Monday, January 31, 2011

The post-holiday thrift store booty

Saturday I found this darling set of matryoshka dolls for $1. Normally, I’d save items like this for Little Pie’s holiday stocking but couldn't wait and gave it now to join her collection. A wasabi pea sits next to the smallest doll for a little perspective. The Pitney Bowes postal scale, in the background, was $6. I love old scales. Little Pie likes to play with them. When you have a scale, you’d be surprised by how often it comes in handy.

I ran my trap on eve of the new year. Yeah, imagine that. I ran my trap and boasted that January is an awesome month in thrift stores and perhaps people should consider doing their 2011 holidays shopping there and now; 11 months in advance.

I dared people to try the “2011 Holidays for a dollar a day”. $365 for the holidays? To many of readers this is cake. But to some it sounds wrong. Depends how you look at it.

If this is a new idea read on. If not, read on anyway, laugh and shout a few “Amens!”

Every year Americans lather, rinse repeat. Retailers put up holiday displays in September. Or is it August? July? Everyone rolls his or her eyes, “Can you believe they’re selling Christmas ornaments when the peaches have just hit the market?”

But come Black Friday, Americans race in panic to the nations shopping centers fueled by a mix of adrenaline, guilt, and urgency to buy the perfect holiday gift in a month. The stores are ready to soothe this brew with towers of impulse buys for those who are truly desperate and toss up their credit in defeat. News anchors nightly play Chicken Little on the evening broadcasts threatening that the market might fall if not enough shoppers come out to stand in lines at 3AM to buy a plasma TV.

We do it every year.

It’s silly that retailers put so much hope in the last month of the last quarter of the year. Would you do that with your income?

It’s a little crazy. Find the prefect gift for everyone you love in a month? Really?

Come January, a great majority of those “perfect” gifts end up on the shelves of thrift stores. I believe this year’s perfect gift was an elaborate chrome wine bottle opener that looks like it needs to be affixed to the countertop. That much metal to pull a cork out of a bottle? These wine bottle openers are popping up on the shelves of my neighborhood Goodwill still in the box, unopened, like dandelions. Either they're not selling or there's been a mass donation. I've seen many.

I spent January shopping for 2011 holiday gifts at my neighborhood thrift. I like shopping ahead. It takes away the stress and allows me to reflect. I walk in the store with no list in mind, open to possibilities. Ugh. If I could only stay in that open place for the rest of the day many new doors would open everywhere.

To be honest, my haul wasn’t as prosperous as in year’s past though many amazing items, some at 5% their market value, were passed over. Cashmere sweaters from Neiman’s, new Ralph Lauren bags, new china from Crate & Barrel, loads of crystal; all would have been impulse buys had I felt the pressure. I did agonize over a set of four 20oz crystal goblets with intricate fern leaf etchings, stickers still affixed to the bottom. They were imported from Slovakia. I put them back on the shelf but turned back because I changed my mind. They were gone. (Sometimes I feel there’s a stalker following me in thrift stores. I’ve something in my cart they’re hoping goes back on the shelf. I've had cart envy many times but have never stalked.) I also spent some time agonizing over a new sweater dress from Free People with a retail tag of $168 contrasted to the $19.99 Goodwill tag. Twenty dollars is four times my $5 Flinch Point and I figured my daughter probably would not wear this item much, if at all. Had the hot breathe of holiday urgency been on the back of my neck, I’d have picked that sweater up in an instant and felt an empty satisfaction.

What were my finds for the 2011 holidays this January? Ugh. Well, if I show them, my family and friends will not be surprised. I’ve no doubt they’ll know exactly what gift is for them and then they’ll have to wait a year to claim it. This will make me feel guilty and want to give early, like July, and then I’ll have to go in search of a new treasure to open come December 25th.

Instead of showing off the lovely scores, I’m afraid we’ll stick to stats. I purchased eight gifts for $37 with an estimated conventional market value at around $250. Yep, eight gifts for the price of two new hardback books. The average cost of each came in at $4.60 – 40 cents below my Flinch Point. I was also thrilled to find a gift for one of the three people that are a major gift challenge. We all have them. Best to take 11 months to seek their gift.

Say I find an average of five gifts month at my $5 Flinch Point, as I stop by thrift stores while running errands through out the months ahead. I’d have at least 50 gifts come October! If I stick to my Flinch Point, 50 gifts totals $250!

The reality, I won’t need to purchase 50 gifts and I’ll have wiggle room for bigger purchases for my daughters.

How do I keep track of this entire gift inventory? Three large bins in the basement, like my very own store to shop. I try to package up items that need boxes before storing them and often pencil the name of the recipient on the box. It sounds tedious, but it reduces stress over time. And – get this – I even purchase new boxes, bubble wrap and excelsior at thrift stores. Weird.

Should you decide to take up year-round holiday shopping, I beg that you not squirrel away items all over the home thinking you’ll remember where they are when needed. You won’t. I testify.

I also had some fun with holiday money that relatives sent for me to purchase something for myself.

I love old office equipment and found this 1940’s Arrow Fastener #9 Stapler for $4. About a year ago, Anthropologie sold a remake for about $80. Wow. I know, it's not shiny. It's not supposed to be! It's vintage!

When Little Pie saw this stapler, she shouted, “Oh! That’s cool!” Makes me think I’m raising her right. Besides, children love old things. Ask them to draw a bathtub and I’d say there’s a 90% chance it’ll be a claw foot tub.

We’re heading into Golightly birthday season. I bought several birthdays gifts too. But, that’s another post for another day.

If you don't do it now, shop like a pioneer and come November, you'll be relaxed and ready. Well, that's after you get over -as one reader put it - the annual gift pile panic.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A crown to guide us

A dear friend, call her Edwina, once told Modern Mommie and I that hair reveals a good deal about how we think. She said it was one reason we were such great mates. The three of us think wild and curly thoughts. She's right. We do. I've always loved that metaphor. Sometimes it explains so much and others it's just makes me smile and giggle.

A few years back, we planned a mom's retreat into the mountains at a friend's "huggably" cute, rustic cabin. We drank lavender cosmopolitans from lavender sugar-dipped glasses and each made our own crown. The crowns were Modern Mommie's idea. If creativity was tested on a scale like an IQ, Modern Mommie's would be in the 99th percentile. Combine that with her artistic background and kaboom! Who knows what idea will come out of her head; be assured it will be incredible, wild and curly.

I got to thinking about Edwina's notion about hair and Modern Mommie's marvelous crowns and a Golightly family tradition was born. We do not write New Year's resolutions, we sit around the dining room table for most of New Year's Day and build crowns. As we construct them we think about the skills, tools and disciplines we'll need to fulfill the goals and challenges for the coming year and incorporate symbols into the crown. I imagine if we put on our crown a few times during the year, the intentions that went into building it will seep into our heads. I figure it's a more direct path to the mind than starting at the fingertips with writing. And, when you speak of your goals, well, they fall out of your mouth. We talk so much these days, one must wonder if anything that is said remains in our heads.

So that is how the Golightly's spent New Years day. But, -here's the thrift part - I did not need to go to any craft store or run any special errands to make this happen. I'd acquired all the items needed through time at the thrift store. For example, I might see a plastic bag that has a folding yard stick that I want for $3. Within that bag might be ephemera, buttons, beads, little paper flowers, scrap-booking items, etc. Sometimes I give things to Little Pie's art teacher and other I keep for occasions like crown building. You just never know when you might change paths and need a new crown.

Here's an equation I know to be true: thrift store = eclectic craft store that saves money while reducing the waste stream. Trust me, some of the most amazing treasures one finds in a thrift store cannot be purchased at anything craft store.

I now shall reveal the 2011 Golightly parade of crowns. I will not speak about them because they are all personal.

Follows is my crown for 2011. I will note that the acorn dangling on the left was one of my Christmas presents from Little Pie. She spent one afternoon searching for the biggest acorn she could find. That little gift spoke volumes to me; the thought that my daughter would spend an afternoon under oak trees in a park to find a treasure for me.

Mr. Golightly's crown:

Petite Poe's crown:

Little Pie, with great enthusiasm built two crowns:

As a family, we seek out different, more meaningful options for those sale-promoting holidays. For example, every Black Friday we don't go shopping. We go chopping. At the moment, Modern Mommie, Edwina and I are brewing up a new Valentine's tradition for our six girls. We do have fun.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Am I a blog snob?

January 12th's post, “Am I just a bottom feeder of conspicuous consumption?” was a response to a comment from the post, “Myth-stakes”, which sprung from a comment from “Americans are screaming the need for a bigger reuse market. Why is there no answer?” Phew!

These comment threads are filled with an assortment of opinions that sprouted a lively dialog. It seems something has been tapped; a nerve, a fresh perspective, an unwillingness, an “Aha!” or simple annoyance. Let’s ride this a bit more and see where it goes. Either way, it grew conversation and got people thinking.

Now the question seems to be, am I a blog snob? To some degree, everyone who blogs is, as they share their opinion, is subjective and isn't (obviously in many cases) being subjected to being true. Nonetheless, there is a divergence of opinion on blogging. As for the description “holier than thou”, I’ve been called much worse. Surviving middle school gave me some thick skin. Tossing my opinions and stories on the Internet made it even thicker.

Blog etiquette is as diverse as the blogging world. There are best selling authors and media professionals writing blogs along with people like me who feel like they’ve found a good cause and/or a creative outlet. That explains my typos, etc when I mistakenly click the "Publish Post" button which is powerfully placed - less than a half a centimeter - from the "Save Now" button.

As for the two-year life of The Thrifty Chicks, I recall removing a just few comments, most were spam, one profane, a few trying to peddle sex somewhere in Asia. Sad, no? Comments on this site are rarely taken personally. They test convictions and invite reflection. Thoughtful criticism intended to evoke dialog is certainly encouraged. I do ask for clarity of content in comments – two or three adjectives doesn’t exactly back a point.

I think America needs a stronger reuse market for many reasons. Instead of listing them again, I’ll reference two opinions that ran in The Christian Science Monitor; “Green shopping, don’t say ‘eww’ to thrift stores”, and "We count calories. Why not carbon?” The first ran on Dr. Suess’ birthday, hence the reference to The Lorax.

I also think many people are very uncomfortable about expanding an American reuse market mainly because it presents a new/old way of managing our lives.

Many of today's Americans have a knee-jerk reaction to thrift, thinking the stores are infested with body lice and fungicide is sprayed on tattered clothing. This is sad because it really wasn’t that long ago that Americans thought product reuse and repurposing a common sense way of life – the days were the focus was on economic solvency, not accruing more debt. A parable to this is the post “Six Baccarat tumblers” about my great grandmother.

The conventional retail market probably doesn’t like it because it would translate to a radical shift in American shopping. Eventually, retailers would find a manner to profit from this emerging market. Good grief! Look what they did to credit default swaps!

If manufacturers can profit off Chia Pets, surely they can profit off used items like cowboy boots. I recently read that we would be better served putting Chia seeds into our mouths rather smearing them on a pottery figurine. Apparently those little seeds are very nutritious. As for cowboy boots, ever put on a new pair? Ouch! It’s like having braces on your legs. Best to let someone else put in the pain of breaking them in. Two honest and old cowboys had a good laugh at me in a tack shop Alamosa, CO when I tried a new pair of new boots. I can still see them sitting back in their chairs laughing as I screamed a few explicatives on how those boots felt on my legs and teasing them that they must have maimed many a legs selling such braces without a medical license. When they finally caught a breath, they told me about an old hide out of Billy the Kidd that I happened to be camped near. I think they were pulling my leg. But, it’s more fun to believe the story so I shall.

So, am I a blog snob? Is my message “holier-than-thou”? After sitting on my soapbox and thinking for a spell, I must say, no. I don’t believe so. I think I’m a person who has found a cause worthy of advocating. I’m passionate about it but certainly don’t think that those who disagree are damned. I'd be foolish to think there are not people who taken exception to what I write or how I write it. As long as people keep dialoging and thinking about more reuse, I'm cool.

Seeing consumer waste makes me sad. Really sad. When I watch the natural world in motion, I am in awe it's eloquent system. I believe dead-end waste is one of man’s worst inventions and we keep finding new ways to invent it in different forms. This disturbs me as I think about our legacy on this planet and I am but a mere drop in the bucket of humanity. Reuse is certainly one way to slow down the waste stream.
Before I became a mother, I worked fundraising at one our nations leading zoo’s; was an Assistant Director at a summer camp and took our girls on overnight hiking and canoe trips; and worked in The Office of Environmental Affairs for the City of Boulder. However, I also worked in the investment industry for a major investment company as a planning analyst on business relocations. I’ve experienced both sides.

We are not perfect beings. Even in our quests to do what we think is best for our families, communities, and our country we aren’t always right and even good ideas have down sides.

My style of writing might appear to be "hoity" to some. But consider that I'm having to sway opinions about reuse and I attempt it with a dash of humor and - as my family's matriarch says - a few good "someone's gotta say it's". But hey, I've also been labeled insightful, and pithy.

When you are advocating for the underdog, whether it's a just cause or not, many adjectives are thrown your way. Though I do find it amusing to be cited "hoity" when I'm the one digging through the gray bins of thrift and trolling the urban alley's for treasure. One thing I know I try to be is thought provoking. Sure, I mix in the "look what I found's" in to provide eye candy and lead people into thrift temptation.

One thing I know to be true, we are capable of change. There was a time when the great whaling captains of Nantucket scoffed at the idea that the world would turn it’s back whale oil and a rock that burns would crash their market.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

New books for 8% retail cost, where else but at the thrift?


On the eve of 2011, I challenged readers to shop for the 2011 holiday season year-round and spend “A dollar a day for the 2011 holidays” by shopping thrift. January on into February are exceptional months for thrift shopping because: 1) people purge their homes in the last minutes of 2010 for donation tax write offs and 2) many unwanted holiday gifts end up in thrift stores; still in the box or tags still dangling.

I thought it wise to check in mid-month and report my progress. This post is on books. I love giving books, maybe because my friends and I love reading them. And what better way to save money on shipping than with the book/media postal rate?

I found many new books, dead certain the spine has never been cracked. Perhaps a tossed holiday gift? Most of these finds will become birthday gifts.

A few of my favorite selection from adult fiction and non-fiction are:

1) The World of Escoffier by Timothy Shaw. This biography of one of the world's most famous chefs is a glossy page masterpiece complete with amazing photos, art and script.

2) The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.

3) Stones into Schools by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greg Mortenson, founder of The Central Asia Institute and co-author of Three Cups of Tea, considered by many as one of the most important reads of our time.

4) A fresh, never been opened paperback of the 1998 re-release of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. This is one of my favorite British classics and was made into a film in 2003, which is lovely but nothing compared to the book.

In the children's section I found:

1) The twentieth anniversary hardback of Babe, The Gallant Pig by Dick-King Smith. Yes, this is the darling sheep herding little pig from the movie, Babe. This endearing story with heart-warming illustrations by Maggie Kneen are a great gift for the young child who is tired of having picture books read to them and is up for the challenge of an honest chapter book.

2) National Book Award Finalist, each little bird that sings by Deborah Wiles. This hardback edition has likewise never been cracked. I recommend this book to readers of all ages. The back of the book begins, "Top Ten Tips for First-rate Funeral Behavior" as written by ten-year-old Comfort Snowberger who lives in a funeral home and writes obituaries.

3) The secret lives of Princesses by Pillippe Lechermeir beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer. This book was a COMPLETE score and I will keep it for my own Legacy Library. However, it’s gorgeous artwork and whimsical nature will probably force me to buy a few used copies for certain little girls I know that NEED a copy of this book at their sides. It has a page of "The International Alphabet of [Hand] Fans" similar to naval flag signals as well as a page of "Palaces & Residences" which include a Manhattan Walk-Up, an Inuit and Rustic. If you have a little girl in your life who loves books, I think she needs a copy. Mr. Golightly and I firmly believe that it had to be a mistake that this book was donated. It's a complete charm and we've read it together and enjoyed every word and will adapt some of the terminology into our daily speech like "to have a toad on the stove" is princess talk for "running late".

On the vintage circuit I found the 1960 original The I Hate To Cook Book by Peg Bracken with illustrations by Hilary Knight. Apparently, a 50th anniversary edition was recently released. The copy I have resells at around $15 but – to me – the book is priceless. I'd buy it just for Knight's illustrations.

A quick tally of my thrift purchase of these lovely books, seven hardback and one fresh paperback, comes in at $14.

Had I selected them new online, the total purchase would have exceeded $175.

Had I bought them online on used market it would have totaled near $90.

In addition to saving all that money and having lovely gifts for the coming year, I found a paperback copy of a book I almost bought at the price-o-club because I was in desperate need of a read. Instead of paying close to $10 for The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, I paid $1 at the thrift. Call it serendipity, but it happens a lot when you thrift.

It can all be found at the thrift, new releases, current best sellers, classics, and rare and out-of-print books for a small fraction the conventional market would have you pay.

One of my favorite book finds is a small, very old, first edition French translation of Beatrix Potter's Tiggy-Winkle (Histoire de Poupette-a-L'Epingle) published by F. Warne & Co. Ltd., London. This book has no publication date but is so precious to behold, like a little baby. I paid 50 cents for it.

I'm certain many readers have favorite books scored by thrift. Do tell.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Am I just a bottom-feeder of conspicuous consumption?

Let’s just reference Wikipedia on the subject:

“Conspicuous consumption is lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status.”

There is no doubt we could add meta meanings upon meta meanings to further define this social phenomenon. We could sip lattes or a fine Merlot and hyper-intellectualize this subject until we are personally drunk and awe-struck by our magnificent conclusions. For the sake of brevity in a blog post, let’s just keep it short and use the above definition.

There have been times when people challenge that I’m just acting out conspicuous consumption in the reuse market. My answer? No.

Comments have appeared in past posts that I often cite brand names like Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, Tiffanies, Coach, Anthropologie, Nordstrom, etc. Guilty as charged.

Here’s the catch, I don’t reference brand names to snob out. I don’t look down my nose. When I do, I’m cross-eyed and that gives me a headache. Any more, a name brand does not often represent quality, merely a name and – often times - a higher price point.

My point is that while the majority of Americans go to malls and buy such brands, I shop in thrift stores and buy the same, often with tags still dangling, for about 5% of the conventional retail price.

Why can I do this? Many reasons. I’d wager retail therapy is probably the biggest. If retail therapy really worked, I imagine our nations major thrift retailers wouldn’t be so well stocked – at least like they are in Denver.

Still don’t believe that I’m not a conspicuous consumption junkie? Our TV is thrift and it does not have any form of cable. Nor do we have a Wii or any other electronic games. We’re a modest one-car family of four in a 1,800 square foot home, which I consider ample.

I’m not going to keep up with The Jones’. I cannot afford to. Well, my credit limit will let me compete but – as I’ve written before – no lender is going to pull me down into so much debt I need a pressurized submarine. Besides, I don’t even know what The Jones’ have.

Yes, many of the items I purchase were made overseas. But, I’m saving them from a landfill and by extending the life of a sweater; a new one need not be produced to fill my need. I’d love it if more manufacturers came home, like if the idea behind the Locavore movement turned to dry goods. But, that’s going to take time and legislation – a lot of it. But, "There will be retail lobbyists"

I don’t scoff at people in shopping centers, though I am annoyed by how slow they walk, like they’re enjoying the retail sensory overload. I see them as potential converts and quietly wait for them to ask where I found my boots so I can say, “thrift”. I understand that many of these people have never considered thrift as an option. There’s no mass marketing campaign asking them to. We have recycle bins from our cities, we’re told to turn off lights and turn down thermostats, but there are few media outlets that even whisper, “try thrift”.

I love it when a person converts to thrift, finds a Flinch Point, has a little Retail Remorse, and earns a set of Snake Eyes.

If dropping name brands that can be found at thrift stores catch the attention of a few eyes and ears, I think it worth it.

Okay! Okay! Three weaknesses. Children’s books for my Legacy Library. Premium scented candles I buy on sale. I’ve a chronic fear that our home smells of cat litter thanks to our three cats. Vintage coats – but I put a stopper on that one years ago when I figured one for each day of the week was sufficient. Oddly enough, the purchase of all those coats combined doesn’t even compare to the cost of a new quality dress coat.

Truth be told, I’d love to live a home similar to The Burrow of the Weasley family from the Harry Potter series pictured below. Or how about Famer Hogget’s home in the movie Babe? If you like, click here for a brief tour of the Golightly home.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A few of my favorite finds in 2010

2010 was an anomaly of a year at the thrift store for me, the Golightly budget tighter than ever. Thanks to a pair of Snake Eyes, that didn't necessarily translate to an austere lifestyle. Some of the best creativity is found during times of scarcity.

I went to the thrift store about half as often as in years past but still managed to score a few treasures. Though I've always held a deep appreciation for what I'm fortunate to find, I think this year's haul meant more.

My favorite find was this vintage Simplex copper whistling kettle. It must have been a hit because Simplex, a long standing British company, still manufactures this same model today. I paid $6 for it. Funny how something as simple as an efficient whistling tea kettle can make a family happy. We drink more hot tea thanks to it.

For about $3-$4 a bowl or pot, I added several items to my collection of vintage graniteware and learned there is actually a National Graniteware Society though I'm not a member. Cooking and serving with these colorful pots, pans and bowls makes me happy. I find these gorgeous vintage items for less than half of what I would pay for a piece of plastic or glass at a discount chain retailer. Color evokes feelings. Think about a gray winter day and then seeing a woman walk by in a flowing red coat. The image would evoke a smile, a feeling of happiness or some sense of warmth.

It is worthy to note that I had never heard of Simplex tea kettles or graniteware until I took up thrifting. Shopping thrift extensively broadens product education.

Little Pie is a little Buddha. I found her this darling vintage, hand-painted Japanese incense holder for $3. She lights rose scented incense and sits in the lotus position to briefly meditate when she needs to make a challenging decision. She's nine. Those moments are priceless.

I picked up this Invisibility Cloak (a reference from the Harry Potter series) at a half off day for $4. This relatively heavy throw helps pull our eclectic living room together and keeps us warm while reading on the fainting couch I rescued from the alley several years back. The tapestry of this throw is magical and I don't wish to think what it's original price point was.

Many confuse frugality, equating it to practicing economy in a miserly fashion, which means parsimonious - or stingy - even "cheap." I believe that Mr. Golightly and I were frugal in this $50 purchase of an 1867 oil portrait by L.R. Evans in this ornate frame. We scored it at a 50% off Saturday at Goodwill and were the envy of nearly everyone in the packed store. It's nice to have original art in the home. Though I've not researched this painting of young Edward Jones I've no doubt the gilded frame alone is worth far more than the $50 we paid. As for now, Edward is a regular guest in our dining room He's almost family, even if we haven't quite figured out who he is.

Of course there were other wonderful finds, hand knit sweaters and a skirt from lele knits for $3. The never been worn pink and black vintage leather gloves with cashmere lining for Little Pie and Petite Poe were quickly welcomed in at $3 each.

Mr Golightly's favorite find? This extraordinarily old hand forged copper pot for $6.

It no longer holds water thanks to a tiny leak, but we always have use for containers and this copper pot is better than anything plastic. We're no Antique Road show, but, we do know this pot is very old.

We haven't completed our research yet - but handmade, dovetail-jointed copper and brass pots were never mass produced. Any ideas?

What were your extraordinary finds of 2010?

Thursday, January 6, 2011


The comment below came from the previous post on January 2nd. I had to check an initial emotional reaction, but I gave the premise some serious thought. I appreciate comments, even if I don’t agree with them. After writing a response, I thought the topic worthy of a post on its own.

The comment:

“First, a real reuse economy will price the needy out of the market and also result in fewer goods to reuse, which you do not address (not that you need to, since this is a Manifesto, not a Reasoned Consideration of All Outcomes). However, I will say that there is nothing about reuse that makes it somehow immune to tackiness or a throwaway quality. Because, really, taking a perfectly serviceable wool sweater and making it into a felted cupcake equals making landfill material. What I am saying is that the reuse "movement" has plenty Billy Bass items and acting a though reuse--virtuous as it may be--is somehow aesthetically superior just makes us all sound snobbish.”

Dispelling the Poor Clientele Myth

I don't agree with the assumption that “a real reuse economy will price the needy out of the market”. Thrift stores currently have a wide audience, just look at the parking lots. There are BMW’s next to clunkers held together with duct tape – and everything in between. It is a myth that charitable thrift stores exist solely to serve the needy customers. Please refer to a letter from the Denver Goodwill CEO I posted in January, 2009 dispelling one of the many myths about thrift stores. Besides, many easily identified discount chain retailers specifically and successfully market to the lower-tiered income segment. Since there is no comprehensive study on the thrift market, we’ve no exact data where those with fewer economic resources shop more frequently.

Who is Thrift Serving?

Like many retailers, the aim of the charitable thrift is indeed “profit” – but philanthropic profit. Unlike conventional retail, these non-profits’ proceeds in turn fund programs that help change the lives of thousands of people for the better. I know that Denver Goodwill alone serves well over 10,000 people each year. That’s why, on multiple occasions, I’ve referred to shopping thrift as Poetic Shopping. The purchase of a reused or repurposed item helps repurpose another person’s life. Thrift shopping is a more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable practice.

Yes, many thrift stores have raised prices. I think this is in reaction to the fact charitable organizations have to help a growing population of those in need during these extraordinarily hard economic times. Like other non-profits, the Goodwills, ARCs, DAVs and Salvation Army’s must fight harder for the foundation and corporate support that’s been cut back. Recessions are very hard on non-profits. On the bright side, I think we can take solace that any price hike in a thrift store doesn’t go to extravagant and inappropriate corporate bonuses or a corporate jet. Isn’t that a relief?

Suction and Deduction

In part because Americans are such voracious consumers and easily suckered into buying new stuff we don’t need (the giant suction of the economy of new crap), we consume a disproportionately embarrassing quantity of natural resources. It will take a long time for an American reuse economy to – as the commenter writes - “result in fewer goods to reuse”. But if that day comes to pass, I will smile, cross my arms in satisfaction and think, “Mission accomplished! We finally learned a worthy lesson and embraced reuse”. I doubt I will live long enough to see that day. But, I certainly hope it will come to pass so I can dust the dirt off my hands.

Supply and Demand in a Larger Reuse Market

Like the conventional market, a reuse market is tiered by value and has different niches and price points. Also, like any other component of the capitalist market, a larger re-use market would be subject the forces of competition, not just with each other – but with conventional retailers as well. History shows us that where there is competition, prices drop, not rise.

Thrift outlets also like to keep inventory moving, hence the weekly half-off colored tag sales. This is testament that thrift stores don’t empty content and drive up the cost of the remaining stock because of scarcity. If there were “fewer goods to reuse”, outlets wouldn’t have half-off days! Thrift sale days boost customer traffic, inventory flow, and the charitable bottom line.

The Landfill Myth

As written in the comment, “…taking a perfectly serviceable wool sweater and making it into a felted cupcake equals making landfill material, “ – au contraire. My daughter received this handmade set of petit-fours from one of my girlfriends for Christmas. It, along with a quilt the same friend made of recycled material, has become one of my daughter’s most treasured items. I consider these items heirloom quality and firmly believe that as long as they are in my or my daughter’s hands they are not landfill fodder. Should my daughter have children, I’ve no doubt this is something they will honor too. I would rather have my children have play tea party with handmade felted cupcakes than plastic ones made across the Pacific Pond.

It is worthy to note that charitable thrift stores do not destroy leftover
merchandise like many conventional retailers do. This January 2010 post cites how some major retailers often destroy unsold merchandise before tossing it in the dumpster (the corporate misanthrope instead of the philanthrope). Conversely, unsold merchandise from the thrift store is packaged into huge lots and sold to third world countries where these items are used and appreciated. That's why we see photos of kids in rural Bolivia wearing NFL t-shirts. Goodwill Denver even maintains a pile of shoes without mates that are sent to countries where landmines are a problem.

Certainly items bought in thrift stores may eventually be tossed in a landfill. But even if a pot purchased at a thrift store is eventually thrown away, at least its product life cycle was prolonged – directly translating into a smaller stream to that landfill. That pot could easily be donated multiple times, too.

Mirror, Mirror

There’s no shame in scoring something cool (aesthetically pleasing) at a thrift store, especially if it’s vintage, not a knock-off. It’s fun, and there’s no sin in sharing a story of a successful thrift safari find. There’s a practice that plays out in the conventional market that I wrote in a September 2009 post. Lots of retailers replicate widely available vintage thrift items, selling them at ludicrous margins when the originals are worth many times more. So, one has a choice to purchase the little fellow below for pennies on the dollar. Isn’t the original supposed to be worth more? Are product designers going to thrift stores for ideas? Quite possibly.

Of course a reuse market is a reflection of the conventional market, peppered with estate items and hidden gems. If crap is being sold in the conventional market, it will filter into the reuse market (so no, thrift is not immune to tackiness or non-useful items). This is no revelation. I wrote a post about this in August 2009, “Standing naked in a thrift store”.

The consumer of a new item has a conscious, free will choice whether they wish to purchase a singing Billy Big Mouth Bass, Chia Pet, chocolate fountain, etc. In the thrift, store an antique Limoges covered dish just might be sitting next to that tacky plastic trophy specimen. I can testify to that.

In conclusion, I prefer to be more original by rescuing worthy items (and perpetuating the useful life of something otherwise disposed of) rather than falling victim to an economic monoculture. But that's just me (and Mr. Golightly).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Americans are screaming the need for a bigger reuse market. Why is there no reply?

I feel frustrated when readers write me, wishing for a market like Denver’s. I want to help them. These people are expressing a genuine need! A need is usually welcomed, if not celebrated in a capitalist society. Filling an honest consumer need is a sure fire way to make money! Unfortunately, I believe our culture is too busy inventing new “needs”. How else would we have products like the Chia Pet and an electronic singing bass mounted on plastic, faux-wood circulating the market?

I’ll testify that one can have an enviable wardrobe, cool furniture and a well-outfit kitchen for less than 5% of what most American’s spend. How? By patronizing the thrift market and exploring other, less conventional means. I value reused products. I’ll troll urban alleys and pick through dumpsters (uh, let’s use the nomenclature “urban reclamation”). Quick with a power sander and armed with a little bit of fortitude, I’ve refinished most of the furniture in our 1,800 square foot 111-year-old home. All this done without a super hero mask.

How do I accomplish this? With a little patience and frequent, 10-minute surgical strikes to thrift outlets while running weekly errands. I also shop with a Flinch Point and strive to stick to my family’s current and future needs.

There’s another fact that makes my lifestyle possible. Denver isn’t among the nation’s top ten most populated cities, but it thrives with one of the nation’s top reuse markets. This makes a big difference, at least for now. I know Seattle and Portland can also boast to be vibrant centers of reuse.

For an assortment of reasons the reuse market needs the attention of Offices of Economic Development at the municipal, state and hopefully national levels. I’ve written to elected officials. Rarely do I hear back, mostly with form letter.

The charitable reuse market, with infrastructure in place, is waiting for some great public promo. But, so few Americans go to them, as I discussed in an opinion in The Christian Science Monitor nearly two years back. I’m not certain any critical mass of economists have dared ask the simple question, “What percentage of Americans shop thrift stores, and what is the benefit to our economy?” It would be refreshing to see our universities’ economic departments offer courses that address the reuse market. Or, would major benefactors balk in retaliation?

Promoting a robust reuse market in America isn’t trivial. Neither Mom and Pop thrift stores nor charitable thrift stores have the big bucks to hire slick lobbyists to stand on the steps of the US Capitol, pull elected officials aside and give them Wet Willies, or even a respectable wedgie to open their ears (and mouths) to start promoting – let alone tackling some minor legislation - to grow the reuse market.

Even the Professional Association of National Resalers isn’t so appetizing. No offense guys, but your acronym is NARTS. What does that rhyme with?

It’s near impossible to have the charitable thrift industry get behind reuse and drive the market. Thrift stores are simply funding their programs to aid America’s growing disadvantaged by providing an alternative to mindless consumerism.

There’s a very strong irony in play. More of us are inflicting our own economic disadvantage from years of carelessly participating in an Economy of Crap ushering in The Harbingers of Decline. We as consumers should know better. Participating in the non-mainstream market is like preventive medical care – it leads directly to personal and economic well- being. If the current thrift industry invested more in growing the reuse market they would actually prevent more people from needing programs for the economically deprived.

Millions of us are already unemployed and economically deprived thanks to disasters like the fox guarding the henhouse debacle of Enron, cutesy mortgage credit default swaps, and larger banks clinging to Federal bailout funds to push profits (and fund bonuses) instead of lending money as intended. Didn’t we learn anything from the savings and loan debacle from the ‘80’s? Why do Americans shop and vote like they are ignorant, happy-go-lucky millionaires?

How I’d love to see consumer incentives that make thrift sales exempt from sales taxes. Or incentives/subsidies in the form of lower rate retail leases for repurposing stores in or near heavily trafficked shopping centers. I dream of seeing a high-end Goodwill next to J.Crew, so shoppers can contrast value side by side. How about incentives for stores that sell “new” merchandise, mix in some “reused”? Little boutiques do it. Why not bigger stores? Oh, I’m full of dreams and ideas on pushing re-use. I may be scrappy, but my voice is paltry against the noisy American Retail Machine, in a nation that exploits most of the world’s limited natural resources and sustains this bogus activity on mounds of growing credit, mostly in the form of debt.

Perhaps I should contact Denver’s Office of Tourism and urge them to promote “Thrift Shopping Vacations” to the Mile High City. Good grief, hoards of shoppers visit Minneapolis simply to go to the Mall of America! Say what? I’ve no doubt that the Talbot’s, Banana Republic, Gap, etc are not all that different from those in the town you live in. If you must, you can pay the airfare, lodging penalty and make your offerings to the food court gods and see for yourself. While you do that with your family, I’ll make a few mortgage payments.

For now, all I can say is we have to be our own advocates of reuse. If we want a stronger alternative market, it probably best to actively participate in the one that’s already there. That’s how the market works, even if it desperately needs an accelerant.

Too skimpy of a market? In some places, sure. Use your voice, urging people in your community to purge their homes (and lives) of stuff they no longer need nor use, and donate. The reality is the inventory is already in or near your town, it’s just sitting in private homes, not the shelves of your local thrift store. Urge those around you preparing estate sales to donate goods to the thrift cause. Instead of waiting for winter to pass to have a yard sale, donate items now. Thrift stores are like year-round yard sales! Proceeds from the sale will not be cash in hand but will come at the end of the year in a very refreshing tax write off. The deduction is a lot more than most people think.

Re-use is common sense. It hasn’t been that long ago in 20th century American history that trafficking in used goods was considered o-so-gauche. “Use only new” is merely a marketed tactic for Wall Street to raise profits. By comparison, do even a minor amount of online research and find out how used goods are viewed in other developed countries, like France.

I don’t have a problem with corporate profits, per se. I really don’t. We’ll always have new goods. But, when crap is being pushed on shaky grounds, shaky credit, with cooked books and on a planet that needs to find more ways to address environmental sustainable practices, I think we need to rethink our priorities.

Comments from this post sprouted three more posts: "Myth-stakes", "Am I just a bottom feeder of conspicuous consumption?" and "Am I a blog snob?".