Penny wise: Confessions of a thrift store shopper

Back in the swinging sixties, I was six and still enjoying playground swings. It was not until I was out of my brown school uniform and had started working that I realized what I’d been missing out on, fashion-wise.     

My hard-earned money went further after I discovered that almost everything I needed in the way of clothing and accessories could be found in second-hand stores and vintage shops. Each offered a parade of past fashions and I tried them all: flapper dresses and feathers; miniskirts and berets; and once a 1920s cigarette holder. I didn’t smoke?—?I just sat in smoky pubs trying to look cool. One summer, I took to walking the dog in poodle skirts and bobby socks; another time I cycled around town in harem pants and bangles. I could change my look every week and still afford to eat! I had a ball.

Then I grew up. I experimented with more established and classical looks. It was a disaster. I looked frumpy in a twinset, while a duffel coat and a ‘80s perm turned me into a Paddington Bear lookalike. In office wear, I looked too young, too old, too serious… or not serious enough.

Nowadays, I can search for that one particular item at the mall and find nothing. Charity and consignment shops are still where I love to hang out, always bringing a little shiver of excitement at what I might come across. 

Years ago, I worried that thrift shops in a small place like Penticton wouldn’t do it for me. Was I ever wrong. The staff knows me by name, and time there is time well spent. If I don’t find anything, that’s fine, I’m quite happy just looking, deliberating. I meet like-minded people, some I know and some I don’t. Strangers ask what I think of their new find. “Be tactful,” I remind myself—next time it’ll be me doing the asking. We congratulate ourselves on our good taste and sympathize with one another when we get it wrong. We share a chuckle. “Not quite,” we say, “Keep looking.” 

Adding to my retail therapy is the background music, thoughtfully chosen, I’m sure, to loosen my vocal chords as well as my purse strings. What fun! Where else can I browse through racks of beachwear in December? Find faux furs while everyone else is at the lake? I work my way through a kaleidoscope of gently used garments, hats, scarves and bags galore. It’s all there waiting for me to find it: a posh brandname sans its normal price tag, the brand-new pashmina shawl, a favourite brand of jeans. And sometimes, just as I’m leaving, that perfect bit of bling.

Friends admire my purchases. They ask questions. They’re not interested in how much I spent on a new blender or how much a holiday cost, but a red leather jacket, a funky bag, or a pair of glittery leg warmers (hooray, they’re back!) brings… “Where? Really? How much?”

And don’t we all love a bargain. We can’t wait to share our stories; like preschoolers we’re keen to show and tell, and after all that time and effort such stories are worth sharing. 

It’s addictive though and dangers lurk: there’s buying something on impulse and then spending forever trying to find something to go with it, quite possibly resulting in… more impulse buying. And then there’s not buying something, for all the right reasons, then regretting it. Some years back, I recall my inner voice telling me I was too old for a Tintin and Snowy teeshirt. I shouldn’t have listened. 

Thrift shopping has its ups and downs but it’s never dull. Finding an item to match something I already own takes patience, the success rate is low but hey… look what I found instead! And, as with anything, mistakes are made. From a poor choice to “What-was-I-thinking?” Both ways though didn’t cost a fortune, and the offending item can be re-consigned or else given to charity. And so the cycle goes on. 

It’s not all about clothes either. I gaze around my home at various bits and bobs, remembering where and when I found them, often wondering who acquired and enjoyed them before I did. There’s more to all this, of course, than just a better-looking closet. It’s helpful for the environment, easy on the pocket and ultimately good for the community. 

As seen in

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Rearview: Packing up hope

Good nutrition fuels brain power. Are all BC children getting their fair share? I’m glad there are so many ways to help right now. So don’t wait for Christmas to donate or volunteer at your local food bank. Investigate involvement in initiatives like the Starfish Pack program.