Thursday, February 21, 2013

Finding the best thrift shops

A few weeks ago, the bloggers at Young House Love issued their Macklemore Thrift Shop Challenge, based on the rap song "Thrift Shop," by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. (You can view a cleaned-up version of the video on this page, or go to YouTube for the unexpurgated version.) I'd never heard the song before, and I was completely tickled by the fact that a rap song about thrift shops exists. Even if it's mostly tongue-in-cheek, I still think it's awesome that this guy is challenging the way rap music in general glorifies throwing money around (describing spending $50 on a T-shirt as "getting swindled" and deriding the idea that you can "get girls from a brand"). So I was really psyched to take the challenge, which was to go to a thrift shop—any thrift shop—with "$20 in your pocket" and show what you get for it. (You also get points for finding and photographing any of the items specifically mentioned in the song, such as clothing with fringe, sneakers with Velcro, and pajamas with feet).
Unfortunately, however, there are no thrift shops in our area that even approach the one depicted in the video for selection and price. Here in Highland Park, there are exactly two stores that sell secondhand goods. The Tower Thrift Shop in the basement of the Reformed Church is cleaner and better organized than it used to be, but it's still got a small and seldom-changing selection, no dressing rooms, and very limited hours (about 15 hours per week). There is a new store on Raritan Avenue that has some pretty nice furniture and accessories, but no clothing, which is what I actually need right now.

I figured my best chance of completing the Thrift Shop Challenge successfully was to go down to the Goodwill store in East Brunswick. Although this is the nearest big thrift store to us (only about five miles away), we seldom stop in there because it's not close to anyplace else we'd be likely to go. In honor of the Thrift Shop Challenge, however, I decided to make a special trip out there on a Saturday. I went in with my $20 and a modest shopping list: some decent pants for winter, maybe a flannel shirt or a grey pullover, and anything else that happened to catch my eye. And I came out with...nothing. After working my way up and down all the racks of trousers, looking at every pair to check the size (since this store sorts them only by color), I didn't find a single pair worth the trouble of trying on. The few pairs I found in my size were all cut in the fashionably low-slung style that looks absolutely awful on me, and/or they were made of such flimsy fabric that they weren't worth the five to ten dollars the store was asking for them. And while I did try on a few grey pullovers, not one fit me properly.

The whole experience was so frustrating that I began to think maybe I should just give up on thrift shops entirely. Yeah, back in college I used to have good luck there, but I was younger and slimmer then, and maybe the tanking economy has made people more reluctant to get rid of good clothes. So imagine my surprise when, at the blood bank yesterday, the phlebotomist started chatting to me about shopping and confided that she gets nearly everything from thrift shops. The prices are so much better than the department stores, she rattled on cheerfully, and the selection is just as good—she can always find plenty of items in her size. When I eagerly asked her where she shopped to find such great deals, she steered me toward the Unique Thrift Store in South Plainfield—not much farther from us than the Goodwill, but in the opposite direction.

This got me thinking about the first time we visited a Habitat ReStore, back in 2010 when we were preparing to refinish our bathroom. The nearest one was about half an hour south of us, out toward the shore. When we got there, we found it was just a couple of rooms with a limited selection of crappy secondhand furniture. No tile, no paint, no light fixtures—none of the stuff we needed for the job in hand. So we decided, since we'd come this far, to continue south toward the next nearest store. After another half an hour's drive, we found a much larger selection of crappy secondhand furniture, plus a couple of seriously beat-up appliances. So after making a two-hour round trip through some not very appealing neighborhoods and finding nothing, I was naturally feeling a bit disillusioned with the idea of the Habitat ReStore and very nearly gave up on it entirely. But the descriptions my pals on the Dollar Stretcher forums gave of their great finds at Habitat convinced me that at least some of their stores must be worthwhile, so I did a little more investigation and found that the Morris County store, which was located in a more upscale area, appeared to be much bigger and offer a much wider selection of stuff. And sure enough, when we checked it out, this store turned out to have the good stuff: paint, tile, sinks, cabinetry, plumbing supplies, and even nails sold by the pound. We ended up picking up a bathroom sink for $30 and, on a later trip, several boxes of Italian ceramic tile at $11 a box.

It seems reasonable to conclude that where thrift shops are concerned, location makes a big difference. Thinking back over my vast experience of thrift shopping, I'd offer the following rules of thumb:
  1. The bigger the city, the better the selection. Aside from one T-shirt, I've never found anything I really liked at the Goodwill near us, but when I've taken the opportunity to visit the one near my in-laws' house in Indianapolis, I've generally had good results. This rule makes sense if you think about it: the bigger the city, the wider the population from which it can gather its merchandise, and thus the better the selection it's likely to have.
  2. The richer the neighborhood, the better the merchandise. When I was in college, living on the fairly upscale Main Line outside of Philadelphia, I had one great thrift shop just a few blocks from my apartment and at least two others within walking distance. (To this day, I've never forgotten the $15 leather miniskirt I bought at the Ardmore thrift shop in my freshman year—before I went vegetarian—even though I wore it exactly once and could no longer fit into it by senior year.) This rule also has a certain logic to it: rich folks can afford to buy higher-quality stuff to begin with, and they can also afford to discard it before it's worn out.
  3. The better the store, the higher the prices. Our little local store may not have much selection, but the few things I've found there have been incredible bargains: pants for a dollar a pair, shoes for two dollars, shirts for 50 cents. The Goodwill store tends to charge more: maybe four dollars for a shirt and as much as ten for a pair of pants (although you can cut these prices in half by choosing merchandise with the right color-coded tag: blue tags on a blue-tag day, for example). And the Yelp reviews I found for the Unique Thrift Store generally say that the store is clean, well-organized and loaded with a great variety of stuff, but the prices are often unreasonably high based on the condition of the clothing. Of course, thrift-store prices are still bound to be lower than retail prices (at least for merchandise of similar quality), so it's probably a better bet to go to a store where you can actually find something you like and pay $10 or $15 for it than to one where you search a whole rack of $2 jeans and find nothing.
I did a little Googling around to see if anyone else has formulated a similar set of rules and found that Trent of The Simple Dollar is willing to back me up on rule 2, at least. He also says that once you've identified a nice neighborhood, it's worth taking the time to check out all the local thrift stores and see if you can find one with the right balance of quality and price (a tacit nod to rule 3). And he recommends looking beyond the one item you happen to be looking for right now: if the store has the sort of things that fit your size and taste in general, then it's probably worth a return visit.

So I'm hoping that when I get the chance to check out the Unique Thrift Store, I'll actually find something I like, even if I end up having to spend the entire "20 dollas in my pocket" on it. (Oh, and incidentally, if you're curious, you can see the results of the Macklemore Thrift Shop Challenge here.)
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