I Love My Job: Philly Buffalo Exchange Manager on Why He Doesn’t Take Most of Your Clothes

Mike Shaffer has one of the coolest but toughest jobs overseeing what comes in at the popular Center City fashion destination. Here’s why he has to reject so much stuff.

Mike Shaffer. Photo by Khanya Brann.

Imagine being able to influence the closets of thousands of Philadelphians, from the shoes they rock one summer to the accessories they hold on to for years. That’s what Mike Shaffer has done each day since he’s worked at Philadelphia’s Buffalo Exchange, the first of the national resale chain’s stores to open on the East Coast. That was back in 2003, and over the past 15 years Shaffer has learned a lot about style, building customer relationships, running a business and, unfortunately, saying no… a lot. But when his team identifies something “cute” — their go-to word to describe the worthy items that catch their eye — they make room. Shaffer gives us the lowdown on the buy counter and tells us about some of the most random items brought into the store.

I grew up in… Kensington.

A favorite memory from my childhood is… going to the Jersey Shore. I still love going there to this day every summer. My favorite activities were riding the boardwalk rides, playing the claw machine, hanging out on the beach. I’m definitely a beach person. I go to Wildwood, but I also like going up to Fire Island.

I started working at Buffalo Exchange in… 2003. We used to be at 11th and Walnut, right near Jefferson Hospital. Then, we moved to 17th and Chestnut in 2005. Then, we expanded in 2012 and finally moved here to 15th and Chestnut in January.

Before working at Buffalo Exchange I… was a college student, but I also worked for two years at a curtain store in Port Richmond. I was selling curtains and teaching people how to put up curtains in their homes. I was 19. Not quite the most ideal job for a 19-year-old, but it worked.

Mike Shaffer. Photo by Khanya Brann.

The thing I enjoy most about my job is… looking through everybody’s clothes! I get to see a little bit into people’s lives — what they wore tells a story. I also really like meeting the customers that come in. We have some customers that come in every single day, sometimes twice a day, [whom] we know on a first hand basis.

Ever since we moved, it’s been exciting to see all the people that have just found out about us. This job puts us into contact with a lot of people, and we have the most diverse customer base that I’ve ever seen — that’s probably my favorite part of the job. I’ve met so many awesome people. Even people that are now close friends of mine I’ve met through just working here.

My work schedule is… definitely nontraditional. The company does like to promote work-life balance, though. It’s not like I’ve sold my soul to work here. I work a regular week, essentially, just nontraditional hours and nontraditional days. At least I’m never here that late… [Laughs]

The hardest part about working in retail is… not buying everything that you want. Also, keeping up with the pace — it’s pretty fast paced, especially here. It’s been a challenge because I started here when I was 21, and I had a lot of energy, and now I’m 36. Not saying that 36 is old, but I’ve just had to be adaptable. Retail and resale have changed a lot in that time. Everybody is into used clothing and is up on their street wear and fashion knowledge now.

I’m most known for… “holding it down,” is what my staff tells me. [Laughs]

Mike Shaffer with friends and colleagues. Courtesy photos.

I would describe my style as… eclectic, fun and inspired by music, for sure. I’m so inspired by the fashions of my youth. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I’m very inspired by personalities from that time period. I’m really into ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop and rock music and I would definitely say that is expressed in my style.

My style also changes depending on my mood: Usually in spring and summer I wear a lot of color, and in the fall and winter I wear a lot of dark tones.

I’ve always been into clothes and have always been a thrift store lover and a vintage lover. I grew up in that because growing up we didn’t have any money. We went to thrift store and just put things together, so that was pretty much it.

The toughest part about being manager is… staying organized. It’s really important, as a manager, especially of a large volume store like ours, to be organized. I’m always busy. If I weren’t organized, I would probably work longer hours than I do, and my job wouldn’t be as fun. We thrive in chaos in this industry for sure, but it’s…organized chaos. [Laughs]

Photos courtesy of Mike Shaffer.

People may get disappointed at the buy counter… when we aren’t able to buy everything they’ve brought in. The reason we can’t do that is because we have so many people that sell to us and only so much space. If we brought in everything, we would run out of space very quickly.

We’re a resale store, so we’re looking for the best of everything to provide a really excellent selection for our customers. We want to make sure it’s curated because we’re not a thrift store, where you’re searching for hours to find the one, cool thing. Because we’re good at what we do, you can come in here and immediately find something that you love.

When evaluating a piece… we look at the style. The very first thing we do is ask ourselves, “Is this a desirable piece?” We also ask, “Is this cute?” “Cute” is subjective, but we try not to be subjective at the buy counter. So we also try to ask, “Is a customer in Buffalo Exchange going to buy this piece?” Then we look at it more and check out the condition and we’re like, “Cool, the condition is great.” And then we look at the brand because that offers some context clues like, “How much does this retail for? Is this a very popular brand?” The brand just helps us put a price on something. It doesn’t make our decision on whether or not we’re going to take it in. Somebody could have a very unattractive Gucci piece that is in bad condition, and we’d rather buy that really cute H&M or Forever 21 piece instead of that old Gucci piece that is in really bad shape. Our customers just want a cute outfit.

Mike Shaffer. Photo by Khanya Brann.

The most I’ve ever taken from one person is… from this woman who brought in 15 large bags, like contractor bags, full of stuff. It took me three hours to go through everything. She worked in the fashion industry and was really well known, and so she collected all of this amazing merchandise over the years. I can’t say how much cash we gave her, but I’ll say she did really well. She was very stylish and had everything from designer denim to vintage rock band tees that everybody’s been looking for. She had souvenir jackets from Japan, a bunch of sterling silver jewelry, and even Gap and Forever 21 pieces. She had a little bit of everything.

One of our biggest challenges at the store is… finding a place to put all of the great stuff that we get in our inventory. We had to rent a storage unit to put all of the stuff that we’ve been getting. It’s a challenge for sure, but it’s a really good challenge. Since we’ve moved, we’ve seen an influx of people coming in to sell, and we’re not gonna turn down a good piece.

Keeping up with the flow of business is also a really big challenge. We have the biggest staff that we’ve ever had right now, and with a bigger staff, I feel like even more customers are able to come in because we can help them a lot faster. The staff grew, and then the customer base grew, then the staff will grow even bigger, which we will see with an even stronger customer base. It’s definitely been a fun ride in this new location. We’re really happy with it.

Items selling the fastest right now are… street wear. Everyone is also looking for flowy linen and exaggerated silhouettes and fits. Everyone wants high quality washed denim. And customers are into sneakers, particularly chunky pairs and Jordan’s. And anytime we get anything Gucci that’s in good condition, customers eat it up.

The most random thing anyone has ever brought in is… a Christmas sweater that was supposed to be worn by five people. It was connected so that a whole family could wear it at once. We were like, “What the heck do we even do with this?” But we couldn’t say no; we had to take it. A bunch of us wore it and took pictures in it, then someone came in and bought it.

Buffalo Exchange staff dressed as Bob’s Burgers characters. Courtesy photo.

Our biggest season is… Halloween, so we tend to save a lot of random things, or things that can be costume pieces. Our customers really love it. We’re the only place where you can get that kind of stuff, and it’s important that we have the upper hand on that market.

The coolest items anyone has ever brought in are… a pair of black platform John Fluevog go-go boots from the early ‘90s. They went for $120. The other one was a Swarovski crystal Judith Leiber bag, the bag that Carrie wore in Sex and the City. A woman came in and knew what it was, and just dropped the money for it. It sold for $600.

Something most people might not know about working here is… that we teach our employees how to run a business. We don’t just put our employees at the buy counter and say, “Here, look through this stuff.” We have a training process that everybody has to go through. We really want to make our employees feel like they can contribute to the company’s success. We share our numbers with the crew every single month to keep them engaged, and we’re always developing people. I got promoted so many times just from showing interest in really loving people and loving clothes. We want everybody to be that way too, so we make sure we provide that education.

Mike Shaffer. Photo by Khanya Brann.

The best career advice I’ve ever been given is… two things: to go with what I feel the most passionate about and to not sell myself short. Basically, ask for what you want.

If I weren’t doing this, I would be… a real estate agent. I’m super into real estate right now. I own a house and am looking to buy a second one. I could also see myself as a magazine editor since I went to journalism school.

A thing I do to relax is… hang out with my friends at the pool in the summer. My in-laws have a pool, so we go there on weekends. I also like to go out dancing. I’m also a DJ, so I DJ once in a while.

Mike Shaffer as DJ. Courtesy photos.

The best book I’ve ever read is… anything by David Sedaris. I like his autobiographical style and dark humor. Also, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s about factory farming, vegetarianism and veganism. I’ve been vegan for 13 years, so it just gave me a little more insight, and another person’s point of view about my lifestyle choice.

A leader I’d like to be more like is… really just a better version of myself. I look up to a bunch of people, but I can’t say, “I wanna be like that person.” I just wanna be the best version of myself that I can be. I may not know what that is yet, but I’m always looking to be better and to learn more about myself, but also about my job. I’ve been doing it for so long, but there are always more things to learn about people, about clothes, about running a successful business.

I take my job seriously because… I care about it. I’m passionate about what I do, even if it’s something small. I usually put my all into everything I do.