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A place of purveyance where you can buy (frequently secondhand) goods at amazing prices. Thrift stores often sell everything from clothing to baby accessories to toaster ovens and wacky knicknacks. They are often good places to look for really-cheap-but-functional stuff and weird items. The Salvation Army operates a large number of thrift stores all over the US.

A thrift store is a unique shopping phenomenon. Where else might one find a pair of silk Giorgio Armani socks for 35 cents? Sure, it might be hard to get that odd stain out of the bottom of them, but you will know that you are wearing expensive, elite socks. Perhaps others will too.

It is therefore, especially here in Chicago, not impossible to supplement one's regular, old income by shopping in thrift stores in order to resell them to antique or novelty/specialty stores.

In Chicago, besides the Salvation Army and Goodwill chains of operation, exists the Unique Thrift Store(s). Though these are purportedly charity driven, one wonders how they get all of their stuff, and how they can manage to drive a humongous profit doing so. Hunters have been known to pay managers to get a first peek through new shipments, and sometimes those shipments do not make it to the stores, but to a usually very nearby antique store.

This store, referred to as the home nest, is usually always placed within a block or two of any Unique store (coincidentally, of course) and is always closed to the public. However, there is never a shortage of old valuable antiques, or new odd bargains (such as an IOmega Zip Drive 250 for $10).

All is not lost, however, as some stuff does trickle through, probably passed off as being useless and/or arcane.

A short but all-revealing list of thrift finds of mine in the past year include:

Finally, as previously alluded to, any serious thrift store junky needs to always have on them the tools of the trade: a stapler and a sharpie marker, for any necessary markdowns and/or repricings.

Thrift Store Shopping Suggestions

Thrift stores, garage sales, and swap meets can be wildly addictive. I've found, however, that strategic planning can help maximize the likelihood of success. While the following suggestions are geared more towards the non-clothes segment of ultra-discount shopping, such tips apply for many situations.

1. Use a calendar, or get a routine going. Days off are an obvious bet, but some of the for profit stores (at least in the NY/NJ/CT metro area) stay open until 9pm or so. For-profit stores work best under the scheduling system, since non-for-profit stores tend to keep uniform pricing. Be especially attentive to periodic clearances and what I call the "day of the week" rhythm. One chain store near me has $1 day Monday, furniture clearance Thursday, etc. Clothes less frequently enter the day of the week system since clothes seem to be at the heart of most ultra-discount retailers.

2. Being extra nice to employees or volunteers at stores can gain you access to the pricing rotation. Sometimes workers even carry placards which interpret color, numerical, or cryptic codes which correspond to pricing. Once a basic knowledge of the pricing system is gained, it's easy to feel the pricing pulse of a store and develop intuition as to what's a good deal and what's not. Also, intuitively understanding the codes marked on items that are unmarked with a numbered price tag (in currency) reduces shopping time in the store. This technique is great if you want to get a jump start on a sale by arriving early.

3. Don't be afraid to haggle. While the Salvation Army and for-profit stores may not go for this, small shops (especially second-hand bookshops) may allow this. Get to know the owner/manager of a shop, and perhaps you may get good deals on less frequently circulated items.

4. Finally, bring a friend or work with a friend. Though I've had limited success in getting others to help me, sometimes coordinated shopping works. For chain stores that provide periodic sales, especially three day clearances, use distributed scheduling. That is, take a day each, or go to different stores on different days. Sometimes it's good to share items missing in personal collections, etc. Yet as friendships go, ugly fights may brew over who gets the lime green Panasonic radio first.

How to shop in thrift stores:

These are my tried and true rules for how to never give Aryanzombie and Bitch or any of its many, many co-conspirators another dollar of your hard earned cash. I have been mall-free for five years now and I will never go back. This is what I have learned.

  1. Know what you're looking for This is a simple rule but its the most important one. When you to the mall, you look at this, you look at that, you shop. To be successful, you must not shop, you must acquire. You must say, "Today, I need pants!" and then go out and get them. If you're focused, you can find almost ANYthing you want. If you don't know what you're looking for, you won't be happy with what you find.

  2. Know the store Certain stores are good for some things but not others. For instance, when I want golf pants from the 70's, I go right to the Salvation Army, which gets most of its stock from donations. When I want to get new socks or some nice khaki pants (for work, I swear ; ) I go to Goodwill since much of their stock comes from overruns, overstocks or department store "2nd's" merchandise.

  3. Go early, go often New stuff comes in every day and you've got to be there if you want to get the best stuff. If you can't find what you want, come back in another three days, or even later that afternoon if they seem to be sorting a bunch of new things.

  4. Geography matters Stores located in major urban centers will have high traffic, meaning that they tend to get high quality items fairly often - and run out of them fairly quickly. Suburban stores, especially those that are not located near major shopping centers will have the lowest traffic; I find that it is here you will find the more unusual items, since high traffic stores are typically picked clean of them by "specialty" thrift stores (see below).

  5. Talk to the people Banana Republic doesn't give a shit about you. Thrift store owners do because you're either helping them out directly, or donating to the good cause they support. Talk to them, let them know that you like shopping there. Ask them when they get new stock or put new items on the rack. Let them know that you're looking for that killer pair of plaid and sequin glam-pants - they just might be able to help you out.

  6. Donate It's all about karma man. If you don't wear it anymore, give it a second chance.

  7. Avoid "specialty" thrift stores This is not such a hard and fast rule, and I break it now and then. There is a certainly a legitimate market for vintage clothing, but I have found that many so-called vintage clothing stores are really just thrift stores with jacked up prices. They typically operate by purchasing funky or unusual clothing items out of traditional thrift stores and then selling them at a 300% markup. (Sometimes, employees of traditional thrift stores will filter out these items and them sell them to specialty stores, which is not very cool, not to mention an act of petty theft.)

    Sometimes, you truly need not one powder blue polyester tuxedo to choose from, but a variety of them - or perhaps you find yourself the costume manager for a local production of the musical Hair. In these situations you probably need a specialty store, but if you do shop there, try to find out where they get the majority of their stock. If they are purchasing their items from other stores, (and not sly employees of other thrift locations), then they are conducting a legitimate business.

I think that these thift shops come into two categories in Britain, charity shops and fifty pence shops.

The charity shop seems to be the closest analogy to the thift store: the profits go to the charity who run the shop. Mostly it's women's clothing, but there's a thriving trade in old books (Oxfam seem to do this in particular), kids toys and women's clothing, and there's usually a couple of old vinyl records (usually 60s crooners) and antique computer games (such as Lemmings for the Amiga). There's sometimes some good stuff, but usually not.

Fifty pence shops aren't, any more. Essentially, the idea is that everything in the shop is a fixed price: it used to be 50p, but now it's a pound. These are usually cheap and tacky things, unbranded goods, but have their purposes. They mainly sell washing up liquid and window cleaner, and kids toys and all sorts of stuff. It's all pretty much rubbish, though. And most of it's written in Japanese or Chinese.

Just my 2 pence worth! :)

The writeup that previously existed above mine touched on a lot of things you might shop for in a thrift store, but gave (I felt) too little consideration to shopping for apparel.

"Non-clothes segment"?? What on earth is that supposed to mean? Surely it's not a reference to not shopping for clothes. My stars, clothes shopping is by far the best reason to go to garage sales, swap meets, thrift stores, etc. Granted, people who cruise these venues soley for clothes don't generally make as much as people who go out looking for antiques and what have you, but the thrill of the chase when the chase excludes all but apparel is incomperable.

Here are some tips, whether you're shopping for a wardrobe or for beer money:
  1. Unless you don't have the capital, there's no excuse for passing up a good deal. The biggest heartbreak of second-hand clothes shopping is that the really, really good stuff is almost never in your size (assuming that you, like the majority of the population, are more or less average sized). In the all-too-common event that the gorgeous $2 vintage designer label mint condition hand beaded cocktail dress you've picked up is a size -3, don't put it back in the bin. Someone else will want it. In the example case, "someone" is probably a large vintage boutique like Seattle/Portland's Red Light.
  2. It's a goodly amount of work to sift through what will be almost entirely crap in search of a few golden nuggets of fashion. If the racks you're sorting through aren't so full that you can't clearly see a little piece of what's on each hanger, this process can be sped up quite a bit by staying focused on what is acceptable and what is not. Scan for fabrics and colors the Ministry of Truth should have written out of existence the second the sixties ended, and avoid them. If you see an off color that could be ok, if the cut were right, look at the seams. Seams hold a suprising amount of subtle information on quality and style. Trouser seams look different than elastic waist polyester bellbottoms seams look different than Levi's seams. The fewer things you have to pull off the rack and hold up to examine, the better. Every second you spend at one rack is a second in which someone at another rack could be having a Marge Simpson Chanel suit experience that was meant to be yours. Hence, it's good to establish some sort of screening process.
  3. If you're going to try to shop for clothes for the opposite sex, do your research first. If possible, bring a differently-gendered friend who's willing to play mannequin for several hours. By the time they reach adulthood, most avid shoppers have developed a good eye for cut, but this generally pertains only to clothes they wear and clothes for their own gender. Spatial reasoning abilities will help you in this area. I have no such skills and, hence, have never been able to find a pair of men's slacks that fit correctly.
  4. Take a break every now and then, or you'll come home and find you've got two really good finds and a bag and a half of ridiculous bullshit. Go look at shoes, or bad art, or anything but clothes. Sorting clothes takes a great deal of effort and concentration. There are times when you hit that shopper's high and the hangers go click, click, click as you Rolodex through them, not confused by the siren's song of chartreuse dacron or driven to indecision over whether a pair of jeans is flared or boot cut. Mostly that doesn't happen, and you get sucked in, straining to remember what nice clothes look like while drowning in a sea of neon tropical print mumus. Be strong, walk away.
  5. Never buy anything trendy. It doesn't matter that the glitter denim capris with the safety pin seams are only a buck. Do not buy them, nor any of their ilk. These things are being thrown away for a reason. Stick to classic and, if you deviate from this philosophy, limit your trendy purchases to vintage trendy and vintage tacky.
  6. Don't be afraid to come away empty handed. Don't buy things that are "almost exactly" what you want, unless you happen to have mastered the arts of the sewing machine. Do follow ignorans' advice above.
  7. ailie adds: "If you find something that fits you perfectly but is too ugly (or not ugly enough) to wear, buy it anyway. You can take it apart and use it as a pattern to make your own new version from fabric you do like!" (Note that, if memory serves, ailie is some sort of crafty sewing supervixen. You have to train before pulling mad l33t freestyle stunts like this.)

For a long time, although poor, I didn't have a lot of luck in thrift stores. I was thin (then), and that helped since most good clothes donated to thrift stores get there because the owner gained a few pounds. But even so, I spent loads of time and didn't find much I liked.

Then I stumbled into a secret rule for shopping in thrift stores that transformed me into a very lucky shopper indeed, who can pick up Gortex raincoats, new black jeans, sharp sweaters and lots of other goodies that fit me perfectly, and in much less time.

The secret's simple: don't go looking for anything by size. Visit thrift stores more often, but much more quickly. Pass down the aisle (don't look at the signs that tell you the size, remember!) and only grab anything that really attracts your eye. Go for the good stuff, not what fits you: and remarkably often enough it will fit you. Not always, but very often.

Why does this tactic work? For the longest time I had no idea. It just seemed to be a magic formula. But over time I've concluded that it works because unless you know staff or show up at just the right time or early in morning, most of what's in thrift stores gets picked over very thoroughly, and the great finds don't last long at all... unless they are misplaced by size. If a slovenly clerk or previous client mismeasures or sloppily misplaces a great shirt by a few sizes, then the people who would buy it in an instant never find it - and this happens a lot. Probably some great finds are deliberately misplaced by customers who have stashed them there in order to come back and get them later in the week when they have more cash. Others were mis-tagged or badly placed to begin with by the poorly paid staff. The result is that at any given moment the vast majority of hot bargains will be either labelled as the wrong size, or placed with clothes of the wrong size - so that's where you have to look for good clothes that are your size - anywhere but where your size is supposed to be.

As the history of scientific discovery has proven: Look where everyone else would and you won't find much. Look where they aren't lookin'n' "et voila".

Call it an exception to Gresham's Law that proves the rule, or one more instance of the truth of Sir Basil Liddell Hart's "Strategy of the Indirect Approach". Or perhaps it's just one more instance where working harder just isn't as productive as working smarter.

Now, I'd love to report that this works well with dating too... and every now and then it does. Maybe you'll find someone who's still available 'cause she (or he) hates rich, athletic guys and just doesn't realize her perfect looks and hot clothes are turning off the nerdy coders she craves to be with, or that hanging around the opera can't help her meet them. But I have to report: not so much. Or not in the most direct fashion. That is, don't just look for who's hot, every fool does that. Maybe look for the actress or model who likes to talk about astronomy, or the astronomy major who likes shoddy reality TV but isn't meeting anyone like that at the Astrophysics department seminars, or look for the churchgoing sexual experimenter who doesn't go into bars 'cause she's allergic to tobacco or hates dark decor and you could have more luck. If you aren't as fortunate in love as you (now) are in the thrift shops, remember, it just takes one...

First entered: Sun Feb 22 2004 at 9:35:27 Last edited: Thu March 11 2004

I was going to title this something much more specific, since I am not an expert on thrift stores all over the United States, but only in my corner, the northwest corner. And I am only familiar with the thrift store from the level of the shopper, not having taken an involved, inside look into the market mechanisms of such stores. But what I have seen is probably what many readers have seen as well.

When I was a child, back in the 1980's, thrift stores were very thrifty. Perhaps there is a nostalgia filter on this, perhaps I am not taking inflation into account, and perhaps I am just murky on the details, but back when I was a child, thrift stores were vast caverns full of incredible bargains. There never was a situation where price came into account when shopping at a thrift store. Shirts were fifty cents, pants were a dollar, and the books that a young and hyperlexic me would buy by the dozen were a dime or a quarter. There also seemed to be more independent thrift stores when I was a child. The big chains, which in Oregon and Washington were Value Village, Goodwill and The Salvation Army, were present, but so were a host of smaller stores, some of them being more permanent yard sales than a retail establishment.

Sometime in the 1990's, a change happened. A change that is still going on, but which has settled to the right edge of its sigma curve. Thrift stores became more expensive. They also became a bit more ritzy and better managed, but the expensive is of course the part I notice. Beyond the rate of inflation, items went up in price. I don't know if this is due to supply and demand: if the hordes of young people who believed that thrift store shopping was hip and not the last refuge of the desperately poor naturally pushed up prices. It could also be a Veblen strategy: if prices are increased, people will assume that the goods are more desirable. In any case, prices at the chain thrift stores are usually on the order of five dollars for a shirt and ten dollars for a pair of pants. Books have also gone up in price to three or five dollars. Home electronics, kitchen wares, and all the other things one might find at a thrift store have been similarly inflated.

On the other hand, thrift stores often have much better merchandise. The practice of sorting good items into display cases has made the good stuff easier to find. Also, many of the chains carry new material, usually factory seconds. The Goodwill in Portland has even opened a boutique store, where they sell their more expensive, classy merchandise.

Sometimes I will stumble into an old style thrift store, often in a smaller town. A thrift store where I can still buy a complete outfit and a week's reading for five dollars and get change back. However, as the gotterdammerung of thrift store gliterization continues, such places are more and more rare. While the conversion of the thrift store business from a haphazard project to a well-managed enterprise does make me nostalgic, it is also not totally a bad thing.

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