As a deeply devoted thrift store shopper (for over three decades), I sometimes forget that lots of people actually hate the entire concept of buying used goods in a space that was once home to a run-down grocery store. Many a friend or acquaintance has admired a beautiful piece of art in my home, or the NTW (“new with tags”) designer dress I found for $9.99. They may compliment me on my taste or “good eye,” and even admire how much money I save by thrifting, but then admit that it’s “just not for me.” The reasons always vary, of course, but here are some of the most frequent comments I hear about thrift stores:
- “It smells funky in there!”
- “The fluorescent lighting is so garish and bright!”
- “Everything’s probably dirty and full of germs!”
- “There’s so much—stuff! How can you even find anything?”
- “The music they play is so corny and ridiculous!”
- “The people who shop there are just too weird!”
Do you perhaps share these sentiments? If so, let me gently point out that big shopping malls have the very same issues. They smell like bad pizza and strong perfume, the lighting is harsh, the music is bad, the amount of stuff is overwhelming, and the other shoppers are totally weird. Oh, and the part about germs? Don’t even think about the biohazards of touching an escalator railing or putting your bare feet on the scary carpet in dressing rooms!
Maybe we’re just completely acclimated to shopping malls, and so familiar with the environment that nothing feels scary or outside our comfort zone. If you’ve never (or rarely) shopped in a thrift store, I can see why you might have preconceived ideas and maybe just a little bit of fear. Sometimes, the best way to conquer fear is through “exposure therapy,” which means allowing yourself to experience something new in very small bites until familiarity wraps a protective forcefield around you. So, if you’re intrigued by thrifting, and get the financial and environmental benefits, here are five ideas that may help you get started.
5 things to help you start shopping thrift stores
- If you like the “small bite” approach, decide you’ll make a quick stop (no more than fifteen minutes) at your local shop and explore just one area of the store. Maybe you’re interested in books, tableware, or lamps, but have no desire to look at toys, furniture, tools, or jewelry. Simply follow the signs to your chosen category and begin to narrow your focus. If you’re in front of shelves of books, for instance, pick out a recent hardback novel and flip through the pages. Is the cover in good shape? Is it free of pencil marks and highlighted passages? Does it have that addictive smell of paper and ink, rather than cigarette smoke or a damp basement somewhere in Ohio? Is it a book you’d actually like to read, for only a fraction of the retail price? Then go for it! Take it home and congratulate yourself on being a conscious consumer! And when you’re finished, pass the book on to a friend, who may pass it to another friend.
- If the smell of the store bothers you, remind yourself how stuffy and sweaty your local gym is or the closet in your home with all the mucked-up winter boots and old shoes. So many places we frequent during daily life have very specific and individual smells. I’m thinking of the dust and grease of the car repair shop, the strong scent of animals at the veterinarian’s office or the whiff of slightly rancid oil at your favorite burger place. Remember that odors are temporary and unlikely to cause you any lasting harm. And keep in mind that anything you purchase from a thrift store can (and should!) be cleaned the minute you get it home. Wash or dry clean all pieces of clothing and run plates and glassware through the dishwasher. Large items like a barely used camping tent can be left to air out in the sun and then sprayed with a product like Febreze, leaving it fresh and ready to go.
- Just to add some perspective, if you’re out thrifting and find something you like, use your cell phone to log onto eBay, Etsy, or Poshmark and do some quick research. You may be astonished to find that a set of six retro cocktail glasses from the 1960s priced at $1.99 each is selling online for $100.00 or that a good-as-new leather handbag from a brand you don’t know is actually available at Nordstrom for three times the thrift store price. How happy do you feel about your thrifted item now?
- Know that it’s a false assumption that thrift store shoppers are either old and lonely, poor and sad. Some of the wealthiest people I know love thrifting, for the thrill of the hunt and to find a bargain. And many shops develop a near cult following of young, hip creatives who are committed to reusing and upcycling as part of a sustainable lifestyle. I’ve had dozens of fascinating conversations at thrift stores, with diverse people from every walk of life. I once helped an art professor on crutches unearth some framed vintage illustrations for his office and discussed the merits of Hawaiian shirts with three teenage girls. I’ve laughed hysterically with a Nigerian family over an entire shelf of tacky, holiday snowglobes and bumped into a neighbor searching for plates to match her mother’s wedding china.
- Finally, know that it’s perfectly acceptable to embrace the thrifting experience while maintaining your own personal list of “not for me” items. For instance, my list contains the Three Ss, which means I never purchase sheets, shoes, or swimwear. We all have our limits when it comes to pre-owned goods and those are mine! In a future blog, I’ll definitely talk about the things one should always buy at a thrift store, but for now, let me leave you with some wise words from talented actor Orlando Bloom:
“The best way to look stylish on a budget is to try second-hand, bargain hunting and vintage.”