I first set foot in a Goodwill for these reasons alone: I wanted a new top, and I was very close to broke. Desperate for a material buzz at the lowest possible cost, I entered the land o' the thrift. That was two years ago, and I haven't left since.
Here's the thing about thrift a la Goodwill and/or Salvation Army: It's the only form of shopping in which there is NO FILTER. No re-sale staffer deciding against adding torn, pit-stained tees to the inventory; No consignment buyer deeming an item not trendy enough for its clientele; No vintage enthusiast negging a muumuu because its condition is less than mint. There are brandtastic gems to be had, but extracting the good from the bad, ugly and uglier is no easy task, and the odds aren't initially in your favor.
The upside? Learn how to shop here, and you can shop anywhere (kind of like New York, riiiight?).
Here's how to get your head in the game.
Prologue: Get Over It
Lame excuses for avoiding thrift stores include, but are not limited to:
"They don't have the brands I like."
Baloney. Over the past two years, thrift hath bestowed on me Laundry, Tahari, Bebe, Club Monaco, J.Crew, Ann Taylor, James Jeans, Ya-Ya, Banana Republic, GAP, Intermix, Zara, H&M, BCBG, and more. Bonus alert: Most of my finds were individually priced at less than fifteen dollars. Niiiice.
"I mean, those are, like, other people's clothes."
Thank you Captain Obvious. Lots of you who won't deign to shop thrift either have or would donate your old clothes to a thrift store. Wouldn't people be lucky to buy and wear the fab stuff you've tired of? I thought so. Yes, there's an abundance of worn-out, fugly apparel. But there's also tons of clothing about as worn-in as -- and I'm projecting here -- that pricey, going-out top you *needed* that still has its tags. (We all have that top, btw ;)).
"There's not one near me."
Au contraire -- see TheThriftShopper.com, and simply input your zip code for a list of thrifts near you. It really is magical.
"It's too disorganized for me to find anything."
Okay, I kind of feel you on this. Thrift stores don't care if you're a Forever 21 or a Juicy Couture or a Theory -- you're all going to hang together in harmony, regardless of where you came from or what you originally cost. And in this way, it's the great equalizer of all things Fashion.
Overcoming the disorganization inherent in thrift stores seems daunting; rest assured it can be done. All it takes is a bit of strategy.
Step 1: Use Your Sorting Hat
Thrift store merch is usually grouped by type of garment, sometimes organized by color, rarely sorted by size, and almost-never corralled according to brand; it follows that we sort in that order.
Figure out what type of garment you need, and keep it general. Pants, Shorts, Skirts, Dresses, and Tops are your choices. Pick one, and bee-line for that section and ONLY that section. To dawdle is to risk temporary insanity, so focus up. Once you've arrived at your rack of choice, assess the color situation. If it's organized by color, spectacular! Zero in on the shades you tend to wear most and let the hunt commence. If it's not, chillax, and read on.
Step 2: Leave No Hanger Unturned
The goal of the browsing stage is to get a look at every single piece of clothing on your rack of choice. Not some, not most. ALL OF 'EM.
The best way to tackle an overstuffed rack of thrift is to employ the Shove 'n' Slide technique.
Step 3: Shove 'N' Slide
Shove all of the hangers to one end of the rack (and try not to crush your fellow thrifters in the process -- it's bad for shopping karma). Start with the hanger closest to you and slide each item, ONE AT A TIME, to what is now the spacious end of the rack. Make a mental note of anything worthwhile, but keep on truckin'. The rationale for not removing any clothing from the rack until you've seen every piece of clothing on said rack will be explained in due time.
When the spacious end of the rack appears overstuffed once more, you've effectively completed the Shove 'n' Slide technique.
You are now well on your way to getting your thrift on, so congrats. Steps 4-10 will cover best and worst secondhand bets, developing a discerning eye, hygienic thrifting practices, and mastering the lost art of patience (in no particular order). Stay tuned for the next installment.