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Happiness: Thrifting

March 6, 2010

Inspired by this lovely post by Tea and Cookies.


There are people who do not go, who do not know how to go, thrifting. Shocking, I know.

Maybe they are squicked out by “other people’s stuff.” Maybe they don’t have time. Maybe it never occurs to them. I don’t know. I don’t get it.

But thankfully, I am not one of these people. I have the bug. I inherited it from my mother, who I suspect originally learned to go thrifting more out of necessity than desire, but who now joins me on exuberant thrifting adventures when we get together.


Everyone seems to have their own style when it comes to thrifting. There are those who go religiously every week, on a circuit. There are those dedicated garage-sale shoppers. Then there’s my own style, which is to go about once a month or so, when I get the undeniable urge for some retail therapy. I don’t need anything… but I like to go shopping. And I’m trying to be more creative with my wardrobe. And I’m trying not to spend too much money on things we don’t need. And I like treasure-hunting.

My favorite place is the Oakland Chinatown Salvation Army, especially when they are having their half-off sale (“practically free” is my favorite price for anything). This location is a major drop-off point and it’s a huge store, so I usually have good luck there. My second favorite place is the Alameda Goodwill, also, I suspect, a major drop-off place for Alameda. I have found some great scores there, although their prices are higher than S.A.

I like to go when I can spend at least two hours (although I can pack a lot into a lunch hour). I try to go through the entire store methodically, because that is how you find the treasures. I don’t like to rush. I first go through the clothing, then the linens, then the housewares, and finally the books and/or miscellany. I totally get into the zone when I’m doing this. It’s not a very social activity for me. I need to concentrate.


Here are my own personal rules and/or methods for thrifting.

1. Never buy anything irrevocably stained, torn, or damaged. Unless it’s something easy like a missing button, I know I won’t go the extra mile to salvage it. I look very closely for stains and tears, and I don’t hesitate to put back damaged items.

2. Never buy anything that I could buy new for about the same price: i.e., Old Navy clothes (or Mervyn’s, or any other crummy off-brand). It’s just not worth it; the clothes are not very high quality, and the buck or two I save doesn’t make much difference for a crappy piece of clothing. Possible exception: scarves or kitschy themed T-shirts (if I happen to need kitschy themed t-shirts)


3. If it doesn’t fit, isn’t the right color, or I just don’t immediately love it, I don’t buy it. This is highly subjective. I make allowances for if I’m trying a new style, or something ethnic/vintage (lately I’m into India/sari-style tops), or things that are slightly too large. Often these things fall into the ‘acceptable’ category even though I wouldn’t spend the money to buy them new, because I want to experiment or I just happen to love the item. However, if it’s unflattering or not my color, I don’t buy it, even if it’s really high-quality.

4. Check the label. I always do a double-check when I find something from a really good catalog label like Sundance or Lands End or something like that. I also slow down for Banana Republic, J.Crew, Ann Taylor or any of the higher-end Macy’s-type lines, or for obviously quality clothing from smaller unfamiliar brands. The fabric is the giveaway: if it’s a nice fabric, and a nice color, then I check the label. If it’s a good label, then I pull it out to inspect more closely. I always check the fabric content. The size is not as important; often the clothes have enlarged or shrunk slightly but are still completely wearable.

5. Be aware of my own danger zones. I have an unfortunate thing for certain types of ugly patterns and dishes. I don’t know why, but I will always pull out a garish paisley or a 1970s-era crockery dish. I love them. I try to indulge in small doses. For example, maybe the paisley urge gets satisfied with a silk scarf, and the ugly pottery gets used for a cat food dish or a small planter. I try very hard not to buy “things” unless I absolutely love it. I’m a little more liberal with clothes because I sort through my closet regularly.

6. I only buy books if it’s something I know has very little chance of being found at the library, or if it’s a reference book (gardening, or art, or something like that). I don’t buy novels unless it’s something hard-to-find. This has more to do with not wanting to accumulate books than any sort of pickiness. If I could, I would buy bags of books regularly.

7. Save pants and skirts for a whole separate trip, since these are more difficult to sort through and must be tried on.

8. Before checking out, go over every item one more time to make sure they are all acceptable quality, and that I really love each thing. Recently I put back a brilliant green long-sleeve T-shirt from J.Crew which I loved, but the neckline wasn’t right, and a really pretty, soft Abercrombie shirt, because the color wasn’t anything special. I’ve also had to talk myself out of any number of silk bathrobes because they weren’t exactly right.

Some recent good finds include:


* a brand-new Lands End fleece nightgown, which I’ve been eyeing all winter in the catalog but haven’t ordered. Now mine for only $4!
* a silk thermal turtleneck for Terri, which she’s worn all winter long
* a whole slew of ethnic embroidered tops, which I intend to wear during the summer
* high-quality yoga clothing, which are so comfy for at home or walking
* a lovely collectible teapot, to replace an old one which I didn’t love
* a Ralph Lauren black winter coat, which has been perfect this year

I have a few things I’m always on the lookout for:

* a beautiful sugar bowl. I had one that I loved, but it got broken a few years ago.
* a classic, high-quality trenchcoat. I’m being very picky about this one.
* lovely old picture frames
* unusual, large vases or glass bowls for terrariums
* holiday items (this year I found a perfect holiday tree skirt)
* pretty, old sheets (I want to make a soft summer quilt from old sheets)

Anyway. Clearly this is a subject I could go on and on about. I love thrifting. I don’t usually go garage sale shopping as an activity (I will drop by if I happen to be driving by a good one) because it requires more driving and mapping and so on, but I do love a good thrift shop. I like it better than discount shopping, which is similar, but not quite as exciting. I like the thrill of the hunt, and I like the relatively small impact on my wallet.

Paying more attention to living frugally has had many surprise benefits, but really going back to thrifting has been the one which I am really enjoying. It’s so much fun, for so little money, and satisfies that shopping urge without too much damage to the bank account.

Next up for summer: a few garage-sale trips to the tonier areas of town, and a couple ventures into San Francisco thrifting. I’ll find that trenchcoat yet…

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