It’s 11am at the fortnightly Peckham Carboot and vendors – largely under 25 – are parting ways with vintage Versace, Lacoste polos and Fendi mules. Elsewhere, stacks of fashion books are piled high, mid-century cabinets sit around on the school playground’s concrete and a jerk chicken stall feeds the hungry punters doing the rounds.
Art school kids dressed in blazers, slogan T‑shirts, sky-high platforms and skinny-ish jeans (not all together, mind) mope around, nursing hangovers with a coffee, cigarette and armed with last night’s gossip.
This is a car boot sale far removed from the heydays of bric-a-brac, Star Wars merch and stalls selling rhubarb and custards. While the charm was there, the quality of the clothes were never that good, and while we all treasured a knick knack, if you were between the ages of, say, 10 and 40, there wasn’t that much treasure among the trash. From the noughties onwards, a lot of the good stuff was going on eBay or, more recently, Depop, while the pandemic put car boots on the blocks.
There’s been a cultural shift, though. Over the last few years, more and more car boot sales are swerving sharp left and appealing to youth, bringing with them actually good clothes. But where’s best for wears and wares? Well, London has a slew of top-notch options; Chiswick Car Boot Sale is a classic and London Car Boot Co holds down two of the city’s most reliable in Kilburn and Dalston.
But it’s not just in London. From Brighton Racecourse all the way up to Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange, budding thrifters are cottoning onto the fact that you can create new circular loops of good clobber if you spread the word. Rummage in the Range in Manchester, a weekly happening of twenty-something sellers armed with covetable clothes and all sorts of chintzy wonders, for example, is usually washed down with local lager.
The characters that come along are all part of the magic, too. So much so that they became the protagonists of photographer Arthur J. Comely’s recent book £1 Entry, a compendium of frugal and fashionable car boot regulars. “I was surprised how regularly people would go. You’d see the same faces every weekend – there is definitely a community vibe,” he told THE FACE earlier this year. “The biggest interest for me is how people wear the clothes and what they buy. You find real style at the boot fairs.”
Back at Peckham Carboot, it’s founders Erin Murphy and Steven Lopes said “we started in 2019 just before Covid – initially it was literally about four cars – then as soon as Covid hit we started doing a virtual version on Instagram,” says Erin, who also runs that very cool vintage shop Attagirl in Shoreditch.
After it returned IRL, things started to take off. “The stuff people were selling was so cool, so we’d take photos and put it up on Instagram and that would draw people in,” Steven explains. With word of mouth and Insta content doing the rounds, they’ve since added a second playground to the site, with plans to expand further in the future. And what have they picked up today for themselves? “I got a Prada hat and a gilet for a tenner,” Erin says. “I got a load of cool football shirts,” Steven adds with a grin.
But while some car boot sale runners are using social media to market their markets, social media creators are reversing the system, using car boot sales to promote their own channels. In the last couple of years car boot content on TikTok has gone turbo, with millions of videos of Depop sellers popping to their local schools, parks and churches with a few crisp notes in one hand and an iPhone in the other.
“I’d applied to do a masters after uni but had no money, so I started selling clothes from my wardrobe and set up an Instagram account,” Becky Chorlton, founder of Becky’s Bazaar, says. Starting small, her social media status rocketed during lockdown, leading to her pursuing it full time. She now has 175,000 TikTok followers. “I started showing behind the scenes content of getting stock for my business as I felt there was a real gap in the market,” she explains. “Me and my mum would go out and source stock at wholesalers filled with bags of clothes from floor to ceiling and go to kilo sales and clothes swaps.”
The real hit, though, has been her car boot sale challenges, which see Becky thrift an entire new outfit for just a few quid. Her top tip? Go low. “Don’t be afraid to rummage! People are drawn to the rails and the nice clothes on the hangers but the big overwhelming piles are where it’s at,” she says. “Within the past few years there’s been a massive shift. I see way more people my age [at car boots], which correlates with the TikTok stuff. Loads of people tag their friends saying we should go.”
Social media isn’t the only reason for the shift, though; it’s also due to our changing social lives. While selling online can mean entering a wormhole of snakey DMs, low-ballers and drama (and thrift shops usually have as much convo as a convent library), car boot sales are the new scene meet-ups, a chance to hang out in the real world. “We’ve made loads of friends, it’s a really nice community,” Steven tells me, pointing out an array of regulars like a proud publican.
Yes, it’s true that you could probably make more cash on an app, but the hustle is a lot less hassle, too. “You can make more money on Depop but it takes so much time. Going and posting it and taking really good pics and being up against all the big shops is tricky,” say Bella and Ellie, while holding down the fort at their Peckham stall. Nicole – who has just sold her model partner’s All Saints shirts for a fiver each – agrees. “I also have a Depop but it’s more niche stuff,” she says. “Everything else that I can’t be bothered to add I sell here for a fiver.”
With the cost-of-living crisis still crunching the nation, cash-in-hand also has a lot more currency than waiting a few days for a bank payment to clear. But it’s not just about the money; thrifting IRL is way more thrilling. “You get more of an adrenaline rush thrifting stuff in real life,” Becky says, recalling a time she swiped a Red Bull jacket that Fiorucci ended up displaying in their store for an event. “I know that some people get excited about waiting for delivery, but sometimes it’s annoying for me, because I just want it now!
“With a car boot you have to put in the work: you wake up early, and you rummage in a field and then at the end of it, you’ve got a big bag of bargains that you can feel really good about,” she continues. Another thing that adds to the feel-good factor: your saving stuff from going to landfill. OK, yes, there are still cars – but nobody’s perfect, alright?
Sauntering towards the exit, I spot a few old-timer antique sellers packing up their stalls and my mind starts to wander. With the car boot rev gathering speed, is there a risk that we’re gentrifying a traditional institution? Can there be a Goldilocks middle-ground between the dated and the updated; the hackneyed and the Hackneyed?
Perhaps, with all this new hype, we shouldn’t lose sight of the original ethos. Sure, some of the knick-knacks are knackered, but others, if we make kitsch our shtick, are worthy of taking home, cherishing and displaying with pride. Who needs a Seletti vase when you can get yourself a ’70s spaghetti jar for a hundredth of the price?
Just before I leave, I overhear two sellers called Rob and Liv pretty much saying the same thing. Rob, who’s made just two quid today but seems delighted, offers his two cents. “I was just saying to Liv it’s so nice seeing abandoned things at home going to a new home,” he tells me. “I sold a teapot for a quid and you could see the delight in her eyes. It made me incredibly happy.” Does he think a lot of the stuff ends up in an endless loop of car boot sale buying-and-selling? “Sure, but that’s the cycle of life!”