One of the things that makes New York, well, New York, is the small business owners who follow their dreams and work against all odds to create some of the most incredible shopping and dining experiences. Tucked into a storefront on East 9th Street (between 1st Ave and Ave A), Mr. Throwback is a vintage-clothing store filled with ‘90s sports apparel, sneakers, and video games. Michael Spitz, 33, the owner of the East Village shop, got the collecting bug at a young age—think Space Jam sneakers, Michael Jordan jerseys—and has turned that passion into a thriving small business. WSWD’s Experience Planner Amy Rivard stopped by the shop to check in with Mr. Throwback himself and find out how it all began.
When did you first start collecting memorabilia?
I grew up in Bellmore, Long Island—home of the Sunrise Mall—where I got my first pair of Space Jams in 2000. [Classic Air Jordan sneakers that the eponymous Chicago Bulls star wore in the movie Space Jam in 1996.] I also collected as many sports posters and jerseys as I could get my hands on.
Did your family embrace your budding collection?
I can remember finding a Jordan jersey at Marshalls for $50, and I hung it on my bedroom wall. When my mother found out how much I paid for it, she made me return it. I was so upset, but I was a good boy, I listened to my mother. Now every time I get one in the store I tell her, “Hey Mom, guess what I got today? Another Jordan jersey!” (He currently has two hanging on the wall of Mr. Throwback.)
How did you turn that passion for collecting into a business?
When I came home from college in 2004, I found a couple of jerseys in a bunch of boxes that I had been storing in my parents’ basement. I thought about what I could do with them. I started thrifting, going to estate sales and flea markets on Long Island, and I collected even more. Then I decided to sell at a flea market on weekends, and I quickly became obsessed with the whole process: wake up at 6 a.m., set up, watch the people walking around and checking out your stuff, talk with them and do a little bartering. I really enjoyed it.
And you ended up on East 9th Street?
I really wanted a store, but I didn’t have the money to start one. I saw a storefront on East 9th between 1st and Avenue A was vacant, but a broker wanted $20,000 in rent and fees for it. I remember going home completely devastated. I didn’t have that kind of money. After a month-long depression, I came back to 9th Street and the store was still vacant. I was standing outside and this very nice woman named Mary comes up to me and asks if I’m interested in the space. I told her I couldn’t afford her rent and it broke my heart. It turns out she owned the building and said that she was looking for the “right” tenant, someone who she’d want to bet on. She then told me I could have it for $5,700 per month—I only had $6,000 in the bank, but I said yes. I paid another $250 to have it painted, and I opened Mr. Throwback with $50 cash in my pocket!
Did you have enough merchandise to fill the store?
I started the store with 12 consignors. It was awesome but I cried a lot because I was scared. My parents were old-school and they said, “Don’t do it, I want you to work at a place to make your benefits. Get your salary!” I knew that I couldn’t sit at a desk all day. I love this. I’m gonna do this. If it fails, at least I can say that I’ve done it! I’ve been here three years now. I have customers from as far away as Dubai, Australia, France, you name it! You have to do what you’re passionate about. We stay ahead of the game with branding opportunities. We have collaborations with people like Chalk Line [mural-painted fan jackets], Starter for hats and jackets, Slam Magazine. We even did a collaboration with one of my favorite restaurants in the neighborhood, The Nugget Spot (230 East 14th St).
Do you ever get pieces on consignment that you want to keep for yourself?
Every day! We go through it all of the time. It’s especially hard if you get a good deal on it. But, obviously, we have to sell stuff, so sometimes I have to let it go. I hoard authentic basketball jerseys, and it’s hockey season right now, and we get a lot of Rangers stuff that I would love to wear, but I’ve got to pay the rent! I have a lot of pieces you can’t find anywhere else. People will go to the NBA store and if they can’t find what they’re looking for, the salespeople will tell them to come to us. All of our stuff is authentic and I can also authenticate [pieces] for you too. I’ve done this for so long now, I know the real stuff from the fake stuff. I can go to any game and I can tell you which jerseys are fake.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a business owner?
Honestly, to be in this business you have to be extremely knowledgeable about vintage sportswear—and we are. I believe good customer service is crucial. You can’t teach personality. You can’t teach drive and passion. My staff is amazing. They were all customers, and they are also my consignors. We’re all very passionate about this store and our products. Many people come here for that experience. I’m also grateful for Instagram. When we started we had 2,000 followers. Now we have 70,000! It’s all about the picture. If people see it, they’ll want it.
You’ve been here three years. How has the neighborhood changed?
Today, you’ll see a lot more men’s stores such as Reason (436 East 9th St) and Cadet (305 East 9th St), than before, so it’s nice to see that men have more options for where to shop. The street we are on is called the Vintage Fifth Avenue.
Where do you like to eat in the neighborhood?
East Village Pizza (145 1st Ave), Superiority Burger (430 East 9th St) next door for veggie burgers, Crif Dogs (113 St. Marks Place) for bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
Who has the best throwback style?
[Hip-hop artist] Fabolous comes here a lot. He has the best style!