The five golden rules to thrift store shopping

There are two kinds of people: Those who shudder at the thought of buying used goods and those who feel that it is the morally superior choice. I've fallen firmly into the latter camp, ever since realizing that I could bag a $150 cashmere sweater for $5 (and with tags still intact) at a thrift store, if I looked hard enough and the thrift store gods were smiling.

I've been trolling the thrift stores for more than 20 years now. In the spirit of the new year, I'm offering up the wisdom of my experience to all you thrift store newbies out there. Sit at my knee, now. And listen up. Here are my five golden rules to thrift store shopping:

1.) Location, location, location: In general, thrift stores located on the better side of town generally have better stuff. However, this isn't always the case. One of my favorite local thrifts, a funky little storefront run by a church, gets a lot of their stuff from the vastly more upscale Orange County area and imports it up. It always pays to ask where the thrift gets their merchandise. Chain thrifts such as Goodwill Services, often get their stuff from a central clearing house, although the local donations will still show up on the shelves. And the richer the neighborhood, the more likely the locals do a lot of retail therapy, which then often hang in their closets for a year, unworn, until they eventually make it out to the local thrift store when spring cleaning time comes.

2.) Shop brands. If you're not feeling particularly funky or adventurous, newbies to the world of thrift shopping should always look for name brands. The reasons are two-fold. First, you can reasonably assume you're buying quality. J-Crew sweaters, Jones New York separates, Steve Madden clogs. Secondly, there is nothing like the satisfaction you get when you pull an apparently unworn pair of 7 for all Mankind jeans out of the rack at your local thrift store and see the $6 price tag. These sell for $150 and up retail. You can flip these on eBay, or, if the thrift gods have really smiled upon you, they will be in your size. Also, it pays to know more than the help when it comes to luxury brands. While the workers sorting out the piles of clothes in the back may know about Coach or DKNY, they might not know Kate Spade or a Trina Turk. Know what's valuable so you can snap it up on principal. Remember, this is exactly what the higher-end "resale" shops like Aardvark's or Buffalo Exchange do, so you're competing with pros. But do your homework, and see rule number five, and you'll come out on top.

3.) Announce your intentions. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go ahead and laugh at my self-empowering clap-trap. I don't care, because it works. If you're going thrift store shopping with the intention of finding a particular item, (as opposed to going for a little retail therapy vacation and browsing aimlessly), then it helps to articulate what you want to the universe. "I want a woolen sweater. Purple or blue. And I'm going to find it." This very weekend I went into my local favorite to see if they had some sort of interesting chest of drawers. My son needed one for his room. And what do you know? I found a mid-century piece that is the envy of my well-to-do friends who collect Mid-Century art and furniture. And I found it for $50. If the hipper-than-thou furniture place on La Brea Ave. had found it first, my friends would be buying it for $500. Nyaaa. Be sure to thank the thrift store gods when you find what you're looking for.

Stop laughing and try it. And let me know what happens, you philistines. Are you worthy of such secrets?

4.) Wash it! Unless it has the tags still attached, you will feel better if you launder or dry clean any garment you buy at a thrift store.

5.) Be consistent. People who don't approve of thrift store shopping often point to the fact that you can't be sure you'll find what you're looking for. To this I must answer, well duh. That's the point, Sherlock. It's one big mystery, and that makes it all the more fun. You never know what you're going to find. You'll usually find something, sure. But you'll find better treasures if you return to the store regularly. Consistency is the name of the game here. What can you hope for when you dip into a store once? A lucky find. If you come back again and again, your gains will be outsized. Find out when they put out their recently-received merchandise and show up early that day for the best pickings. Some stores put out the new stuff several times a day. Be there when it's wheeled out from the back.

For additional reading, I'd recommend the funny, entertaining blog Thrift Store Whore. This gal knows what she's talking about.

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