The Ultimate Thrift Store: How Far Will You Go for a Bargain?

My neighbor, NJ, dropped by the house recently with a gift bag. “Just a little something to brighten your day,” she said. Inside the bag was a beautiful blouse bearing the label of Coldwater Creek. I was thrilled, and started to thank her profusely. “No biggie,” she said. “I got it at the dump.”

The next week, I saw my co-worker, Rosemary, in the hall. She was wearing a flattering denim skirt. I complimented her. “I got it at the dump,” she said. “It was a quarter.” She proceeded to tell me about two other name-brand finds. I was hooked.

I am not a clothes snob. I shop regularly at thrift stores and consignment stores. But the dump? Dumps, to me, conjure up visions of garbage mounds, broken glass, seagulls and the occasional dismembered body. However, I knew that shopping at the dump thrift store was a story I had to investigate for you, the refined readers of Wise Bread. Were there better bargains there than thrift stores or yard sales?

Rosemary gave me instructions for this excursion. I’d need a trash bag to hold my items — I’d want to have it when I started shopping, so that I wouldn’t have to hold all my finds while digging through the bins. (Digging?!?) She said they didn’t have shopping carts. (I wouldn’t have thought so.) I invited my husband, hard-core bargain lover, to go.

My husband sang, “To the Dump, to the Dump, to the DumpDumpDump” (to the tune of the William Tell Overture) while gearing up to go. He’s a hoot. We found the facility easily. It was not called The Dump, but rather, a Reuse& Recycle Center. As it turned out, “the dump” was an unfortunate moniker.

There were no mounds of garbage. Instead, there were dumpsters, recycling and composting areas, and my destination, the thrift store. The area was surrounded by leafy palms and tall canopies of trees.

To be honest, we both noticed a little odor as we drove in, but that quickly dissipated. Inside the first, uh, “building” (which, in Hawaii, includes tents made of plastic tarps) we found clothes, bedding, books, and household goods. Here was some serious thrift store competition. Coffeemakers, in very decent condition, were $2. Dishes were from a dime to a quarter, and there were even matching ones. There were also toasters for $2. If I were a big Christmas decorations person, I would have snatched up the multitudes of lights ($1 per strand). There were also some of the name-brand clothes hanging up. $5 would have snagged a London Fog raincoat. I found their 48-hour return policy to be very fair.

My husband pointed me toward the other room. Aha: the bins. It was a little overwhelming. For the first 1/2 pound up to 25 pounds, the cost was $1.00. Unable to fathom buying more than 25 pounds of clothing, I didn’t even write down the price of the next increment.

Digging through bins was hard. When you spy something at the bottom, you sort of have to pull it up. After the second bin, my back started to hurt. I was joined by an older lady who quickly put my technique to shame. She smashed all the clothes to the right of the bin and sorted them two at a time to her left, trash bag at the ready.

After the third bin, I’d had enough. My back hurt, and I kind of wanted to wash my hands. I did not buy anything — not because there weren’t some good bargains, but they just weren’t things I needed. But, you ask: would I recommend it? Yes. If you are a starving student, I think you could easily outfit your kitchen basics from a dump thrift-store for under $20. Seasonal decorations were plentiful and very inexpensive. For crafters, there were grab bags of fabric and supplies for about $2. And, in retrospect, I should have purchased some vases for my flower class.

Paul, the site coordinator, kindly explained their thrift-store system to me. All of the clothing is donated. Staff members sort and grade it. Prices are kept low, so as to encourage re-use. But it wasn’t just about clothing or household goods! Around the back of the store were pieces of lumber, windows, sinks and toilets, all perfectly useable. These, too, are bargain-priced to encourage re-use. The program was originally funded with a federal grant in 2003; the County has kept it going since, on a year-to-year basis. The goal is zero waste. There are even classes in composting. This year alone, 221 tons of waste have been diverted. Admirable!

The great news for penny-pinching readers: there are other similar facilities out there.

  • For those of you near Humboldt County, California, check out the Arcata Recycling Center.
  • I’d love to get to Cart'm Recycling, a “dump” thrift store located near Nehalem Bay State Park in Oregon, which gets glowing on-line reviews.
  • Colorado, predictably, had a spiffy website to showcase their re-use options.
  • If you are looking to score on deals for recycled “house-parts,” This Old House has is a listing of house-part thrift stores.

You may have a recycling center thrift store near you. They are worth checking out, not only for the great deals, but the reward of buying “green” products.

While it wasn’t glamorous, it was a new dimension in thrift-store shopping. And there weren’t any seagulls or bodies in sight.

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Guest's picture

That is awesome!

Here in Minneapolis we have a Goodwill Outlet store that charges $1/pound for clothing and has a similar giant dumpster system. I think a lot of the shoppers are resellers - when we were starving 20somethings, I would go with my most fashionable friend. She often would pull out enough clothes that when we got home she would keep the 2-3 items that fit her well, take the others to a nicer resale shop and get $20-30 back, so a trip to "Diggers" usually cost me $3 and netted her around $20.

Guest's picture

We are in the habit of donating used clothing to shelters or women's causes. Kitchen items as well. When my wife and I married we had twice the stuff one would need, two sets of everything. It went to a charity that helped women get started after leaving an abusive spouse.
Aside from this, we have become a throw away society. Too many things that someone else can use wind up in the trash, and that's a shame. I like the dump idea, although I know the misses will keep me from going if they start this near us. Oh, well.

Guest's picture

There is a Free Store in the mountain region of Maine where everything is free. People donate stuff they don't need and take what they do need. Volunteers sort. It is excellent. I've moved away from that region and would love to find something else like it, but I think such a place is a rare gem.

Guest's picture

Excellent description of this budget shoppers dream!

Financial Samurai's picture

So much of the stuff you find in garage sales or thrift stores are cheap, but really not needed.

We have too much junk and clutter. If people spent time just looking through all their closets and drawers one day, they would find treasures they seriously forgot they had.


Financial Samurai
"Slicing Through Money's Mysteries"

Guest's picture

I've only been once (actually to a recycling center), but I got a half-dozen pots for under $2. Some "thrift" stores are definitely more expensive than others, and some overcharge for some items and have great deals for others. For example, I went to my local SOS yesterday to drop off some stuff, and had a browse around while I was at it. Much of the basic women's clothing (denim skirts, casual shirts) was in the range of $15-$20. Yup, used clothing in a thrift store, more expensive than comparable brand-new clothes at a variety store! But they had great deals on books, which ranged from 50c-$1 for softcover, and $2-$4 for hardcover, including lots of bestsellers. I guess what I'm saying is -- just because you shop at thrift stores, doesn't mean you shouldn't keep an eye on prices. :)

Guest's picture

Check out this one in Berkeley:

Guest's picture

We have these stores in NZ (my local one is called Trash Palace) and I've picked up a few good things there, but there is a bit of a risk of taking home stuff you don't need, and it takes real skill to sort through and spot the good stuff.

If you like the concept of the "free store" in Maine - try Googling the words Skua Bin McMurdo. This kind of recycling is alive and well in one of the remotest places on earth. Of course it isn't very conveniently located for the rest of us!

Guest's picture

Sounds like a great place to find some bargains! To the Dump, to the Dump, to the Dump, Dump, Dump - your husband sounds hilarious ;) I hope I will be able to get that tune out of my head soon.

Guest's picture

Thrift stores are great places for picking up designer pieces for half the price, as well as hardly used appliances, carpets, furniture and much more. Goodwill is where it's at when it comes to thrifting, so visit the link above to find your local store.