There’s More to a Thrift Shop Than a Great Deal

Read this reflective narrative about why thrifting is good and how there's more than just good deals to be found.

Grant grew up in a frugal household, and as someone making his way with two part-time jobs, he’s learned to embrace simple living. So he’s at home in a thrift store, and has come to find a lot more under those fluorescent lights than just great deals.

Raised by two schoolteachers in the Midwest along with three siblings, both the value of the dollar and frugality were instilled in me from a very early age. I remember the need to save money on clothes and school supplies and make the groceries stretch a little further. 

My parents would head off to the supermarket with a handful of the advertisements that came in the mail, all the best deals circled in pen. Leftovers sat in old single-use containers in the refrigerator — one was always unsure if they contained margarine or last night’s casserole. We waited as long as possible to turn on the air conditioning in the summer and the heat in the winter, so my younger brother and I wore extra layers in the house from mid-November to March, and as little as possible from June to August. Saving money was a cherished value, a way of life.

Along with a passion for saving money on groceries and bills, this frugality meant we also loved a good trip to the thrift shop. Besides offering the possibility of finding clothes and other things for cheap, the thrift shop was a bit of an adventure. With not much else to do in our small town, thrift shopping was a way to kill time — it provided a little bit of excitement in an otherwise fairly monotonous day-to-day life. 

And it still does. I currently work two part-time jobs, and my local thrift shop is conveniently located on the way to and from both of them; stopping in is both a comforting weekly ritual and, I admit, a fairly unbreakable habit. I have come to respond to any compliments I receive for something I wear in the traditional Midwestern way: sharing the low price for which it was bought, the location at which I found it, and a self-satisfied grin.

The thrift shop experience is good in the same way that frugality is good. There’s the feeling of being an insider or being especially skilled and knowledgeable — not everyone will get this deal on this item, after all, but only one who is “in the know.” There’s the sense of comfort and security that saving money can provide — having a little monetary cushion to protect against any financial blows. And there’s the feeling of possibility: dreaming of how far the money can go, and what can be done with the money saved. 

Added to all this is the thrill of the hunt: What am I going to find next? What does the thrift shop have for me today? Finding the perfect item can feel fated, even providential, as if someone has placed the item on the shelf or the rack especially for you (like I sometimes imagine when I find a used book that matches my most niche interests).

The thrift shop is also a place of connection. There is not only the comradery among the regulars who come several times a week — I can’t count the number of times complete strangers and I have exchanged opinions on items we are considering purchasing — but it is also a place where the stuff of our human lives and stories intersect. 

The items one finds in a thrift shop are not vacuum-sealed or plastic-wrapped, giving the false impression that they come to us untouched by human hands. The evidence of use — a bit of paint chipped off here, a little fraying around the edges there — is a reminder that this item belonged to someone else before you, that it became for them an expression or extension of who they were. And now, through a series of coincidences of which you are probably just dimly aware, you are connected to those previous owners; your lives have touched each other, overlapping in this item that now expresses something about you.

Perhaps the floral print tie I wear to work several times a week (and which I found for $2) made its way to me through someone who sought it out intentionally, who perhaps needed it for a special occasion: a wedding, a birthday, an anniversary. Perhaps my copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet belonged to someone navigating the complexities of love and heartbreak, and who needed to be encouraged (as I did when I stumbled upon it for $1) to “have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart.” Perhaps the silver corpus on the crucifix I found next to assorted decorations (for $6) was kissed by devout lips who prayed in earnest — perhaps those prayers, that faith, carries me along.

There are no pretensions to newness in the thrift shop; there is nothing new under the fluorescent lights. The life of every item precedes — by months, years, even decades — the moment you find it, maybe even precedes your birth. These items could be the residue of decisions made before you existed, before you were even a thought. History and memory are not ignored or downplayed in the thrift shop, but recognized and embraced. And these items await you: to make them yours, to give them life again.

While studying abroad in Central Asia many years ago, I was informed of an old local taboo against thrift stores, owing to the belief that when one wore another person’s clothes, one took on their sins. Something about this rings true, but I wonder if, when we procure a gently used or well-loved item from our local thrift shop, we take on old dreams and joys, bits of the human experience that preceded us. 

In either case, the thrift shop reminds us how we are involved in a web of connection that stretches through space and time, a grand story that weaves together all our individual narratives into something more complex than we can even comprehend. And being reminded of that is, in true thrift store fashion, both inexpensive and priceless.

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