Do Toronto thrift stores have a bedbug problem?
It's a word that strikes fear into the heart of all Torontonians - bedbugs. That terror is doubly felt by the city's secondhand shoppers, who regularly rifle through their fellow Torontonians' closet castoffs at thrift, consignment and resale stores in search of a great deal. (Not enough fear to scare them off completely, though, as the city's current secondhand fashion boom proves.)
But how realistic are those fears? Sure, the idea of secondhand clothing might squick some folks out, but is buying used clothing really a higher bedbug risk than riding the TTC, heading to a library or sitting in a movie theatre?
Secondhand stores around Toronto, from thrift stores in low-income areas to high-end consignment stores, are all on alert for the possibility of bedbugs, and keep their eyes peeled for telltale signs when buying new stock - though most say they don't clean clothing themselves as a precaution.
One of the few that does is Double Take on Gerrard East, operated by the Yonge Street Mission, which which features a large sign in the window advertising that all clothing is steam cleaned, and all linens are washed (and, the store staff add, dried on hot).
"I believe putting a sign in our window expressly stating that we steam clean all our clothing is something that has drawn a very appreciative audience to Double Take," says manager Kathy Webster.
The store uses a large steaming machine, as well as another for delicate items (like leather jackets). But, Webster says, that main machine cost them between $25,000 and $30,000 to obtain - a prohibitive price tag for most businesses.
Combating bedbugs, as anyone who's ever hosted the little blighters can attest, is more complicated than just throwing an item in the laundry. If the bugs have laid eggs on a garment, washing won't kill them - the clothing also needs to be exposed to very high heat via a dryer or steamer. Add up the staffing, equipment, and time needed to treat every piece that comes through the door, and those processing costs often become unfeasible for businesses trying to cater to a cost-conscious clientele.
That having been said, however, secondhand buyers are typically on high alert. At the Kind Exchange, staff say looking for unwanted critters - particularly along clothing seams, where they like to hide - is a big part of the quality control process. "We check things seam for seam, button by button, so it makes it easy to tell," says Bronwen Hagan, who manages the Queen and Peter store.
If buyers spot the slightest trace of an insect of any kind, they immediately seal the item in a plastic bag and either ask the consignor to come pick it up right away or dispose of it outright.
Thrift stores are even more vigilant, thanks to the possibility of infestation through used furniture (where bedbugs like to hide in nooks and crannies). Staff at Value Village in Leslieville say they don't accept used mattresses (the rule for most thrift stores) and tend to avoid taking bed frames; though clothing isn't washed, everything else is inspected for signs of an infestation, particularly furniture.
Vintage lovers, however, may be able to breathe a little easier. Since vintage shops typically buy their stock from various dealers and warehouses, instead of directly from members of the public, it's theoretically less likely that an infestation that began in a private apartment or home would make its way into the store.
High-end consignment stores, too, often ask for clothing to either be freshly washed or dry cleaned (though buyers at lower-end resale stores like Kind Exchange also say they'll decline items they can tell aren't clean). Of course, though they're a problem generally associated with lower-income neighbourhoods, bedbugs don't discriminate based on class - and just because the label on your secondhand find says "Chanel", that doesn't automatically mean you're immune.
Whatever you brought home, you can always buy yourself a little extra peace of mind; Toronto Public Health advises safeguarding your place against potential thrift-store hitchhikers by throwing your new item into a hot dryer for 30 minutes. It's a handy tip, since Toronto's thrift addicts (myself included) likely won't be going cold turkey on the thrill of the find anytime soon.