"Oh the horror!...OHHH! The BARGAINS!"

“Thrift stores?! What do you think I am…a CHARITY CASE?!”

No matter what part of our social spectrum you inhabit, you’ve no doubt at least felt a twinge of curiosity when passing your local thrift shop. A part of you may feel uncomfortable, in the “by the grace of God there go I” kind of way. Some of you may even feel lured by the little antique you saw in the window, but shiver at the thought of walking in. There are probably horrible things in there. Somebody from your local PTA may see you. The cashier looks like an inmate. You might get cooties. Whatever the reason, you’ve never walked in.

Now, however, as the economic crisis touches every family (and we all have to buckle down and notice every dollar’s worth), there may be a renewed interest in slyly discovering what second hand shopping is all about.

I’ve already addressed, in several posts now, how to shop for specific items. But this one’s about actually walking in the door.

Let me just find my rubber gloves...

Let me just find my rubber gloves...

Granted, not all thrift stores have the beautifully selected items that places in New York City like Housing Works and Angel Street do. The local Salvation Army and Goodwill may look like a foreboding, fluorescent prison laundry. The cashier may well be a recent parolee, and there may be baskets of unmentionables. Used ones.

However, there’s good to be had and treasures to discover, no matter where you are!

Today I’ll use as an example a subject of one of my forthcoming webisodes. Let’s take Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style as our roadmap. Tim (and I dearly love this kind-hearted, tasteful soul), has wisely discovered that women need only a few basics in their wardrobe, what he calls his “10 Essential Elements.” Not everyone can afford to walk into Macy’s and scoop these pieces off the racks.

With an open mind, I’d like you to consider taking a couple of hours and Tim’s list to your local thrift store, just to look at the possibilities. It’s a game, with no downside. You don’t have to buy anything, and there’s no pressure. Just take a look.

Tim’s list is featured in the blog archive, and it’s brilliant. With these pieces, you can look pulled together and feel more confident in any situation. I’ve made a few notes after each item that will help you in your hunt for these items second hand.

But first, let’s talk a little about walking in the door and getting over the psychological roadblocks of second hand shopping.

I grew up in Oklahoma City, during the height of the oil boom. Everywhere were instant millionaires, with the most fashionable women shopping at upscale boutiques like Big Daddy Rat’s and Baliette’s, and getting their hair done at Johnny’s Wash & Wad. It seemed everyone was a cross between Urban Cowboy and Dynasty. You can laugh now, but the nouveau riche of Oklahoma City were dead serious about it. Class Was King.

During all of this, my mother, really one of the most gorgeous and graceful women to ever plant her feet on red dirt, was a divorcee with four children to raise. She worked as a legal secretary for the State Attorney General’s Office, and I (and everyone else) marveled at her classic style. However, money was always, ALWAYS an issue, a precious spice that was used sparingly, and only when necessary. We saved quarters for laundry day and hit every garage and estate sale in Nichols Hills (the upscale neighborhood at the time).

Mom shopped in thrift stores, and took me with her. Since the age of 4, I’ve been able to tell the difference between cashmere and angora, wool and polyester, with my eyes closed, and it’s a skill I can’t thank her enough for now that I’m on my own.

By the time I hit puberty, I was deathly embarrassed at having to go with her, afraid that some kid from school would see us and use it as another reason to torture me. Worse yet, what if I showed up at school wearing another kid’s clothes?! MELTDOWN! It wasn’t easy for Mom, either, trying to maintain a low profile with a chunky, surly girl throwing fits in the parking lot.

Long story short, we made it through the tough times, Mom looking amazing, and me, well, if not deliriously happy, at least well-clothed. What made this possible was my mother’s critical eye for quality, her Hints from Heloise sense for what would “clean up nicely” and her fierce determination to make the best of her situation.

This is what I’m hoping to pass onto you. In Oklahoma City, a shop owner told me that she has a few clients who insist on either parking in the back, OR coming in after hours so that no one will see them shopping!

To my mind, this is ridiculous. If you are savvy enough to stretch your budget by shopping second hand, there is no shame in it. Especially now. In today’s economy, being creatively frugal is one of the most desirable traits you can cultivate!

If this has at least swayed you even a smidge, read on, brave warrior. Here’s how to start.

  1. Walk in the front door. You can bring a little bag of clothing you no longer want or need with you to donate; the trip has already been worthwhile, as not only will you get a tax-deductible receipt, but you’ll also feel great with the knowledge that someone, somewhere, will be ever so grateful to have something from your closet.
  2. Just IN CASE, wear leggings and a fitted tank top under your clothing so that you can slip in and out of anything you might like to try on without getting buck nekkid in the often ill-equipped dressing rooms. Bring a pair of footies or knee-highs to try on shoes, just in case. You might also bring antibacterial hand gel if you’re prone to heebie jeebies. (I get overwhelmed and am hypoglycemic to boot – always have water and a protein bar with me!)
  3. Print out Tim Gunn’s list (doctored up with my hand-tailored notes) from the archive, and begin perusing the racks. This is just a game, mind you. A game that engages your creativity and sense of discovery, and that’s good for your brain. There’s no obligation to buy a single thing!
  4. Finally, once you’ve finished, no matter your experience, come here and tell us all about it! I want to hear everything from success to horror stories, and your input will help hundreds of people who are looking at the same thing!

We’re here for you, and we’re rooting for you!
Talk soon and all best,
Nicole & the Thrift Store Confidential Team