Surrounded by clothing and accessories from years past, Debbie Markley holds up a dark silver mesh purse, circa 1970. "This reminds me of a time in my life that I want to go back to," the party planner from Islip says wistfully.
Spying a 1960s green dress and coat ensemble, she muses it was "something Jackie Kennedy would wear."
Meanwhile, Alyssa Van Bourgondien, 49, of Dix Hills, was trying on a sleeveless, flowered dress with high slits from the 1960s to wear on a cruise. "Look!" Van Bourgondien, who owns a nursery and garden center, said laughing. "It even has hot pants!"
Van Bourgondien plunked down about $300 for the hot pants set plus three 1960s cocktail outfits.
While these stores are favorites of people in the Act2 generation for the memories they conjure, shoppers of all ages frequent them, choosing rediscovered classic styles over mass-market mall offerings.
"You never know what you're going to find," said Markley, 51, who left empty-handed that day. "It's like playing grown-up dress-up."
For some longtime patrons, these stores can be outlets for selling the garments, jewelry, handbags and other accessories that have been stored in attics or closets.
While they have a lot in common, these stores are as different as the items they sell.
Dresses, coats, hats, blouses and jewelry fill every inch of Perennial's 400 square feet and even spill onto the sidewalk when the weather cooperates. There are a half-dozen shoe displays, a rack of beaded clutch purses hanging from the ceiling, dozens of cloche hats from the 1920s, a rack of sequined blouses, Persian lamb and leopard-skin jackets, and necklaces dangling from a lampshade.
By contrast, My Inheritance in Huntington exudes an elegant, airy, Art Deco atmosphere, with a few displays of jewelry, handbags and designer clothes. One wall has framed Vogue magazine covers and movies from the 1930s to the 1950s play on a TV.
Thrift shops, they're not
The inventory comes from professional dealers, estate sales, the owner's personal collections and attic cleanouts. Stores that take consignment items generally accept 40 to 70 percent of what's offered, and things that don't sell after one season are usually returned or donated to charity.
Some stores sell 100 percent vintage, others a mix of older and newer secondhand goods. But they should not be confused with thrift shops. Some places sell only designer names. A vintage Chanel gown or bag at Revival Boutique in Roslyn can run $1,000 to $1,500. At My Inheritance, a 1940s-era, crocodile and alligator handbag is priced at $700.
Still, owners say, these prices are usually just one-fourth to one-third of what a shopper would pay for an equivalent new item today -- if an equivalent could be found.
"You have to go to a high-end store to find six-inch hems. That would be a waste of material" by today's standards, says Perennial owner Linda Berman, 54, pointing to a sheer, 1950s cocktail dress with just that size hem.
Berman says she's been collecting since she was 13, when she bought a vintage pocketbook in Manhattan, using wages from dog-walking and baby-sitting.
Among her favorite pieces is a 1940s-era, sterling silver Boy Scout charm bracelet. About 10 years ago, with her collection piling up in rented storage spaces, she decided to abandon her restaurant career and turn her hobby into a business.
Priced right for recession
The relatively low prices at these shops have been an advantage for some owners in this recession. Sales are up 25 to 30 percent at Revival. My Inheritance saw a similar jump during the 2009 holiday season.
For others, there was no impact. "When people aren't spending, they're not spending," says Tisha Collette, who owns shops that bear her name on the East End. But with the recession, she's noticed, "There are probably more people that want to consign."
What owners and shoppers seem to share is a love of fine, old stuff.
Eileen Antonucci, owner of My Inheritance, who is in her mid-50s, began collecting during business trips as a management consultant. "I would comb the flea markets and go to all the outdoor fairs in London," she says. Today, she juggles both careers, running her shop with five part-time sales clerks.
Revival began five years ago, when Elissa Rosenbaum was thinning her closet in her Old Westbury home.
She and her friend Lauren Rubenstein of Manhasset began collecting more potential merchandise, storing them in Rosenbaum's guest room while they scouted out retail sites.
But not everyone who has owned what is now vintage material is as quick-thinking as Rosenbaum.
"I've seen shoes [at Perennial] that I wore in high school," says Markley, the party planner. "I couldn't wait to get rid of them back then. Now I could kick myself because they would have been worth money."
A few months ago, she forked over about $55 at Perennial for a pair of cowboy boots just like ones she used to own.