How to Thrift Shop Your Way to Victory

Lots of Salvation Army stores have ended their Wednesday Family Days, when the whole place gets discounted 50 percent. Goodwill has set up its own auction site of rare and high-end items, effectively keeping the good stuff for itself. Point is: Gone are the days of stumbling onto pristine Nirvana tees or ’60s Levi’s while thrifting.

But to go in with visions of profit-making arbitrage isn’t the real fun of thrifting. To shop at a thrift store is to embrace the magical possibilities of life. Hokey? Maybe. Btut thrift stores, with their one-of-a-kind goods and low prices, introduce happenstance into the equation.

The key, then, is to go in with no expectations. Give yourself over to the journey— but while you’re doing it, use some hard-won wisdom I’ve accrued from decades of haunting thrift shop racks.

1. Consider what could be

See a great pair of corduroys with an inseam 14 inches too long? A classic Brooks Brothers button down missing half its buttons? Buy them and bring them to a tailor. The combined cost of your purchase and the repairs will almost certainly be less than purchasing new. If you fall in love with something a little flawed, don’t give up on it. Thriting: it’s just like life!

2. Thrifting is a gender-free zone

To a thrift shop employee, “women’s” sometimes means smaller or has flowers on it. There’s often no rhyme or reason to what goes where. If you’re on the hunt, check the men’s and women’s sections. Some shops are hip to this and are shelving garments together, but don’t let a sign stop you from searching.

3. Skip the tees.

Many thrift stores have football-field-sized acreage. You’ll need to pace yourself, and preserve your energy. One easy trick is to peruse shirts, sweatshirts, knits, and jackets just by looking out for a shoulder and sleeve as you walk the aisle. But flipping through racks of tees, with their graphics hidden, is a slog—with little chance of finding gold. You’re better off hitting eBay or Depop for the one you really want.

4. A smell is forever…

“Thrift store” smell is one thing. But a true funk or nose-wrinkling reek is a lost cause. A washing machine is not a miracle worker. If it stinks in the store, it’ll stink at home.

5. …but a stain may not be

General discoloration from normal wear usually comes out without too much elbow grease. Some yellow around the collar or in the pits is not a shirt’s death sentence. Thrifting means owning a tub of OxiClean and forming a close bond with your local dry cleaner.

6. Reclaim your youth

You may bristle to learn that 20-year-old clothing is now just as vintage, technically, as whatever your great-grandfather wore in World War I. An Abercrombie cowl neck cardigan (or any ’90s mall brand piece) that you lusted over in high school is officially retro—and now you can get it for pennies on the dollar.

7. Don’t be a label snob

Yes, it would be great to walk out of Salvation Army with a $5 Comme des Garçon piece or a flawless Armani jacket, but chances are low that’s going to happen. But you may be surprised to find that some less-heralded iconic American brands not only fill up thrift stores, but made great clothes. Land’s End, Bill Blass, St. John’s Bay, LizSport: They may not have the same cachet as Ralph Lauren or Carhartt, but they made durable staples. You’re not buying Oxfords, khakis, and flannels to show off a logo, anyway. Over time, you may find a certain era of, say, Cabelas, is both easy enough to find and always worth bringing home.

8. The hard work is done in the dressing room

Pile anything remotely interesting in your cart, then go through all your selects at the end—not while you shop. You’ll be able to compare and get a better sense of what really hits.

9. This is a numbers game

If you’ve got the appetite for thrifting, make a day of thrifting. Hit as many shops as you can. Sites like list spots by zip code for easy mapping. If you find zilch in Paterson, Passaic is always around the corner.

10. Just take a photo

Do you go from zero to bitch in 2.2 seconds? Maybe! Do you need a shirt that says so? Probably not. With the rise of fast fashion, cheesy slogan shirts are easy to produce and even easier to dump in donation bins, which is why thrift store racks are rife with them.

11. Get weird

Experiment with a low-cost beret. A silk shirt. Shorter-than-usual shorts. If something outside your normal routine has a surprising allure, yield to it. Worst case, you can always re-donate that sleeveless hoodie.

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