space eats ps store glitter advice info email
making art out of everyday life read shopping cart interact
Home > thrift >
  How To Thrift Like An Expert
Writer Emma Alvarez Gibson explains the ins and outs of thrift shopping.

At the age of ten I realized my cousin Tito was the coolest guy on the face of the earth. He listened to the Smiths and the Sex Pistols and Elvis; he was cute and funny; but most importantly, his wardrobe was impeccably hip. In his repertoire were London Fog trench coats, a black beret, geeky shirts from the late fifties/early sixties, sharkskin pants, well-tailored blazers... I longed to throw myself into his closet to absorb his fabulous taste through osmosis. I no longer recall the superfly shirt he was wearing the day I asked him where he got his clothes, but his reply? "Salvation Army," he said nonchalantly, and a passion was born in me that has persevered for fourteen years. I suspect, with apologies to my as-yet-unconcieved children, that it shall continue on into the twilight years of my life.
Yes, it’s been a long and winding road, chickies, but after much trial-and-error I have fashioned a few guidelines that reduce the anxiety and indecision often involved in picking through stranger’s castoffs, leaving more room for the thrill of the hunt. Follow along then, and as you do, keep the all-important Big Rule in mind: rules don’t matter if you’ve found something you can’t live without. Obviously your pocketbook restrictions apply ad nauseaum, but short of that, who cares how lame, even by kitsch standards, something is? You love it; end of story. And now, the nitty-gritty details to help you along your scavenging way.

The Six Basic Types Of Thrift Shops


Hospital-affiliated shop Although proceeds go to a good cause, this type is generally depressing and smells of nursing home. Run by sweet old volunteer ladies, they are sometimes a good source for books you loved as a child, but that’s about it. Prices tend to be pretty reasonable.


Salvation Army/Goodwill Still holding up fairly well in spite of the vintage boom of the past few years. Lost of junk, but also real deals available.


Privately-owned, moderately priced, moderately hip You won’t have to do quite as much mining here. Plus, you can try to build a good relationship with the owner/employees for later deals.


Privately-owned, outrageously expensive, painfully hip Just say no. You can find what you need elsewhere.


Privately-owned, dimly lit, oddly named I know this sounds strange, but there are quite a few of these places out there. The owner is usually lacking in coherency, and seems obsessed with the items he/she carries. These are great for laughing about it afterward with your friends, but not much else. Usually everything is dirty and expensive. I never go into these alone!


Hip chain store Always worth a look. Prices and quality run the gamut at these places.

A Word Of Caution To The Newly Initiated

When you’re just starting out on the used circuit, it’s easy to be seduced by nostalgia. Look! I had that exact same Strawberry Shortcake doll! And I swear that’s the John Denver record my mom sold at her yard sale while I was at camp! Yes, yes, I often get the warm fuzzies myself. But it’s important to get an idea of how available certain items are before you throw your wallet over the counter. Do some comparison shopping. Unless it’s something you absolutely, positively must have that instant, wait until you’ve checked out the competition. Once you have an idea of how much things go for on average, you’ll have a better grasp on what you want to pay. For those of you interested in extra credit, head out to some upscale antique stores. Ask about the things that interest you. Finding out the year they were made, their degree of popularity, whether they were widely available, etc., can go a long way toward your thrifting education.

Keep Your Eyes Open For Things You’re Not Looking For
What? Well, chances are good you’re not going to find what you came for. But chances are even better you’ll find something great that you hadn’t even realized you wanted! Such is the beauty of consumption... Leave no stone unturned. Very often you’ll find treasure. Example: a few summers ago a local thrift shop received a huge shipment of Pleather car coats. It was August; there was a heat wave in full force. I picked through the cheesy coats anyway, until — hey, this isn’t Pleather! I squealed silently. A black leather pimp coat with a butterfly collar had wound up with its lesser counterparts and now bore a twenty-two dollar price tag! Barely breathing, I took it up to the counter. As the girl rang me up, the owner came over and realized his mistake. He tried to bully me out of the purchase, saying it should have been marked at eighty, but I sweetly pointed out that the price tag read otherwise. The owner was fuming, but he let me have it. Why? I pulled out all the sweet stops and mentioned that I’d been a loyal customer for years, blah blah blah. Which brings us to our next rule.

One Girl’s Trash Is Another Girl’s Livelihood
Be respectful and courteous to the shop owner. More than likely they picked out the majority of what you see, and more than likely the shop is a labor of love. Acknowledge them when you walk in. Don’t laugh too obnoxiously at your perception of bad taste. Remember, you want something from them. Make nice. Act as though you’ve been invited into someone’s home. You pretty much have been, since the owner probably spends more time at the shop than at home. Thank them when you leave. You’ll be remembered for your manners, and I’m sure those of you who have worked retail know what a difference that makes in what you’ll do for a customer. Obviously, this rule applies somewhat differently to the bigger thrift stores, which operate more like your typical retail stores. But being gracious never hurts.

The H Word
Again, this applies more toward the smaller, privately-owned shops. Get over your fear of haggling! Very often they’ll knock a few dollars off the total if you’re buying several things. Sometimes they’ll do it if they see you really want something but really can’t afford it (go on, put those drama classes to good use!). Sometimes they’ll do it just because you’re a good customer and the sale is more important than the couple of bucks. Hell, sometimes they won’t do it at all, but you have to ask! It’s not about being cheap, it’s about being smart.

Don’t Even Bother Checking The Size On That Dress
Because sizing is so erratic anyway, and so different now than in the past, it’s next to impossible to tell whether something will fit by looking at the number on the tag. It’s best to first hold the item up to yourself. If that goes well, take it into the dressing room. If there is no dressing room, try it on over your clothes.

When In Doubt, Dry Clean
More than one smart little vintage number has met its demise at my hand-washing. Trust me on this one.

Well, ladies, there you have it. Make Tito proud.

The All-Time Top Five
Thrifting Coups:

RED wool plaid golf knickers, leather ties, $6. Soo much fun! Trust me, no one else had these at my high school! Worn with Doc Marten Mary Janes and a Danzig shirt, they couldn’t be beat!
BLACK eyelet early 1950s dress, near-mint condition, fits as though made to order for me!, $18. I look like such a socialite!
GRAY wool 1940s suit (skirt and jacket), near mint condition, $10. TEN!!! DOLLARS!! It’s a couple of sizes too big, but the price of alteration will be so worth it.

WHITE beaded eyeglass case, $1. I think even my Grandma thought this was a nerdy purchase, but I love it! Great for those days when you feel like carrying your dainty retro purse in the crook of your arm, palm up, and you wish your bra was pointy.

BLACK early 1940s full-length winter coat, minus very top button, small rip in lining, $5. Makes me feel like a movie star!

Emma Alvarez Gibson is a freelance writer, publicist and massage therapist. In her spare time she gets crafty, produces a zine called "Fiend," hangs out with her husband Roger (what a hottie!) and aspires to one day be a superhero. So far she’s seen "Fight Club" three times.