Sunday, January 17, 2016

Thrift (Shop) Week 2016

Last month, while researching prices for my Money Crashers article on things that have fallen in price, I started digging into the topic of clothing prices. I found that, while clothing prices have been rising in the short term, over the long term - the past several decades - they have grown dramatically cheaper. Yet according to the 2015 documentary True Cost, as covered here on CNN, that's not a good thing. The cost of clothing today, the film argues, is far too low; it doesn't adequately reflect the true economic and social cost of producing the garments. It dwells on such topics as rising debt (and, relatedly, suicides) among Indian cotton farmers, the appalling conditions in third-world textile mills, and the amount of fabric waste in the US each year.

Not having seen the film, I can't really respond to its argument as a whole. But my attention was grabbed by one particular statistic cited in the CNN piece: "Only 10% of the clothes people donate to thrift stores get sold - the rest end up in landfills or flood markets in developing countries."

I'd never heard this fact before, and I still don't know where the filmakers got it from. But if it's anywhere near close to true, it shows that even in thrift shops, which I've always considered a classic example of stuff green people like, aren't nearly as green as they could be. Yes, they're keeping some clothes out of landfills - but only about 10 percent of the clothes they receive.

Now, the filmmakers' conclusion about cheap clothing is that American consumers ought to "back off this endless, constant purchasing" and spend their clothing budget on a few high-quality items that will last. But it seems to me, based on the statistic above, that one other thing we could all be doing that would be at least as helpful is to support our local thrift shops. Buying more of our clothing secondhand would reduce textile waste, while also reducing the profitability of the cheap clothes made in third-world factories - an ecofrugal win-win.

Thus, Thrift Week 2016 is going to be Thrift Shop Week 2016. I'm planning to visit a different local thrift shop each day, buying something if I find anything useful, but at the very least familiarizing myself with the stores and what they have to offer - and providing them with a little free publicity here on the blog. I've decided that for purposes of this series, a "thrift shop" is any store that sells all or mostly secondhand goods - not just clothing, but secondhand items of any kind, including furniture and books. I'll focus on clothing stores mainly, since that's what inspired me to tackle the topic, but I won't limit myself to clothing stores, since there probably aren't enough of them in our area to get me through the whole week.

One additional complication is that, as I kick off this year's Thrift Week, I'm not actually at home; I'm visiting some friends down in Falls Church, VA. So my first thrift shop of Thrift Shop Week isn't one of my local thrift shops, but one of theirs: a secondhand bookstore called Hole in the Wall Books. As you can see from the pictures on their website, the place lives up to its name. It's a used bookstore of the old school, a dense, crowded warren of tiny rooms, all lined with shelves overflowing with books of every type: paperbacks, hardcovers, comics, fiction and nonfiction, classics, sci-fi, mysteries, horror, and anything else you care to name.

Mind you, if you're looking for something in particular, finding it in this maze isn't exactly easy. But the books are at least grouped roughly into categories and sorted approximately alphabetically, so Brian and I were able to determine after a brief search that most of the authors we look for in places like this - Jim Butcher, Ilona Andrews, Rex Stout - weren't represented on the shelves. However, I did manage to locate one volume by Wilkie Collins, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. He was pretty hot stuff in his day, but nowadays, it seems the only works of his you can find anywhere - at our local library, at the bookstores, and even at most online libraries - are The Moonstone and The Woman in White, both of which we've already read. So when I found a collection of three lesser-known Collins novels we'd never seen before, I decided not to balk at the $9 price tag. (Although this place looks like an old-school used bookstore, it definitely doesn't follow the old-school pricing model of half the cover price for most books. If it did, we'd almost certainly have bought more books and spent more money altogether.) Sure, $9 for works that are officially out of copyright may seem a bit steep, but if we can't actually find them anywhere else, it's still a bargain.

So that was my first Thrift Week score, and the first of what I hope will be seven secondhand birthday presents from me to myself.  Stay tuned throughout the week to hear of our further adventures in thrifting.
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