Buffalo Exchange: A Sustainable Tucson Success Story Celebrates 40 Years

February 13, 2014

I'm pretty sure this is the most adorable sign for any company's Administrative Office, especially one that boasted $82M in sales in 2012. And it's not far from where it all began.

I’m pretty sure this is the most adorable sign for any company’s Administrative Office, especially one that boasted $81.6M worth of sales in 2012. And it’s not far from where it all began.

By James J. Jefferies

In an era in which thrift shop hunting is actually a subject cool enough to warrant a smash hit song, and many different kinds of outlets engage in resale of used items, it might be difficult to recall a time when such a thing carried a stigma.

Yes, dear readers, there was a point in history during which the concept of buying used clothes was considered gauche, if not socially unacceptable. The year was 1974. America remained transfixed on the White House as a stream of devastating revelations stemming from the Watergate investigation unfolded. An energy crisis loomed as people still drove enormous, gas-guzzling behemoths made of steel and designed in Detroit. Archie Bunker and his rowdy family ruled television, and an enterprising young Swedish woman, who found herself living and working in the Old Pueblo after marrying her sweetheart, started a small resale clothing shop called Buffalo Exchange. (She thought the word Buffalo was very American.)

Kerstin Block, in her eclectic yet comfortable office filled with plaques and knick-knacks from a long, terrific ride.

Kerstin Block, the original Macklemore, in her eclectic yet comfortable office filled with award plaques and knick-knacks from a long, terrific career.

“Resale wasn’t very popular,” said Kerstin Block, whose first location forty years ago was in a 450 square-foot space very close to the University of Arizona. She had just been fired from another job she wasn’t wild about anyway, and with the encouragement and support from her husband, Spencer, she was able to make the leap towards starting her very own store. “We made it look like a little boutique. There have always been people who have wanted to find something cute for cheap, but what we did was present resale in a totally different way,” said Block.

Her approach, which has evolved into a company model predicated upon sustainability and socially responsible retail practices, originated by simply putting the focus on clothes in a fun-driven boutique environment.

It is also important to note that Block sees Buffalo Exchange’s practices as being reflective of Tucson’s community values as well. “Ever since I first went to school here at the U of A in 1960,” said Block, “…there’s always been an availability of alternative people, and alternative thinking, and a certain level of being ahead of the curve, in thinking about things like that (sustainability).”

Buffalo Exchange's Downtown features a number of commissioned paintings, such as this one of the old Tucson Inn, and retains so much of the old building's character.

Buffalo Exchange’s Downtown Tucson location features a number of commissioned paintings of notable Old Pueblo landmarks, such as this one of the venerable Tucson Inn, and retains so much of the old building’s character.

It’s hard to argue with Block’s approach, given what has transpired since 1974. As of December 2012, the company now has 46 stores and 3 franchises in 17 states, having pulled down a cool $81.6 million worth of sales that year. It remains a fantastic Tucson success story, born out of a simple love for clothing and a harnessing of that very human thrill of finding a good deal.

In terms of celebrating their 40th Anniversary, Block alludes to a cavalcade of special events and promotions planned for Buffalo Exchange, not the least of which will be an Airstream Trailer, which will tour around the country to all the stores, much like the one her and Spencer went on road trips in across America when they were young.

It is quite clear that Block’s potent retail operation is one very much built upon her lifelong passion for fashion, and an inspiration for anyone who might have a similar dream of their own. It also stands as a powerful example in the 21st century, that one absolutely can build themselves a successful venture that is capable of coexisting harmoniously with the people it serves. Buffalo Exchange has several locations in Tucson, including their Downtown location at 250 E. Congress St., and can be found on the web here.