Thrift Shop Buying

Used clothes come with a low price tag; but they come with a human element as well.

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I’ve always been a committed bargain shopper. I love finding the twice-reduced item or the slightly damaged piece of goods that the store manager will knock down to half-price. Part of the pleasure I get is in saving money. But as any discount shopper knows, there are other, more subtle and more philosophical pleasures involved.

Reverse snobbism is one — to boast about how little one spent on something when others like to boast about how much. A swipe at capitalism is another — diverting profits from the coffers of rapacious moguls. But most of all, I am motivated by the pleasure of the hunt: sifting through racks of undistinguished merchandise for something that has escaped the tar brush of cheapness and shoddiness; glimpsing the elegance of a garment underneath the deforming overlay of smocking, ruffles, and bows. If shopping is a sport that requires stamina and practice, it is also an art that requires vision and boldness — the willingness to snip off an offending swag or imagine how an extra-large shirt will look when belted and worn as a dress.

Until recently, I confined my discount shopping to discount stores: the predictable outlets and cut-rate chains that we all know. Then one day I was strolling along Park Avenue South in New York City. The sorts of people who live on Park Avenue South are rich enough to not have to advertise the fact, and they wear very good, though not ostentatious, clothes. So there I was in this bastion of refined, old money when I stumbled on a thrift shop. The shop was in the basement of a church. This I construed as a sign.

To continue the metaphor, I knew when I walked in the door of that shop that I’d entered the Promised Land. The place was crammed with stuff: shoes and pocketbooks, dresses, skirts, scarves, and even a smattering of housewares (small clocks and little tables, lamps and painted vases) — pretty things, I could see at a glance. But even more impressive was the clientele. There were older women in good wool coats and low-heeled Ferragamo shoes; younger women in leather skirts with coal-lined eyes; and men in brushed velvet jackets, narrow cravats, and two-day stumble. They all looked chic, and they were moving with serious concentration through the merchandise.

This is what I found in the store that day: a mauve silk gown with spaghetti straps, a pair of chocolate brown Bruno Magli pumps, a thickly woven Coach belt, and a Kenneth Cole book bag. I wore the purple dress ($8) at a fancy university gala to many compliments, the shoes ($11) and belt ($6) have become staples of my wardrobe, and the bag was so coveted by my sister that I traded it to her for one she’d bought at Lord & Taylor’s for $120. Mine cost $3.

After that day, I would seek out thrift shops everywhere I went. Like the novice gambler who hits the jackpot on his first visit to the casino, I have never done quite as well as that first time on Park Avenue South, but there have been some great finds. In Chelsea, a month ago, I found a silver necklace that looks like it came out of an Egyptian tomb ($12) and a vintage shirtwaist with cinched waist and matching jacket ($19) that makes me feel like Doris Day. In Haddonfield, New Jersey, not far from my home, there are two upscale thrift shops. In one, I found a Kate Spade raw silk hand bag ($25) that even my daughter likes (and she only shops at J. Crew). In the other, I found a Diane Von Furstenberg dress, an original from the 1960s ($45 — but it qualifies as an antique). During a recent trip to Connecticut, I stumbled on a thrift shop outside New Haven where I found a a pair of alligator heels ($17). In Abington, Pennsylvania, I found a cashmere sweater set ($27) and an Ann Taylor shift with the price tags still on ($7).

Since so much of the pleasure of thrift shopping has to do with the wonder of finding good stuff at low prices, I have a compulsion to tell people what I spent: “You see this dress, I paid only $4 for it,” I boast. Or, “Look at my outfit; the whole thing costs $13 — including the shoes.” I know this can be extremely annoying.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two opposing perspectives on thrift shop buying. One is extreme distaste. Some people can’t stomach the idea of wearing second-hand clothes. They imagine all the nasty things that might be clinging to them: bedbugs, body lice, communicable diseases, dirt. One of my friends seems visibly revolted by the idea that I would wear someone else’s shoes — feet, I suppose, are particularly rife with unsavory associations. And some people just find second-hand buying pathetic. I can see it in their eyes: “Poor soul; I know she’s an academic, but are things really that bad?”

But there’s another way of looking at thrift shop buying, which I try to explain to my pitying detractors. For what appeals to me so profoundly about second-hand clothes is the mysterious, human element that attaches to them. These clothes were once part of other lives, and those lives, for all that I will never know them, were interesting and valuable to the people who lived them. Sometimes I find a penny or lipstick, or even a scribbled note, in the pocket of a garment, and these seem like magical talismans, fragments of a story whose epic sweep I can only imagine.

I’m particularly fond of shops where you can find whole wardrobes or portions of wardrobes — usually the result of an estate sale following a death. I suppose there’s a morbid aspect to this, but I find it romantic in what it tells me about someone’s long-term tastes and preferences — the way the clothes sketch-in the outlines of a life. I once came across the most marvelous stash of gloves in a Lumberton, New Jersey, consignment shop. They were of the best leather and came in every possible shade. Who was this stylish begloved lady? I feel I channel her whenever I wear her chartreuse gloves or her kelly green gloves.

Consignment shops, where people deposit their clothes with the intention of receiving a percentage of the sale, have a particular appeal to me since they provide an oblique relationship with the anonymous owner. In one shop, I await the arrival of stock from #54, a woman exactly my size, though with far more disposable income. Her clothes are in impeccable taste and have been altered so that they fit me exactly: pant legs hemmed, skirt waists taken in. It’s like having a phantom dressmaker.

I get a visceral rush when I enter a thrift shop that I haven’t visited before or haven’t been to in a while. My heart starts to beat faster and sometimes I break out in a cold sweat. What treasure will I find here? Whose life will I intersect? What item that I never knew existed will I discover? Sometimes I have the unhappy experience of finding something in a thrift shop that I can’t afford. This is especially true of shops that specialize in designer goods. In one such shop on the upper east side of Manhattan, there was a glass case with Kelly bags selling for $13,000 each. It seemed impossible to believe, but the owner assured me that these bags would normally sell for $50,000 and were thus a bargain.

On the other extreme are vast warehouses like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, and in my area of New Jersey, Village Thrift in Pennsauken, where items rarely sell for more than a few dollars. Rumor has it that one of the upscale Haddonfield thrift stores buys much of its merchandise at Village Thrift. It takes energy, imagination, and lots and lots of time to find something of beauty amidst a great deal of junk. And it can pull at your heartstrings, because the people who buy at the large thrift stores often can’t afford to buy elsewhere. After a trip to one of them, I will go home and gather up what I can to make a donation.

I won’t tell you about the time I bought back one of my own dresses ($11, originally purchased at another thrift shop for $9). That’s a story for another column. • 31 October 2007

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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