Some helpful hints for thrift store shopping

When I was in high school, one of my embarrassing secret hobbies was bargain shopping.Unfortunately, in Northern Virginia, thrift stores leaned heavily toward the elderly family estate-sale end of the spectrum, and almost inevitably reeked of vap-o-rub and that vinegary smell that old people sometimes get when they start to go bad.However, I soon discovered that if I breathed through my mouth and had a lot of patience, there were wonders to be found.I unearthed old comic books, weird kitchen supplies, and the occasional novelty shirt or jacket that enhanced the John Cryer-as-Ducky Dale look that I secretly aspired to in the late 1980's.

As I got older, my thrift store tendencies more or less stayed the same.One day, however, it occurred to me that I was laying out tons of money to buy professional clothes at department stores while I was surfing the thrift stores for cool, quirky bargains.In the process, I was turning up my nose at classic suits, oxford shirts, sweaters, overcoats, and all the boring, mainstream clothes that I wore every day.

I began hitting the thrift stores in search of professional attire, and have never looked back.In fact, my wife and I have made a game of it: after we go thrift store shopping, we look our bargains up on the internet and find out who saved the most money

I know: it's pathetic.At least, it's pathetic until you find a $80 Ben Sherman shirt for $9 and discover that it makes you look incredibly cool.Then, of course, the pathos dissolves and you realize that you have become a geek shopping god.Then you demand that everyone worships you.Then you end up in the loony bin.

In the interim, however, here are a few suggestions for bargain hunting:

1. Visit thrift stores in higher-income neighborhoods. As I mentioned in a previous post, the best bargain shopping that I ever found was in a very ritzy suburb of San Francisco. I've since found a great place in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There are three basic maxims at work here: first, rich people can afford really nice clothes. Second, rich people don't generally like to wear their clothes for more than one season. Third, many thrift stores give out tax-deductible receipts The combination of these three points means that you can find incredibly great deals on last season's clothes.

By the way, this doesn't mean that you can't find great bargains in lower-income neighborhoods. In my local Goodwill in Southwest Virginia, I got a beautiful Pendleton wool winter coat for $4 and found a few nice Izod sweaters for $3 each.However, these deals took a lot of searching. The nice thing about upscale neighborhood thrift stores is that the pickings tend to be a lot easier.

2. Buy recognizable labels. I don't tend to be a label whore, but let's be honest: Brooks Brothers shirts are built to last. The same goes for Sean John, Nautica, Ben Sherman, Joseph Abboud, Kenneth Cole, Barney's, and all the other brand names that you lust after. Best of all, if you're paying a fraction of the full price, there is absolutely no buyer's remorse!

3. Avoid clothes that are stained, cut, or damaged.Don't fool yourself: you're not going to do the repairs or make the mark go away.Also, watch the edges of seams and cuffs and the corners of collars.These are places where wear and tear happens more rapidly, but can be harder to see.There are few things more disappointing than finding a perfect shirt, only to discover a major flaw when you get it home.

4. Know your sizes. Just because you fit into a large Ralph Lauren doesn't mean that you'll fit into a large Kenneth Cole. If you can't try on the clothes (many thrift stores don't have dressing rooms), it helps to know what you're looking for.

5. Don't feel like you have to buy something. Just as in any other store, it's easy to get carried away in a thrift store. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Center yourself. Enjoy the Zen of shopping, and separate yourself from the need to buy. If the shirt isn't perfect, put it back. There will be another one. Half of the fun of thrift shopping is the search for the perfect article. Enjoy the ride.

For this very reason, you probably want to avoid going to thrift stores in search of a particular item. Chances are, you won't find it, and the directed search will make you miss a lot of other wonderful things. Also, avoid vintage clothing stores: while these places generally have great stuff, they also charge a lot more. And, to be honest, they probably picked up their inventory at the local thrift store!

Bruce Watson is a former English instructor, sometime writer, and all-around cheapskate. A co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea, his work has appeared in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, The Roanoker, The Brush Mountain Review, The Eccentric Monthly, The Best of Times, and College Daze. He currently blogs on Crankster.

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