$5 Blue Jeans

By Nancy SIgafoos

In early 1977, Rob Reeder, who owned the waterbed store on Fourth Avenue, asked me if I  wanted to start a business with him selling used denim. The popularity of blue jeans was at its  zenith, and the leading manufacturers of denim (Levi Strauss, Wrangler, and Lee) had all made  financial deals with secondhand organizations like Goodwill to destroy all blue jeans and jean  jackets that came through their clearinghouses. 

In the Pacific Northwest, these clothing items were sold to a “ragman” who had a large  storefront on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. He bought used fabric to be converted into rags for  commercial use. Rob made a deal with this ragman (who was a very unusual character) to buy  the usable denim for fifty cents a pound—about the weight of a pair of jeans. We would then  sell the jeans for five dollars each—still a good bargain for the customer and a good profit for us to split.  

Storefront beside the Rainbow on Columbia Street

Laura May rented me the space adjacent to the Rainbow which had formerly been John Shepard’s secondhand shop. This area would eventually become the room which housed the Rainbow’s pizza oven. For a few months, we had a good thing going, making trips to Tacoma in my pickup truck and coming home with mounds of beautiful used blue jeans to sell. The amount we sorted through in Tacoma was to the ceiling—at least fifteen feet high. Sometimes I would find a mint-condition jeans jacket with a blanket lining, or a perfectly weathered pair of bib overalls. It was like hunting for buried treasure. In the time of $5 Blue Jeans, a friend and I made a trip to San Francisco where we sold a carload of jeans to a shop in the Castro.

Me in a pile of denim

The customers at the Olympia storefront ranged from hippies to loggers, and everything was great, until a Japanese buyer outbid us for the denim, and took the entire stock away to make patchwork denim leisure suits. 

This was my first business in Olympia, but not the last.