sky half-empty/full, June 2010

Over the weekend I came across a post on Brent Hunsberger's Oregonian blog, It's Only Money, titled "Rack up the savings at thrift stores and join the crowd." The article explains how more Americans have been shopping secondhand—and oh what deals can be had!—because of the Great Recession and because prices of goods and services (gas, food, health care, etc.) keep rising, though wages, for those lucky to have any, generally have not (unless one works at Intel).

None of that is news to me. I began thrift shopping exclusively—no more Target, no more Macy's, no more Stewart+Brown sales, no more eating out (though I was tired of that, anyway)—after an upheaval in my own finances in 2009, namely a divorce, which traditionally has proven worse for women's pocketbooks than men's, though the gap appears to be narrowing. (While I'm two degrees more formally educated than the ex, I'm in education and he's in Web engineering, allowing him to earn 10 times what I make per hour—my career-choice error, obviously.)

Hunsberger also reports that Goodwill is rolling in money, their take up 41% the last several years, overshadowing lesser-known stores like Deseret Industries. I'll just add from experience that DI, while presenting slim pickings for women's clothes—Mormon women not exactly known for their fashion sense (and I can say that since I once was one)—offers some of the best thrift-store prices around town on housewares. Or maybe that, too, is logically expected from a gang of traditional homemakers.

The Hunsberger post's range of comments, however, is even more enlightening. Some commenters get political, suggesting putting one's secondhand dollars into the coffers of smaller, local charities with more transparent and direct community benefits like Albertina Kerr, William Temple, and Community Warehouse. Goodwill/GICW administrators are skewered for placing themselves in the top 1% income bracket. Yes, do read that again: Goodwill's top-level employees are rich. The Salvation Army is slammed for being anti-gay. Some people recommend the clothing prices at Value Village. One commenter scoffs at the idiocy of believing secondhand-clothing shopping offers better deals than shopping new on retail clearance, especially when thrift-store styles are seasons if not years old. One commenter shivers at the thought of wearing dead people's clothes. Another commenter reflects on the general benefits of secondhand reuse/recycling.

Here are some of my own lessons learned at the thrift store the last several years:
  • Be courteous (e.g., don't block others with your cart, don't leave trash lying around on shelves, don't take parts out of boxes without putting them all back, don't let kids run around in the glass aisle).
  • Be flexible and shop off-season for some of the best finds (e.g., sundresses bought in winter, overcoats in summer).
  • Be alert and thorough. Somebody, for example, may pick something up in housewares, change her mind, and set it down in toys. 
  • Take your time. I usually allot an hour or two of browsing per store.
  • Browse regularly. If you stop into your favorite thrift stores in town each week, you're more likely to find treasures than if you thrift only occasionally. 
  • Be open to possibility. Though you may have a current list of wants/needs, you'll likely find something else entirely. 
  • Be selective. Do you really like the item and will you use (or sell) it? If not, pass. Somebody else may need or want that thing more.
  • Expect sometimes to leave a store with absolutely nothing. Consider thrifting a cheap form of entertainment, examining items and reflecting on their use and history. You don't have to buy anything.
  • Scan well for damage and stains. If an item can easily be cleaned or mended, fine; if not, pass. More will come along.
  • Always try clothes on and only buy what you look and feel good in. Sometimes a piece will surprise you either way. Again, be open.
  • Buy quality. Such items will often outlive us.
  • Buy American, or European, or whatever. This is one big benefit of consuming vintage: preglobalization, there were more options than "made in China."
  • Keep goods in rotation by culling your own possessions regularly. If your tastes have changed or you no longer use something, sell or give it away. Free up space—mental and physical—for new opportunities.

Shopping this way has forever changed me, making me a more conscious and selective consumer. Over time, I have found quality pieces at thrift stores the likes of which I can't afford retail. But even if I could again afford retail prices, why pay for all-new when thrifting is an adventure, a treasure hunt, and lesson after lesson in history, economics, design, and ecology?

Even so, because of increases in thrift-store traffic and prices (discussed tongue-in-cheek here), the next stage of thrifting for me will be tracking down weekend garage/yard sales and estate sales. The stage after that might be becoming a freegan. And after that, maybe I'll become so weary of objects that, monk-like, I'll own just one bowl and spoon. But I doubt it.

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