I’ve never really shopped much at thrift stores. I’d occasionally stop in at a Salvation Army and browse through the books, but I never went any further than that. To me, thrift stores were a little . . . yucky.
At least that was my attitude before I started hanging out with my friend Kim. Kim works at the used bookstore where I write, and each day she shows up dressed in clothes that are funky and unique. High-end brands. Clothes I’d like to be wearing.
“Where’d you get that skirt?” I’d ask longingly.
“At the thrift shop around the corner,” she’d say pointing north. “I keep telling you, I get all my clothes at thrift shops.”
I’d wrinkle my nose. Thrift stores, in my mind, were where people dumped all their yard sale leftovers. How did Kim keep scoring these great clothes? Finally, my envy got the best of me–that and the need to be ultra fiscally responsible in these unstable economic times. I broke down and begged Kim to teach me the ins and outs of thrifting.
Kim laughed. “There’s not much to it,” she said. “You just have to be patient and fairly consistent. I go about once a week. If you keep looking, you can find treasures. I know people who have decorated their entire houses with nothing but thrift store finds. You’d never guess.”
I decided to give it a try. With my daughters in tow, we tested out the thrifting waters at a local outdoor gear store. Half the store is devoted to consignment goods, including clothing. Tentatively, we flipped through the hangers. In the kids’ section, I found some like-new hiking shorts and pants in my girls’ sizes. A couple of days prior I’d been contemplating buying backcountry gear for them at REI, but couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. I handed the clothes to my kids and pointed them towards the dressing room. Newly motivated, I inspected the racks of clothes a little more closely. Twenty minutes later, we walked out with two pairs of hiking shorts, a pair of hiking pants, a kids’ North Face fleece jacket, a kids’ Patagonia fleece pullover, and a pair of Prana jeans for me. Grand total: $78. The equivalent of what I would have spent on one and a half pair of hiking pants online.
My whole attitude regarding thrifting made an abrupt about-face. Per Kim’s sage advice, once a week I kept returning to The Gear Exchange to check out the consignment racks. And then I hit the mother lode. I was perusing the women’s outerwear section, hoping to find some warm sweaters for the winter, when the bright teal sleeve of a jacket caught my eye. As my brain computed that teal is my favorite color, I noticed that the sleeve was the quilted pattern of the Patagonia down jacket I’d been yearning for since last winter. Quickly I scooted the other hangers away and holding my breath checked the size. It just so happened to be mine. I took the coat off the hanger and preparing myself to be disappointed when I checked the price tag. At consignment shops, sellers name their own prices and often ask for much more than I am willing to pay. I was sure this would be the case as this jacket was in mint condition and retails for $200, but when I flipped over the tag it read $20.00. I checked again. Yup, $20. Clenching the jacket to my chest, I practically ran to the dressing room where there was a full length mirror. It fit perfectly. I did an elaborate victory dance even though I was sure they would tell me at check out that they’d forgotten to put a 1 before the 2. But when the clerk rang me up, all she said was, “Good find.”
My good find and I ran a couple of blocks south, where we pranced into my husband’s office. By that point I was sweating because it was 98 degrees out, but I didn’t care. My husband paled. “You bought yourself a Patagonia jacket?”
“YES I DID!” I shouted. “And guess how much?” I didn’t wait for him to answer. “TWENTY BUCKS!” I pumped my fists in the air. “It is the thrift store find of the century!”
He was a little jealous, I could tell.
After that, I was hooked on thrifting. And apparently, I’m not the only one looking for a good deal. According to an article in USA Today, thrift store sales are up. About 20 percent of the population currently shop in thrift stores compared to 14 percent in 2008. People are thrifting out of necessity, but they are also thrifting to find unique alternatives to the mass-produced sameness that is offered by Kmart, Walmart, and Target. There isn’t the social stigma surrounding thrifting that there was a decade ago. These days, thrifting is smart home economy.
For all the reasons above–being more careful about how I spend my money and wanting to break away from corporate conformity–I have become a thrift store convert. Not long ago, I walked into one of our four local thrift shops and thought to myself: Why would I ever buy retail again? The yuck factor has evaporated, and now all I can see is opportunity.
Prior to school starting, I scored three reams of unopened lined paper (25 cents each) and two like-new binders (25 cents each). My girls, who are also way into thrifting, have found numerous shirts ($2.00 each) and a couple of great cashmere/lamb’s wool sweaters ($2.50 each). I have picked up several canning jars (25 cents each), a cast iron bundt pan ($1.50), two work shirts for my husband ($2.00 each), a beautiful black wool skirt for me ($2.00 plus $15.00 dry cleaning bill), and even a set of California King size sheets that had never been used ($5.00).
Although thrifting may not be as easy or convenient as making a retail purchase, I’ve been surprised at how quickly I’ve found exactly what I’m looking for once I start searching. Two days after my husband asked me to keep my eyes open for a cassette tape holder, I stumbled across a library media cassette holder (50 cents) at The Salvation Army. I texted my husband, “SCORE!” I am currently looking for some hand weights, and I have no doubt that I’ll find them soon.
But there are some thrifting rules that I had to learn the hard way. This summer, while at a local church-run thrift shop, I found the perfect skirt for Kim. The brown and orange floral pattern was just different enough to be stylish. I was pretty sure it was her size, but I hesitated and left the store without it. When I went back the next day to buy it, the skirt was gone.
I relayed my sad tale to Kim. She laughed. “That’s the first lesson of thrifting. Buy it when you see it because it won’t be there later. But be sure and check the seam and zippers first.” I learned through trial and error to also check for stains. The rule of thumb among online thrifting experts is to never buying something that doesn’t fit just right or needs to be altered. If you wouldn’t buy it at retail store in the condition it is in, don’t buy it at a thrift store no matter how cheap.
While you don’t want to pass on any great finds, another thrifting tip to keep in mind is this: Don’t buy it if you don’t need it. I was lamenting to my husband about a cool, old-fashion stationary bike that someone bought before I could get my hands on it. My husband looked puzzled, “But where would you’ve put it?” Good question.
Of course, I draw the line at certain second-hand purchases. (And I do realize that this is a fortunate choice I have that some people do not.) A blog article posted by Maker Mama lists items you should definitely NOT purchase at a thrift store. Stuffed animals, underwear, plasticware, and untested electrical appliances to name a few. I also am a little paranoid about hats (think LICE). And even though many people buy thrift store shoes, I’ve read that walking in shoes with someone else’s wear pattern can have a negative effect on your knees and ankles. Regardless of what you purchase, it is good policy to apply bleach and/or hot water and soap liberally. But once clean, thrift store items are as good as new. Maybe even better.
Each time I make a thrift store purchase, I feel like I have gotten away with something. I love calculating how much money I saved. There also is something satisfying about the delayed gratification of thrifting, something important about waiting patiently for just the right thing to be handed down to me. The best part of purchasing second-hand is that all our local thrift shops are run by nonprofit organizations such as Hospice and The Salvation, which means that the money I spend goes directly to a good cause. I am not only recycling, I am helping others.
I didn’t realize, until after my thrift store conversion, that my mom has been thrifting her entire life. All summer and fall, we have been swapping tales of thrift store finds. In an email she wrote, “I love thrift stores and always have. That’s why I always say that everything in my house was someone else’s first. I love that. I remember where every single thing came from and the story behind it.”
“You inherited your love of thrift stores from me,” she concluded.
How fitting, my thrifting love is a hand-me-down.