Secondhand shopping is in my blood. At 10 years old, I could identify which jean jackets the Japanese customers at my mother’s vintage clothing store would pay top dollar for and which ones were worthless. Countless hours of my youth were spent between racks of used denim clothing and vintage Hawaiian shirts, both of which were possibly priceless when picked up by the trained eye. While others my age were playing catch, I was learning the subtle difference between rayon and silk and why my Indian-brand motorcycle jacket was worth so much money.
Through all of this, I have learned that shopping at thrift stores is more of an art and exercise in patience than a mere hobby. Those who pay full price for the things they want are also paying for convenience. Those who think secondhand clothing is “gross” or “creepy” are misguided, unless they are talking about underwear – in which case I suppose that they could be right. There are certain things to recognize and accept before embarking upon a quest to the local thrift store.
It helps to adapt a certain mindset before heading out to do a little secondhand shopping. It may seem obvious, but unlike Target or Urban Outfitters, you are not going to be able find everything you want, when you want it, in a convenient place. You may not find anything at all.
There is, however, an upside to the used market: The things you do find are going to be unique and will have meaning because of the effort it took to get. The things you buy will have a history. You have to embrace the difficulty as part of the thrill.
Let’s imagine the thrift store as a vast and beautiful desert island. Well, an island that happens to smell like dust and mothballs, but beautiful nonetheless. Now think of that shirt, coffee table, obscure book on numerology, or whatever, as a treasure just waiting to be found. You are an enterprising pirate adventurer out on a treasure hunt. You could probably even dress the part. Considering some of the interesting personalities I have encountered at the thrift store, you might not even stand out.
If you have entered into this state of mind, you are on the right track to becoming a buccaneer of the bargain, a swashbuckler of the sale, a pirate of prices … well, maybe you’re just ready to find some cheap stuff. But before you begin, you’re going to need the right tools. Rather than a cutlass and an eye patch, you will use your smarts and a few valuable strategies that I will begrudgingly pass on to you. The following are a few tips to get you started on your voyage to value. All right, enough with the annoying alliterations. Go solo – It is nice to shop with your friends, but you have to recognize that going to a thrift store with another person can quickly turn into a competition. This is especially true if you and your friends have similar tastes. You are going to be digging through stacks of books and brushing aside hanger after hanger of gaudy garments in an effort to find that one perfect thing. It is really going to frustrate you if your friend just happens to get lucky and grab something you had your eye on. Remember, all bets are off once you step in the door, so keep it simple; everyone needs a little time alone, anyway.
Call ahead – This isn’t R.S.V.P. shopping, but it does help to figure out when a store usually gets deliveries. Thrift stores are run on a donation basis and usually get a shipment of goods on a specific day each week. If you find out when that is, you can go on the following day and be guaranteed a fresh selection of items.
Know the territory – Because thrift stores depend on donations for their products, you can be sure that the quality and variety of their inventory is also dependant on the surrounding community. If you plan on taking a vacation to an affluent area, make a stop at the local secondhand shop. I have found designer labels such as Banana Republic, Gap and Ralph Lauren at thrift stores in DelRay Beach and Boca Raton.
Keep your eye on the prize – While browsing is by no means a bad thing, you may find your shopping experience more enjoyable if you have a few specific items in mind. A lot of thrift stores are very chaotic. Clothing, housewares, books and furniture are spread about at random with no rhyme or reason. Because of this, first-time shoppers may quickly find themselves overwhelmed and begin to wander aimlessly without finding anything.
Be persistent – This is where that treasure hunt aspect comes in. Do not be afraid to move things to find out what is behind them. Furniture or books may be stacked on top of one another. It is OK to move them as long as you put them back. If you are looking for a shirt or a pair of pants, you may have to browse through 50 or so items before something catches your attention. That’s alright; this is how you develop an eye for what you like. Don’t be afraid to buy things you are unsure of; they are usually so cheap that even if you only wear them once, it is still worth it. Some thrift stores are open to negotiation. If you are on the fence about something, run a price by the person at the register just to see what happens.
Step outside of your comfort zone – Be prepared to look through the entire store. Items are often stocked in the wrong area. If you are looking for something crazy to wear to a costume party, check the woman’s clothing section. Usually anything that is really colorful gets put there for lack of another location.
Put it to use – If you need an excuse to use this newfound knowledge, might I suggest a $7 prom? Gather friends, go hunting and keep your receipts. Have a party where those in attendance are required to wear their new duds and present a receipt for no more than $7. Let the hilarity ensue; that should be all the reason you need.
These steps are enough to let you hit the ground running. I will give you the location of one store to start at, but the rest is up to you. Half the fun of this type of shopping is finding those secret spots to get your stuff. That way, the things you buy are not only especially unusual but also mysterious.