to collect furniture and accessories even as his apartment bulged with yard-sale discoveries.

When his father stopped sending him money, Hadjopulos began selling his excess.

He started with flea markets, an arduous process of packing and unpacking and waiting and more waiting that quickly got old. He then created an informal Web gallery of photos that garnered some customers but little profit.

It was Whitman who saw the makings of a lucrative, enviro-friendly company.

The two had become friends after meeting at a party. Whitman, a TV producer turned event promoter, believed that he could offer the business sense Hadjopulos lacked. In July 2008, Whitman tossed in $25,000 and cranked out the paperwork, and TINI became official.

Although TINI offers shipping, most of its clients live in the Los Angeles area and visit by appointment. If someone is interested in the green dresser with the orange and yellow daisy knobs, a request is made and a date and time are booked. Everything is cash or check and there's no warranty, although Whitman said they've taken even exchanges.

In spite of an economy that has devastated furniture-store sales, TINI's projected first-year revenue is about $200,000, Whitman said. It recently had its best week yet, selling more than $7,000 worth of merchandise. TINI has even been hired for interior decorating.

TINI's learning curve has been mild, with most of the problems arising from having too much or too little inventory. Some things never sell; others are hard to keep in stock.

TINI recently launched a redesigned website with categories and a search tool. But don't expect lengthy descriptions or professional photos. Hadjopulos is the cameraman, and occasionally his reflected image makes it into the picture.

Nowhere are the owners seen more than on the yard-sale circuit.

On a recent Saturday, Hadjopulos rose before the sun and looked over a list of more than 70 sales occurring that day. By 7 a.m., Hadjopulos and Whitman were in full-on shopping mode, driving together around the Miracle Mile area. They moved quickly, sometimes double parking and leaving the engine running.

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