Back when I was a little girl my mother constantly took me thrift store shopping. I don’t know whether it was due to economic need or because my mother, having grown up desperately poor, never gave up the habit but for a little girl like me places such as the DAV, Salvation Army and Goodwill were like giant toy boxes. That was back in the day when I’d rummage through an open basket of ladies compacts and cigarette cases, gold and silver toned, some with rhinestones and engraving, enthralled with their shiny elegance. We would tour the used furniture area together at these stores, my mom pointing out the signs of good construction and, in the glasswares, how to differentiate colored glass from its wannabe cousin, painted glass. Of course we would always leave with a nice little armload of used books because we were a house of readers and as my mother would always say, “The words never go bad.”
Consequently, thrift store shopping is a part of me. When I was a young married woman, unfettered with children and making a nice living, thrift store shopping was an adventure I’d indulge in on Saturdays once a month or so; sometimes coming back empty-handed and other times with some little something-or-other for the house – a planter, a picture frame, a wine rack or even better, vintage jewelry pieces for my collection. When I became a slightly older divorced single mom, thrift store shopping was less the adventure and more the necessity. Where else would I be able to obtain a back-to-work wardrobe for less than $100? If you feel there’s a bit of social stigma attached with shopping second hand I urge you to let the idea go. You’d buy a used house, used car, used boat, wouldn’t you? If you’ve ever taken out a library book you’ve read a used book. You go to a restaurant and dine off dishes used by previous patrons. No matter. My point is this: Thrift stores, second-hand stores, consignment stores and the like have always been outstanding sources for the great buy, the unusual buy and the practical buy. I’m here to encourage you to join in the adventure. And here’s what you can find:
Reading Material. I’ve already mentioned one reason to haunt your local second-hand store: Books, books and more books! As far as I’m concerned, my best source for good books at great prices has always been the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) store located in my hometown. There, in the back of the store, are rows and rows of newer books, out of print books, hardbacks, paperbacks, educational books, reference books. sci-fi, romance…you name it. The paperbacks are usually in the $1.25-2.00 range. Picking up a few books I want to read for $8-10 total cost sure beats purchasing one brand new one for $8-10. I can do that math, can’t you? Of course, at the thrift store the books aren’t categorized by author or subject; they may be new publications or they may be out-of-print oldies, but what better way for a reader to spend an afternoon than browsing shelf upon shelf of books, looking for an unread treasure? Thrift stores are also great sources for cookbooks and recent magazines.
Clothes. That’s right. I’m urging you, whether you normally shop Neiman’s or normally shop Wal-Mart, to try your hand at thrift store clothes shopping. Now I’m saying, “try your hand,” with a reason. The thrift store isn’t going to dictate to you by its displays what’s in fashion and what isn’t; you’re not going to have a personal shopper nor a sales associate hell-bent on commission to assist you; there are no coordinated separates nor store dummies dressed up in the very clothes you’re thinking of buying. It’s all up to you and your sense of style, and that’s what’s so much fun.
One of the best buys I ever made was a men’s tailored raw silk dress shirt, tags still on, for $3.95 at my town’s Goodwill. Because of my build (broad shoulders, narrow hips and virtually no bust to speak of), a man’s shirt was perfect; the beige color made the shirt an easy mix-and-match with my existing wardrobe, and the classic cut meant I could wear it for years. And I did, and I was always getting compliments on it, even from strangers. Speaking of compliments: One of the best left-handed compliments I ever received on my thrift store shopping habits came from my ex-husband, who remarked to his current wife – when they were going through some tight financial times – that I had always shopped at thrift stores for clothes and always looked like I didn’t!
Two big advantages (for me, anyway) of an occasional thrift store clothes run: It allows me the ability to purchase clothes I wouldn’t normally be able to afford or wouldn’t normally buy for myself. I wouldn’t normally run out and spend $50 or more on a designer name silk blouse. But a designer-name silk blouse for $5? Sure! And you will see designer names, no exaggeration. I’ve seen DKNY, Ralph Lauren, Anne Klein, Saks, etc., at the thrift store.
Secondly, most thrift stores price their clothes by type. What this means is that an item such as a lady’s skirt is priced at, let’s say, $5.00. It doesn’t matter if that lady’s skirt is cotton, silk, denim, long or short, comes from K-Mart or comes from Macy’s. It’s still $5.00
Now here’s a few quick tips to keep in mind if you decide to look around your local thrift store’s clothing selection:
Do the Why Test: “Why is this shirt/sweater/skirt/etc. here?” Everything ends up at the thrift store for a reason. Check out the buttons: Are they all in place? Check out the zipper: Is it functional? Check out the hem: Is it secure? Check out the belt loops: Are they all there? Look for any worn areas, stains and the like. One of my thrift store mistakes was an absolutely gorgeous dress blouse I bought. It had the high neck I favored, slightly tailored, in my size and it was a great shade of cobalt blue. I bought it, took it home, washed it and then maybe a week or two later dragged it out for a ironing touchup. Guess what? Big, big underarm stains. I missed them because I was so bamboozled by the style and the color and the price that I didn’t ask “Why?” And no matter what I did to that blouse, the underarm stains remained.
Remember too, though, that there are incredible clothes out there. I’ve seen many clothes still with tags on as well as clothes which appeared to have no wear whatsoever, I can easily understand this. How many times have we gone on some great diet, dropped a size or two (or three) and run out to get some clothes which fit only to have those same clothes tossed into the “take to Goodwill” bag with virtually no wear to them after we’ve regained some of that weight? How many times have we ended up with something in our closets that we bought brand new but for the life of us can’t fathom WHY?? Into the Goodwill bag it goes. And how many times have we been given clothes as gifts from well-intentioned friends/relatives which just aren’t our style? Again, into the Goodwill bag. Therefore, it is absolutely likely you will find thrift store clothes which are in outstanding condition, in style and flattering to you. Which brings me to my next tip.
Be a little realistic. Even if it passes the “Why” test, a red leather miniskirt isn’t going to suddenly be YOU if it isn’t you already just because you can get it for $5 versus $75. On the other hand, if you normally don’t have the spare dollars to buy yourself anything but jeans and tees, indulge yourself in the looks you normally couldn’t afford if you were buying brand new. One of the most stylish ladies I know walked in one day in an absolutely stunning black dress and little cardigan sweater. She looked like a million dollars and it was a dress I had never seen before. I didn’t know her very well at the time and I tapped her on the shoulder and whispered, “Cute dress.” She leaned over and whispered back, “Thrift store.” She’d bought something which reflected her style, pulled together an outfit from two different sources and I guarantee you it’s a look which was both polished and professional but nevertheless wasn’t going to be duplicated by dropping in at the career section of any department store. And she’d done it for under $15.
Now be a lot realistic: If you’re not a size 4 normally, you’re not going to be a size 4 in the thrift store either. Believe me, I know. Inevitably I find something that’s just gorgeous and it’s usually in a size 2 or 4. And no amount of wishing is going to increase the size on the tag nor decrease the size of your hips. If you buy it with the idea you’re going to lose weight so it’ll fit then you’re just defeating the purpose of shopping at the thrift store in the first place. And it’ll be money down the drain and another item in the Goodwill bag. And that’s the voice of experience talking.
Read the label. Yep. Just the same as you would in any other store. If you’re in need of a bargain and it comes in the form of, say, a wool skirt, it may not be such a bargain if it requires dry cleaning and you don’t generally have the spare funds to do so.
Don’t settle or make-do. So you’re in the thrift store shopping for clothes. So what? There’s no reason in the world why you should walk out with anything less than complete satisfaction with the clothes you purchase. If you find nothing, then walk out with nothing. Remember that your goal is to look well dressed, not well worn.
Thoughts on shoes: I’ve only purchased shoes twice at a thrift store and both times were because there were absolutely no signs of wear on the shoes in question. In general I’d say it’s not such a good idea Shoes are too much a breeding ground for bacteria and if there’s a wear pattern already established on the soles you could be walking out with someone else’s pronation problems on your feet. Who needs that?
Household Items. Whether you’re just starting out or restarting after a move or divorce, the thrift store’s the place to start looking for miscellaneous pots, pans, dishes and flatware. Drinking glasses and utensils too. Just do the usual checking for burn or scorch marks, tug at handles to make sure everything’s secure, examine dishes and glasses for chips or cracks.
Collectibles It’s getting harder and harder but you can still find some collectibles and other items of value at thrift stores. My best non-clothes purchases at a thrift store were a Bakelite horsehead pin, a three strand raw amber necklace with a 14k gold clasp and an antique Italian mosaic brooch, for which I paid $1 each. Thrift stores and second-hand stores, however, have become wise to what’s collectible. They’ve also become wise to what they think is collectible so the pricing on some items can be a little crazy. Also, with the arrival of Ebay and with digital cameras in virtually every household in America, I think folks are more apt to see what they can get for selling a collectible or for selling grandma’s costume jewelry versus just toting it to the Salvation Army drop box.
I’ve only covered some of the items you’ll find at the thrift store. Actually, you’ll see all manner of items there, including those which you won’t be able to identify. And you’ll see all manner of folks – parents with little ones, men, women (some quite well-dressed women), teens. I hope you decide to go and I hope you have fun. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see me there. I’ll be the size 10 holding up a size 4 skirt, muttering, “I think I can make it work.”