While others might shudder at being surrounded by castoffs, I see opportunity. How else can I describe the mixture of clothing, dishes and shoes that crowd the racks and shelves?
I became enamored with thrift shopping when I bought my first skirt. As a tall and skinny 14-year-old, I struggled to find clothes that fit my narrow waist and long legs. The pink A-line fluttered to my knees and hugged my frame like no other item I’d tried, convincing me that I could wear skirts. I spun, watching the coveted fabric ripple around me. Thrifting was my new favorite pastime.
I’d grown up on hand-me-downs: wobbly black and white garbage bags every six months from a cousin or friend. I would sit on the floor folding the offerings into piles of “to try” and “to donate.” Before bouncing off to parade my new wardrobe across the living room, I’d tug and turn each item, looking for stains, missing buttons and loose seams.
Thrift shopping requires similar skills, especially when searching at a large store like Evanston’s Goodwill on Dempster Street. It requires patience, an eye for value and the ability to sift through the piles of miscellaneous donations that fill the racks and shelves.
In the words of my 54-year-old mother Kathy Allen, “It's kind of like a treasure hunt. Sometimes you find a really great treasure, something that's never been used or never been worn, and it’s super cheap.” But it takes dedication. If you are looking for something specific – an evening gown, a jacket, overalls – it rarely appears at the first stop.
Last winter, I was introduced to jumpsuits. I craved the elegance, the style and the freedom they offered, which convinced me to seek a sophisticated – preferably black – piece of fabric that would fit my uncommonly long legs and arms. I spent the summer driving to my favorite stores every few weeks to check their inventories. I’d parse the racks of hangers, cold metal scraping the bar as I forced each item over to consider its neighbor, searching for a miracle.
Six months later, back at Northwestern, I still hadn’t found a perfect fit. Crossroads had disappointed me, the promise of the green velvet jumpsuit broken by its refusal to zip up in the back. I was defeated. However, winter break found me at the new second-hand store in my hometown, buying the outfit I had hitherto only seen in my imagination. And a pair of overalls. And a jacket. Because truth be told, over half of my wardrobe has been on another body.
Last weekend, my wallet was once again at the mercy of a thrift shop. I stood inside Evanston’s Goodwill, turning a wooden box over in my hands, wondering what its story was. The yellow $3.99 sticker caught my eye. The colorful print on the front read Stratego, a game I remembered playing with my siblings. All 80 pieces were present and the board was barely scratched.
I dashed over to my friends, begging them to share my excitement. A game from my childhood – which now sagged in a disintegrating cardboard box at home – had appeared before me in Evanston. I had to buy it, even if just to show my brothers or sister. It was the trophy of the weekend hunt, the shining star of my haul.
Sometimes I wonder why I love thrift shopping so much. It’s difficult, time consuming and often disappointing. But I thrift anyway. I thrift for the environment, I thrift for the savings, but mostly I thrift for the thrill of finding that one unnoticed item that costs a fraction of its retail price, so I can bring it home and brag about it for the rest of my life.