New York’s thrift shops are legendary, and Housing Works is among my favorites. Their mission is “to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.” They advocate for marginalized people in particular, including active drug users, homeless people and sexual minorities: they’re like the anti-Salvation Army*. I donate goods and funds to them regularly, and I shop there. Like, a lot. (More on that in a minute.) But beyond the obvious charitable aspects, there are other considerable benefits to shopping at thrifts.
If you are cost-conscious, you will rarely find better deals than you will at a thrift shop. Sometimes those doing the pricing know exactly what they have, and they will upcharge accordingly. For example, a valuable antique, an item with high-end branding, or something that’s obviously beautifully crafted from quality materials won’t be super cheap. But the pricing will still be nowhere near what you would pay for the same item at retail, even on sale. Want to save more money? Your donations of goods and funds are also tax deductible (although your purchases are not, at least not in New York). And sometimes a price is so low you just know it has to be a mistake. But it isn’t. :D
The thing is, you can almost always find something cheap, but all too often you will get what you pay for. Thrift stores provide an opportunity to find really nice stuff cheap—or at least a lot cheaper than you will find it elsewhere.
Labor and the environment.
If you’re environmentally conscious, this is the ultimate in recycling. A lamp or table for which one no longer has any use—or, more likely in NYC, any space—would normally end up in a landfill. Instead it takes on a second life, filling a niche for someone who can really use it. If you’re sweat-shop conscious, the clothing and accessories (handbags, ties, scarfs, shoes, belts, etc.) come with a lot less guilt: by purchasing an item here you’re supporting a good cause, and not so much a system of labor exploitation in, say, China. Many thrift shop clothing items have never been worn and still sport the original tags; if that seems odd to you, consider how many times you received a gift of clothing you know you will never, ever wear, or purchased something at a retail store that has lived in your closet for years. Uh-huh. I thought so. Bonus: if you’re the imaginative sort and handy with paint or a needle and thread, your furniture and clothing options at a thrift shop are considerably more vast.
Housewares are probably my favorite stuff to peruse. I collect eclectic silverware—no two pieces the same—so I’m always on the lookout for a single place setting to add to the mix. Ditto: coffee mugs, serving platters and table linens. (Dishes and glassware, however, must be strictly matched and neutral-toned because (a) I am really weird and (b) this is a monarchy.) Many times I’ve come across enormous troves of donated silverware, serving pieces, plate settings and tabletop accoutrements, presumably from restaurants and hotels who are switching theirs up or going out of business. I’ve also found Candlewick pieces, which my mom collects, in addition to scented soy candles, gorgeous coffee table books, candle holders and picture frames, all of which have made really nice gifts.
And then there is the jewelry**. I don’t wear very much of it myself, and I tend to rotate a few pieces pulled from the same small collection every day. (Until, that is, unbeknownst to me, I lose one of the earrings, or a stone pops out, or the catch on a necklace breaks. This is why I can’t have nice things.) Although I may rarely indulge, I do frequently buy gifts of jewelry for friends and family. And d00d, I have scored.
Finally, I want to talk about the magic. Yes I know, that’s quite the word to be flinging around willy-nilly on a godless blog, but hear me out. I am not talking about anything supernatural here; what I mean is something more like “a fortuitous confluence of matter and spacetime events in the natural universe.” Life in New York City generally meets that definition for me; so does fall color, and being in love. On a much smaller scale, if I don’t feel like drying my (plain and perfectly matched) dishes right after I wash them, I might wander off and quip that “the faeries can dry them.” And when I return from my errands, lo and behold the faeries have done my bidding, and the dishes are all perfectly dry! It’s a goddamn Christmas miracle, is what that is.
And so it is with scoring a find when thrift shopping. The trick to the magic is this: be open-minded, shop early and shop often. It is generally not a good idea to have a particular item in mind when you go; there is a constant churning of merchandise and thus the selection can vary wildly from week to week or even day to day. My fellow New Yorkers tend to have keen eyes and impeccable taste, so if I don’t grab that really cool thing when I see it, it will almost certainly be gone in an hour. There are not one but two thrones that I do not possess because I dallied (and/or I listened to My Amazing Lover™, who for reasons I cannot fathom does not share my glorious vision):
But my point is that if I went looking for a throne in a thrift shop, the odds I would find one are virtually zero. The same holds true for finding the perfect gift for someone on the exact day you need it. By far, the most important thing to take with you to a thrift shop is an open mind, and again, go early and go often. That is how I crossed a few items off of my holiday gift list before August.
It is true that for some things I will have to resort to retail. It turns out that some people, especially kids, have no appreciation whatsoever for vintage martini shakers or embroidered eyeglass cases. But seriously? Fuck Wal-Mart and K-Mart and Target and Macy’s and everywhere else. Or at least, fuck them as much as possible. I’ll be doing most of my holiday shopping at places like Housing Works (and Greenmarkets) this season. And if for some reason I have not yet convinced you to do the same, behold my latest find:
^This is what winning looks like, my friends. Happy holiday shopping.
*To be clear: I do not repudiate anyone who relies on Salvation Army’s services in New York, or anywhere else. I do, however, repudiate donors and patrons who have the opportunity to make a better choice but don’t: there are networks of thrift shops that benefit local veterans, domestic violence shelters and programs, animal rescue and many other causes that are not right-wing Christian churches. (NOTE: I recommend doing your research to make sure any charity you’re inclined to support is reputable.) And I really repudiate a government and economic system that requires charities to ensure the barest survival of its most vulnerable citizens, including disabled vets and AIDS patients. Such a system is not only morally grotesque, a charity approach to these issues is itself a terrible idea.
**Iris’s trusty sparkly sanitized jewelry trick:
- place jewelry in an aluminum vessel of some sort. I use aluminum cupcake pans, or you can rig something up with foil yourself. It just has to be aluminum because SCIENCE.
- sprinkle baking soda on the jewelry.
- pour boiling water onto the baking soda and jewelry.
- let cool, rinse and dry.
Do this to clean and brighten your own jewelry whenever it begins to tarnish. I don’t know how it works. Probably magic.