I’m not sure exactly how or why my penchant for thrift shopping began, but it probably had something to with the extremely wealthy and high-powered Manhattan girls’ school I began attending in ninth grade. Suddenly I was thrown into the mix with girls who spent about as much on their wardrobes as I had received in scholarship money so that I would be able to attend the school. After a few months, something deep within me snapped. “Fuck it!” said my rebellious unconscious mind. “I can’t afford Prada, but I can afford these kickass army boots I found while rummaging through a bin at the thrift store around the corner. These boots make me feel invincible, and they were only $1.00. Put that in your Gucci pipe and smoke it, girls.” And so a hobby was born.
Over the years I’ve become something of a connoisseur of the second-hand. As many of you other thrift-shoppers probably know, there are several clues that the thrift store you’ve entered is a good one. They are, in no particular order:
Books are a thrift shop barometer. They’re the canary in the second-hand coal mine. If the books are good, it would follow that the clothes are probably going to be decent as well. If they’re lousy, beware the rest of the merchandise. Ten year old Zagat’s Guides, self-help books of any kind, and hardcover copies of Paul Reiser’s “Couplehood” are all warning signs. The Goodwill in my old neighborhood in Boston had mostly paperback romance novels. If someone has donated their books to Goodwill, they’ve probably also donated their clothes. I’m not going to judge the people who read scores of paperback romance novels, but I probably don’t share their taste in fashion. (Additionally, is it just me, or is there something a little unsavory about buying a used romance novel? It’s a little too close to buying a used copy of Playboy magazine. In other words, is the stain on that page from coffee, or passion? Let’s move on.)
-It knows it’s a thrift store.
How many promising thrift shops have you entered only to discover that they overvalue their own merchandise to a crippling extent? This tends to happen most glaringly in the furniture department. For the record, I love second-hand furniture. It’s usually made of actual wood, not pressboard, and it’s got history and it often already charmingly distressed. However, the thrift shop in question should know that since I’m in a thrift shop, I’m not looking to pay normal prices. If these items are valuable antiques, send them to an antique shop. Otherwise, keep them priced to move. Don’t play coy with me by offering $100 bookshelves and $75 cabinets. I will curse your name.
Likewise with clothes and shoes. If I wanted to pay $20 for a skirt, I’d buy it new. I’m in your shop because I don’t like shelling out more than $6 for a skirt, and I’m willing to buy a skirt that someone else has already owned. Many people find that concept unpleasant, but I don’t, and because of that, I am your main demographic. Work with me here.
I also take issue with so-called ‘Vintage’ clothing stores that jack up their prices. These stores thrive by scavenging the best clothing out of thrift stores and selling it at a high markup. This makes me mad on two accounts: One, because it means that there are fewer awesome finds left in normal thrift stores for people who like the thrill of the hunt, and two, because these stores cater to lazy individuals who want their 1950’s pinafores (which would be $3.49 in a regular thrift store) served to them on a silver platter for $39.00. I didn’t think it was possible to be a thrift shop snob, but there you have it, apparently I am. Or rather, a reverse snob. I really would rather find a beautiful vintage leather jacket for $5.99 by digging it out of a pile of other clothes than by having it served up on a rack full of similar leather jackets at a vintage store for $45.00. But that’s just me; I have a lot of free time, I enjoy the chase, and I’m cheap.
-The people running it are gossipy little old ladies.
Whenever I visited a certain Cape Cod thrift store, the little old ladies behind the counter always gave me an inadvertent earful about what was going on around town and with their little old lady friends and frenemies. I loved it. I got to overhear who was sick, whose husband was a good for nothing, who hadn’t been in church lately, the whole nine yards. Then when I brought my purchases to the front, the ladies always chatted with me about each item as they removed the price-tag that was safety-pinned to it, and recorded it in their ledgerbook with their loopy, old-fashioned little old lady scrawl. It was a part of the whole experience.
Little old lady-run thrift shops are also often meticulously well-ordered and free of stained and otherwise ruined clothing, which are two other warning signs of a sub-par thrift shop experience. Just because I’m shopping for used clothing doesn’t mean that I’ll overlook an inkblot on a blouse or a ripped hem. Thrift stores that don’t thoroughly sort their donated clothing and remove items that are clearly not sellable are also more likely to smell like homeless shelters, have spotty carpets, and be more or less extremely depressing, as are their employees. Little old lady clerks are rarely depressing, as they are usually having a great time.
-The people shopping at it are also gossipy little old ladies.
This means that the hipsters have not yet descended. The Cape Cod thrift shop above used to be filled to the brim with a treasure trove of adorable skirts and quirky sweaters; then the young and fashionable hoards discovered it and stripped it clean of all but the most boring and ill-fitting men’s golf shorts. It was a tragedy. I visited a thrift shop the other day in which I was the youngest person shopping in it, and I rejoiced. I found three adorable pairs of shoes that none of the older shoppers would have ever looked twice at.
Similarly, thrift stores in wealthy and dull neighborhoods like Manhattan’s Upper East Side tend to be goldmines. Wealthy socialites buy dresses, wear them once, and donate them immediately to make room in their closets for more dresses they will wear once. The children who are raised in those neighborhoods are too busy buying the latest fashions and wearing them once to consider entering a thrift shop. You and I reap the benefits.
If you’re not into thrift shopping, and you find the concept to be gross, by all means, continue to stay away. More practically new $4.00 Anne Taylor dresses for the rest of us. And if you’re a fellow thrift shopper, you can feel good about the fact that you are in effect recycling, by keeping more clothes out of landfills, and purchasing fewer brand new clothes that were probably made by exploited eight year olds.
(Speaking of brand-name clothes, has anyone else noticed that although Calvin Klein is supposed to be this fairly expensive, sexy clothing brand, every pair of Calvin Klein jeans I have ever found in a thrift shop has a tiny pinched waistline and weird sausage-stuffed saddlebagged legs and tapered ankles? I have yet to lay eyes on a single item of Calvin Klein clothing that was remotely fashionable. And don’t tell me it’s just the times they were made in, because I’m talking EVERY item I’ve ever found has been hideous. How did they manage to fool us all?)