Strategic Thriftstore Shopping

by Maggie Wells on 20 June 2008 31 comments
Photo: Keith Song

There's nothing like a little shopping to get one's mind off of debt, bills, mortgages, taxes and all things she needs to pay. I know that for most people, men in particular, that statement sounds insane. The cure for the blues of unemployment or debt is to go out and spend money?! Well, for some of us...uhm....yeah.

But there are methods to the madness. I'm not talking about running up the credit card for a clothing spree at H & M. I'm talking about opening the belly of the piggy bank (in our case a Neko welcome cat) and counting up the limit of our fun for the week. Usually we find $40 worth of quarters between there and the coin box in the car. I head for the thriftstores.

Thriftstore shopping can be a gross disgusting experience or it can be exhilirating. I have a dust allergy myself so I really like to be strategic about where I go and for what.

It's been my experience that the big chain thrift stores like the Salvation Army and Goodwill should be avoided. That's not to say they don't have anything worth buying, but your interesting pieces and quirky things are generally not found there. Figure that since they are the Wal-Mart and Target of thriftstores the donations are more mainstream and so is the clientel. They also can't cut you deals the way a smaller thriftstore will. You can find an emergency skirt at Goodwill and even donate a few items to you but they aren't going to budge on the $3.00 you now owe them for it. If you are looking for inexpensive treats and an opportunity to wheel and deal, you have to go smaller and strategic.

Case in point. My best friend Lysa is coocoo for expensive art books and cookbooks. Her number one thriftstore? A branch of Out of the Closet in out of the way Atwater village in Los Angeles. Because it's out of the way and because the people donating are largely from nearby Silverlake (an artistic enclave). Books that would cost up to $100 she winds up getting for $1. Her best find? A $7 cursive typewriter.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

This might sound as morbid as people who look at the obituaries to find apartment openings in New York and San Francisco, but my favorite thriftstores to shop in are those found close to retirement complexes. Two things happen to make these fountains of plenty. 1) As seniors move from their houses to retirement condos and apartments, they downsize and throw out whatever has been sitting in boxes and with tags on in their closets for thirty years. They throw them out en route to their new place. 2) Anything that makes it to their new condos and apartments usually gets donated after they pass on by relatives that live too far away to cart it all back. Santa Barbara, California was a particularly good city for both retirees and thriftstores following this model. I scored three vintage sweaters for $15 --one with the tags still on and all with their beads and sequins still attached. Another favorite stop for thriftstores for me is tiny towns in the southwest and (this will sound weird) Reno , Nevada. People unload great things when they are desperate to keep on gambling or to keep on moving. For $3.00 in Tucson, Arizona I got a Thomas Brothers guide for Los Angeles in 1950 and an unused train ticket for a route that oddly enough goes right by my house now! (Only the train doesn't stop there any more).

My favorite thrift experience hands down was in Japan. Thank goodness for a national obsession with new things. I picked up great kimonos that just needed a good cleaning or needed a little stitching. A great new kimono will run in the thousands but only about $30 -$50 used. You might be wondering how a thriftstore survives in Japan--I did. Apparently it's the number one place to shop for foreign workers (and indeed it was).

If an area is too upscale though, the thriftstores won't be there and if the area is too low end, you won't find anything worth finding.

So Saturday morning is rolling around in a few hours and I'm sitting at my grandmother's retirement complex. Of course I'm spending my stimulus check on bills, but I'm saving $20 of it for the thriftstores less than a mile away. Maybe my economic depression will be cured by some hidden treasures tomorrow. I'm crossing my fingers.

Where's your best thriftstore?

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Guest's picture
Mary

I haven't found really good thrift stores in my area and am pretty much limited to Salvation Army. But at a tag sale a few years ago I got a beautiful black leather coat in perfect condition for 50 cents!

Guest's picture

There's one in Burbank and Culver City. I don't think you can negotiate too much, but the finds are superb! All the clothes are from movies or TV shows, so the sizes tend to run from small to extra small, but some very cool stuff.

Guest's picture
katy

Thank you for the great tips! I thought as a 30yrplus veteran I knew it all - nope. Retirement homes:brilliant. There is one nearby my Goodwill shop,IMHO, a good shop. As a regular with my husband, I can ask 'Can you do a little better? And once in a while they will go down slightly. Another idea is to shop in wealthy areas. I have gotten clothes brand new, or worn gently, and with dry cleaner tags, at a fraction of the price.

happy shopping!

Guest's picture
Professional

I have been getting expensive work clothes at a suburban Goodwill for years. I pickup $70.00 wool dress pants from $1.00 - $5.00. They cool thing is a dry cleaner is across the street from this Goodwill and they make "donations" if someone does not pick up their dry cleaning after a certain amount of time.

Guest's picture
Eve

Madison, WI has a fantastic St. Vincent De Paul thrift store. You can find almost-new clothing that's still in style, quirky vintage stuff, furniture and sometimes bicycles in good condition, and barely-used small appliances. (We got a fantastic waffle iron there for all of $3.) It's not a great place to go looking for home decor, but it more than makes up for this in other ways.

I think that a local ethic committed to recycling and reusing, as well as a combination of a large proportion of well-off academic types and financially strapped graduate students, contributes to making the Willy Street St. Vinnie's what it is. It probably helps that it's in the "hippie neighborhood", down the street from the Co-op grocery store and a bunch of quirky restaurants and coffee shops.

Guest's picture
Jen

Are you kidding? I'm not giving up my sources! I've found wayyy too many good things there!!

BUT, hands-down our best score so far came from an estate sale down the street. The woman's family was practically giving everything away, which was very depressing to me, but we got so much great stuff that would have cost hundreds, even at a thrift store.

We're pretty much set for a while now. ;)

Guest's picture
Gayle

My mom, her sisters, and their mother swear by this thrift store in Portland, OR. I don;t know the name of it, but the sell everything by the pound. They've picked up furniture, gardening supplies, clothing, you name it.

In the past I've always tried to shop the thrift stores in expensive neighborhoods, though with the price of gas climbing I don't do this as often (prime areas are 20 miles or 40 miles away in opposite directions). I hadn't thought about the retirement center angle. Thanks for the tip!

Guest's picture
Barb C

I get so jealous of people who find great things in thrift stores. I use to find great things, but it seems in the last few years the prices have soared to more than I want to pay.

I have seen kids clothes from Target for more than they cost new in the store. The ultimate high price I saw was a milk bottle in a thrift store. It had a $10 price ticket on it, however, it is the same milk bottle you can get from a nearby milk store. Yes they charge a deposit, but that deposit is nowhere near $10. To me it is a symbol of the high prices thrift stores are charging for everyday items. Maybe the high prices are because I live in a small college town, but the two schools in this town cost more for a years tuition than I make in a year. However, if i am willing to pay those higher prices I can get some trendy brand name clothes for my teenagers that would cost more if purchased from the stores.

Guest's picture
Carol

In our area, the Target stores donate a lot of things to the Goodwill and stuff is so expensive when you consider that it is all donated to them! Try a church or charity-run thrift store--I didn't know how big a difference there was until I was buying my clothes for .50 instead of 5.99....my husband jokes that I'm too cheap for Goodwill :-)

Guest's picture
Guest

My family and I have been shopping at our local Goodwill for years. We live in a very wealthy area. Fortunately for us, items donated at our local store are also sold at our local store. We routinely find high-end, name brand clothing for $2.00 or less. Case and point... I just purchased a pair of Abercrombie jeans (with the original tags still on them) for my son at a cost of only $1.50.

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Cindy M

I don't find that the few thrift stores located in the nicer places in my town have true bargains, so I head for a hole-in-the-wall old neighborhood thrift where I can routinely find nice coats and shoes, usually under $2 each. Glassware, purses, kitchen stuff I can find at a big Salvation Army warehouse. I love this place. The kitchen stuff and glassware go for 39 cents each piece, all purses $1, all clothing $1.49 each piece, tons of books. I found a few lamps the other day for $2 apiece. Lots of very nice knick-knacks and wall decorations. This is a great place to grab a cart and spend a few hours if you're bored to tears because you have to be willing to root through big bins for the glassware, and most people actually wear gloves. Amazing what people pitch. I've found new Tupperware, crock pots for $2 each, Pfaltzgraft dishes to match my pattern, nice canvas tote bags, stuff never even taken out of boxes that make nice gifts. I haven't set foot in a retail place to shop for any of the above for years. I don't even bother with garage sales anymore.

Guest's picture
flowergirl

I have shopped thrift stores for years. My absolute favorite is Misers Mercantile in Carbondale, Colorado. Most of the locals, and that includes towns all the way to Aspen, and many stores, sell their goodies on consignment to Misers. I raised a family of 3 children and we always had a bag to fill at home for any clothes or household items waiting to go to Misers at least once a month. Likewise, there was almost always money to spend at Misers from the previous consignments. My daughter's preschool teacher once confided to me that my child has the cutest clothes of anyone in the whole school! Almost all of which came from Misers...a few from yard sales (even cheaper and high quality near a resort community) It was also easy to find designer labels and new out-of-season clothing with the tags still hanging. There is probably a similar consignment store in most upscale areas...ust go to the town where the locals live and shop and check it out. And, the Aspen Humane Society has a good store, right in town, for any tourists on a budget who are silly enough to visit this high priced (but drop dead gorgeous mountain resort.

Guest's picture
Austin, Not TX

Diversity Thrift in Richmond,VA. Run by the Gay Community Center of Richmond. 15,000 square feet of thrift-filled opportunity. It's so ginormous that I don't mind sharing it's whereabouts.

Maggie Wells's picture

Another retirement/wealthy area also has worked well for my family. We found an out of print Charles Eames deck of cards --never opened for  $1.50 which my father in law had found elsewhere for $50.

Not exactly a thrift store or even a store really is Aria on Grant in North Beach. They have my all time favorite window displays (looks like Joseph Cornell did them). This is where I've gone to buy house numbers and postcards. The owner goes to estate and yard sales in France and then brings stuff back to the San Francisco shop. Fun just to look.

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

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Lucille

Goodwill (at least around here) got greedy about five years ago. Now they pull out anything of high value or designer clothing and sell it for a premium. I have found some decent pieces of furniture. They looked awful but were solid hardwood and had classic lines. The goodwill in Mpls that is by a wealthy neighborhood was great, everything went out on the floor no matter what. I found Dana Buchman suits, Ralph Lauren clothes and newer furniture in great shape. Probably my favorite locally is Savers because they don't pull out the nicer items or raise the price.

The logic of old people have old stuff they give away is why I try to hit garage sales in the old parts of town. Many people that are either hitting retirement or moving to lower maintenance living arrangements get rid of some amazing old stuff. I found three newer very expensive designer suits at a garage sale. They owners were moving to Mpls as the husband was going to work as a lawyer up there on a semi retired basis. So they were getting rid of everything.

Guest's picture
Maura

I live in the Maryland suburbs of DC, an area with an affluent population. The thrift stores around here are the best. There's an absolutely terrific one on New Hampshire Avenue just off the Beltway...in a building that used to house an Ames Department store. HUGE, and packed with great bargains. I needed new speakers for my computer a few weeks ago. I didn't go to Best Buy. I went to the thrift store. Books, clothes, housewares...you name it, I'll consider buying it. As a matter of fact, I went yesterday and picked up a nice new summer sweater to wear to the office, new swim trunks for my son, several books for him, several nice women's t-shirts, a travel coffee mug, and a polo shirt for my husband...all for under $10. I got my shop on, but didn't break the bank. AND, I'll recycle them all when I'm done by donating them back to the thrift store when we are done with them. When friends turn up their noses at thrift stores, I laugh to myself. They struggle to pay bills right now. I'm living pretty good.

Guest's picture
Guest

Atwater Village is hardly out of the way. particularly if your comparing to to where Silverlake is located

Maggie Wells's picture

As a former resident it's easy to miss if you aren't familiar with the area.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Guest

Slightly off topic here (and in Australia we call them "Op Shops" - short for opportunity shops !) but no one here yet has mentioned Freecycle. Do you not have freecycle there ? I know it isn't a shop as such but it is a wonderful means of getting AND giving to keep the cycle going.

Also we have biennial local council pick ups where we put anything at all that we don't want onto the verge. From about a week or two beforehand people cruise around and whatever is there they are welcome to take. What remains after a week or two the council collects and either disposes or recycles. A lot of junk but not always.

Most local councils do this and at different times of the year so for the cost of travelling to a neighbouring more affluent area you would be amazed at what can be picked up from furniture to clothing to garden stuff, plants - you name it.

Guest's picture
Charise

The hubby and I have been members of a local freecycle group for a couple years now. We love it! I must admit that we use it more to get rid of things, but sometimes someone will post something that we need or want. It's really a great resource and an awesome way to keep things out of the land fills.

I've never had good luck at thrift stores. I still go and look, but it's rare that I find anything. Especially in regards to clothing. I've had more luck at garage sales. I guess it depends on where you live and your tastes.

I will say though, my best finds have been at estate sales. It is sad to think about buying stuff from a family who has lost a loved one, but I look at it this way, if a person loved it enough to keep in good shape then they would want it to go to a good home. Plus, it's better then seeing stuff get tossed. I've found many beautiful scarves, LPs, and I recently bought a gorgeous velvet 3/4 length coat at an estate sale.

Guest's picture
Lucille

Here are two things that will erode thrift store things in an area. Lots of people buying particle board furniture and people buying clothes at Walmart.

Most people don't really want those second hand because they don't really last and they were cheap to begin with. Some thrift stores end up selling these items for the same price as designer clothes and good wood furniture.

Guest's picture

I used to go shopping for goods when I would go out for a themed night. I usually found some great outfits and more when I went shopping. In one instant I found a pair of boots that were just my size. I also found some other trinkets that I probably shouldn't have bought. It was cheap, though so I don't feel too guilty.

Guest's picture

After searching most of the thrift and vintage stores in Manhattan for a blouse to wear to the Tony Awards and coming up empty, I scored the perfect blouse the day before the event for $5 at a sidewalk sale in my neighborhood! You never know where you will find a bargain.

Guest's picture
pamphyila

Because thrift stores get donations from certain groups - you can sort of scope out what sort of merchandise to look for - My husband has taken to shopping in a certain thrift shop in the W. Valley in L.A., for example - because he finds great deals in men's clothing there! My local Out of the Closet has fashionable items - and a Salvation Army in Pasadena gets extra new merchandise from wholesalers, it seems. (I got a jacket there for $7 I saw in Ojai for $80!!) There are also lots of imports - shoes lately...so I look for that. Other shops catering to senior citizen donors may have collectibles - old books, etc. Some have good paperbacks - At a thrift shop in Bakersfield I got good deals on vintage and esoteric things because the demand was for practical items like baby clothes! And there are a lot of retirees in the Oxnard/Ventura area that are downsizing - or donating estates....(Lots of great golf shirts for my husband there.) You get the idea - you also can see pricing trends...And whether they have sales or not -

Guest's picture
Lil

Just for those who expressed some sadness about buying things this way, a comment from the other side of the fence.

My mother when she was 97 finally had to leave her home and come and live with us . She passed away just a few weeks ago and the six months prior we started sorting her things and especially the furniture etc giving away via Freecycle. Of course she was sad about finally having to leave her home but it really was offset by knowing just where her things were going.

Without exception the people who came and took different items all sent such lovely emails of thanks, many of them have kept in contact to say how they were re-finishing some of the old furniture items etc. Althugh she had some regrets my mother actually was so happy to see that there were people who valued and appreciated her things so it really wasn't "graverobbing" or macabre or anything like that. Her view was that she had no need of these things now but it pleased her to think that they were getting a new lease of life and would be part of the cycle.

So. . . I am sure that many elderly people have this attitude too and so please I don't think it is morbid at all to be making use of the circumstances where people have to sell some their things when they go into retirement homes or after they have passed.

As my mother said, her memories are in her head and not in physical items, but each of the items has been part of a very long and happy life and therefore she felt pleased that they would go on to someone else and maybe bring into other lives some of the happy "vibes" they had absorbed over the years!

Guest's picture
Guest

Atwater village is not out of the way and is too fabulous to miss if you blink.

Guest's picture
Guest

Minor quibbles to be sure, but Atwater Village is "out of the way?" Of what? Perhaps it is to some ensconced westsider who only ventures west of La Brea to go downtown a few times a year, but to the rest of us angelenos, it's rather centrally located and readily accessible -- and its thrift shops are certainly stocked by residents beyond that "artistic enclave" (whatever the heck that means) of Silver Lake (not Silverlake).

Guest's picture
Amy K.

The Kiwanis just west of Downtown Ann Arbor, MI was a favorite Saturday morning stop of mine. Very limited hours, but very cheap. Being in a college town, it was sort of the "rental site" for furniture: Pick it up in September, return it when you moved out in August. Bibles for Mexico was also good for furniture in Holland, MI.

I'm currently drinking out of a chipped mug from the Free bin at Kiwanis. Ah, the memories - wish I still lived there.

Guest's picture
Guest

Housingworks, a New York thrift shop, has just brought back it's bi-monthly warehouse sale. It's a massive warehouse filled with giant bins of unorganized clothes. People come early and wait in line. The way people fight over this stuff is something you'd only see in New York City. For $20 you can fill a bag with whatever you can find. My first (and only so far) bag included a red leather jacket from Gap, JCrew shirt, Trina Turk shirt, Bebe pants, Benetton pants, Theory pants, Escada dress, Max Mara dress, H&M dress, H&M shirt, Bisou Bisou tank top, men's Burberry shirt, a wool Gap jacket, belt, cute baseball hat, and a few more tank tops. Overall I walked out with about 20 items for a whopping total of $1 per item. I found out about this right before their "last" sale, but now they've brought it back. I can't wait to go again!

Maggie Wells's picture

If you grew up in the suburbs of southeastern Los Angeles County, anything 12 miles northwest is an artistic enclave--we didn't allow artists in the suburbs where I grew up. (But we did have good thrift stores---there all gone now that Whittier is no longer the poor man's Pasadena!)

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Dee

My favorite local thrift shop is in Burlingame near SFO. I have purchased some amazing things there over the years, including an antique picture box, a gorgeous Turkish carpet, Escada slacks, and several St. John jackets and sweaters. It is a really lovely, clean shop. It is only open 2 mornings a week on Mondays and Thursdays and is behind the Community Gatepath warehouse on an industrial street. As you can imagine, not too many people know about it. There is going to be a Saturday event on Sept. 20, 2008 from 10-3 when the shop will be open and a container full on accumulated furniture they have not had room for in the shop will be brought out for sale. I am volunteering to help and I can't wait to see it all!