Back in 1989 I used to drive out to Glendale to visit the Salvation Army on Brand Boulevard. It was a huge, two-story thrift palace, jammed with the castoffs of the local well-heeled ladies of Pasadena, La Canada and Glendale. One could find old letter jackets, vintage sun-dresses, Le Creuset pots, and new/old stock table linens for a buck nutty-nuttin’. Among the many treasures I bought: a red, leather envelope clutch purse, a set of Bauer cereal bowls and a pair of wool trousers that had belonged to a short, fat man back in the 1940’s. I wore those pants cinched tight, letting the cuffs float dorkily above my high tops. I was young in those days could pull of any look I wanted. My teenage daughter wears them now and is the envy of her art school set.
That was back when I lived in Echo Park, itself a bargain, a neighborhood where you could pick up somebody’s castoff one-bedroom with a non-working fireplace and built-in breakfast nook for $400 a month. From there I would scavenge the St. Vincent De Paul’s in Lincoln Heights. I bought a chrome toaster that I set in on my breakfast table and I could feel like I was eating at my own private Ships Coffee Shop every morning.
Unfortunately that Echo Park one bedroom also came with its very own peeping Tom, and it was after seeing his transfixed mug pressed against my bedroom window late one night that I packed up and moved west to Culver City.
The Westside had many fine thrift emporiums in the early ninties, but my hands-down faves were two Salvation Armies, one on Washington Boulevard near Sepulveda and the big one one on 17th Street in Santa Monica, which still stands. For years I shopped there and it was so gooooood. Those stores routinely yielded vintage wool coats, cloche hats, satin bed jackets, opera capes, paisley shirts, and a beautiful maple stereo cabinet. Much of this stuff I still own and use. There was also a lovely thrift store near the Costco on Washington in Mar Vista, which I noticed the other day is gone. For some reason this place had the best selection of literary fiction in town. I could wander in and find an enameled orange juicer along with a collection of Alice Munro short stories, or the latest Jeffrey Eugenides novel.
Thrift shopping for me has very little to do with thrift – though I do enjoy a retail environment where I can afford to buy absolutely anything I want--I don’t do it to save money. I do it for the thrill of The Find.
The modern world is awash in crap. It takes a laser eye to find the treasure in all the muck and gack of what people had to have and no longer want. It’s a big game of “Where’s Waldo?” Can you find, among the stained plush toys, the Thigh Masters, the George Foreman grills and mountains of corporate logo’d mesh baseball caps, the one good thing? Can you locate, on a rack of sweatshirts with the necks cut off, the mutilated remains of our collective Flashdance past, that vintage, aqua blue “Loaf n’ Lounge” sweater? Will you find, in an avalanche of Dan Brown bestsellers and Zone Diet books the Little Golden Book with the breathtaking Tibor Gergley illustrations?
Once, when I was about to leave the Santa Monica Sally Ann empty-handed, I stopped to pick through a basket of bracelets and found a vintage, red and white polka dotted Bakelite bangle for fifty cents. Yessss.
There simply is, as far as I can tell, no downside to thrift shopping. It’s no-impact consumerism: everything is recycled and repurposed. A "closed circuit" as greenies like to say. It keeps stuff out of landfills and out of your storage space. The money you spend in thrift shops goes to help the less fortunate: the handicapped, the unemployed, the homeless, the Cancer-afflicted or the Jewish Ladies. Oh, pity the Jewish Ladies.
I get more out of thrift shopping than cashmere and cast iron -- it is good for my head. Thrift shopping is an escape, a time out. I walk in the door of Out of the Closet and I feel calm, focused and full of hope. Today could be the day I find that perfectly seasoned Griswold skillet. I imagine it's how gamblers feel when the walk into a casino looking for the big score. Don’t worry; I am in a 12-step program for this.
Thrifting isn't just about acquisition -- its also about letting go. As much as I love the thrill of the find, I also love a purge. I don't hang onto much, and my tax file is filled with Goodwill donation receipts. It's the big, cosmic flow. We let go so we can make room for the new -- or, rather, the gently used.
Thrifting took on new meaning when I had kids. Many was the afternoon I would escape the prison of our home and push them around a thrift store, treating them to anything they wanted. In the infant and toddler years, clothes are lavishly bought and barely used, and the children's rounders were crammed with adorable Osh Kosh B’Gosh outfits, pinafores and dirndls. I found an old, 1950's era, vinyl-upholstered toy box in butter yellow and filled it with the greatest dress-ups imaginable: clown suits, witch dresses, ruby slippers and twirly skirts of every variety. My daughters and I still bond in thrift stores, buying prom dresses and combat boots together, bopping to the oldies that are universally piped in over the P.A. Recently my youngest heard Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen” on the radio and said, “Oh, I feel like I'm at the Goodwill!” So, okay, this may be the downside to thrift shopping.
In the mid-90’s, EBay came along and just fucking ruined everything. Now everybody is a antiques expert, all the good stuff is put up for auction, and anything that wasn’t mechanically extruded five minutes ago in China is considered “vintage.” Thrift stores, once the final resting place for the little old lady from Pasadena’s wardrobe, is now just a place that warehouses scratched microwave popcorn domes and nonstick pans that look like they’ve had a bad power peel. Add in the real estate bubble, and my favorite thrift shops have all been closed up and have either been turned into Verizon stores, or stand untenanted. I occasionally do a Pavlovian drive by the site where the Washington Boulevard Salvation Army once stood and feel the loss of it anew. It stands hollow and broom-clean in a bust market, when it once was full of amateur oil paintings and wingtip shoes. When I press my face to the window now, all I see is emptiness.