Yesterday I made a trip to my local Goodwill, which I do semi-regularly. I worked through the racks, examining the degree of wear, looking for stains and holes, checking the brand names. It got me thinking about going to Village Thrift at Broad and Olney in Philadelphia after school – I went to Girls’ High right across the street. I didn’t really like to go. The store always smelled. I was never very good at finding good pieces. My older sister on the other hand was a thrift store force. She was patient. And she was very discerning. I’d run out of energy about a half hour in and want to leave and she’d say ok, and then start looking through another rack that she hadn’t worked through yet. She’d pull out everything that could possibly be worth wearing and then we’d have a cart purge at the back of the store when we were done. Even though I could only stand about a half hour to her hour and a half, there was always such joy in the good find.
I was thinking about that joy today as I shopped. I was thinking about why I shop at thrift stores now that I have the money to shop elsewhere. I still get a certain joy at “the find.” It’s the amazing piece of clothing that will become a staple even though you never even knew you were missing it. I think part of the joy of “the find” is that I feel like I’m getting away with something. I should have had to pay at least $25 on sale for this wool Liz Claiborne sweater, or $52 for these Isaac Mizrahi pants (I know because I went online and priced them). Part of the joy is the sense of surprise — I’m not looking for anything in particular, just for something awesome. Another part of the joy is the low stakes. I have a hard time shopping at department stores even when they have sales because I am always worried that I’m getting the wrong thing. Is this really the shirt I want, the dress I want, the shoes I want? Sometimes it takes a couple wears to know if you really like that shirt. Is this really a good deal? It might be partly that even when I do shop retail I’m shopping the clearance and sale racks (it’s a pathology) so the sales not my interest in the clothes drives my decisions. I often shop like I’m sure someone is trying to get something over on me and I have to be vigilant so as not to be had. I shop like it’s a test of whether I can resist my desire for things I don’t really need. At the thrift store, the stakes of buying the wrong things are very very low. The possibility of paying more for something than the happiness it will bring you is very very low. For this reason, there is very little anxiety for me in thriftshopping. It’s a treasure hunt. If you mistake some fool’s gold for gold, you’re not really a fool. You can take the several wears to figure out if you like something and if not, it didn’t cost much.
But don’t be misled. Just because the stakes are low does not mean that the standards should not be high. To shop at a thrift store successfully you have to have really high standards. Enforcing those standards on myself are part of the discipline of thriftshopping. Don’t buy things that are worn. Don’t buy things you don’t really like. Don’t buy things that don’t look good on you just because it’s from a good brand. Don’t buy things that don’t quite fit. Don’t buy anything with a hole or a stain – actually I broke this rule for a pair of practically unworn Banana Republic Sloan pants that look like a box cutter or something damaged the material on the side, but I’m just going to be pretend that is part of the look. It is possible I will not be able to pull that off. Have higher standards for clothes with an unknown or noname brand. If possible, try on clothes before purchasing. If there are no dressing rooms, you can usually try on shirts and sweaters over what you are wearing–dress to shop with this plan in mind. Pants are harder but I do know some thriftshoppers who wear loose skirts to try the pants on under the skirt. I may or may not have done that in the aisles of Village Thrift.
I was showing Jeff my treasures, and he asked how much the four items cost. $16, I told him. “Why are we shopping anywhere else but the thrift store?” he asked even though he never goes. Yes, indeed, why are we.