The better things are sent to the neighborhood stores, like the Pacific Beach Goodwill.
In the good old days, in the days of dinners at Bully’s or the Mexican Village and nights on the town, in the days of three-figure green government checks for a well-paid naval officer, thrift shops were an easy refuge both for my smug feelings of charity and for my slightly damaged or slightly too-snug khaki uniforms. The greying lady behind the counter at Goodwill always smiled approvingly when I asked her, could she use any of these? Now, in the leaner days, now as an under-fed graduate student, I've not only learned the benefits of the Cheap Eats route (The Pennant on Tuesday, Tug’s on Thursday) and the pleasures of staying home, drinking Gallo, and watching The Movie on Channel 6; I've also learned a few in’s and out’s of the thrift shop circuit.
Thrift shops are really the most logical solution in the American system of super-productivity, buying more than one needs, and over-waste. Ask yourself, now. Who really needs nine pairs of shoes or twenty-three short-sleeved shirts? Or two television sets, for that matter. Thrift shops are a more charitable solution to overabundance than over-crowded garages, garage sales, or stuffed garbage cans. Thrift shops are a better alternative for the real needy than stealing or trying to out-scrutinize FedMart.
Let’s be more specific.Last week at Disabled American Veterans on Market Street they had wrinkled but nice shirts in both the 25-cents and the 60-cents racks; there were brushed cords for $2.95; men’s suits for $5, $10, and $12.95; and some double knit slacks for $2.65. A few blocks away, across the street from the infamous Ratner Clothing factory on 13th Street, Amvets was offering two wedding dresses, one for $18.40, one for $20; a navy commander’s dress blues coat for $1.95; a pair of U.S. Divers fins for $1.95. At Volunteers of America, at 401 G Street, they had Return to Peyton Place on sale for 50 cents and sheets of religious music for 10 cents each. At the Salvation Army store, at 220 G Street, they were selling an aged Royal Typewriter for $24.95. And still, at the very same time, eight blocks away, at 402 Fifth Street, Goodwill Industries was selling used, sterilized mattresses for $8, paperback copies of Airport for 50 cents;, and an electric range for $25. In the words of Mrs. Blanche Ruley, the Goodwill store manager, "Thrift store merchandise is the cheapest you can get in town. Look at these suits. The cheapest you can get on the outside is a $60 or $70 suit at C&R. Here, they’re $5.95 or $3.95. Look at this. Here’s a fine fabric, a nice cut, a Penny’s Towncraft. ”Well, now maybe you’re a little snooty for a Penny’s Towncraft, but really, really, they do have something for everybody.; After all, the Salvation Army store and the Volunteers of America store both take Bankamericard.
Who would you meet on the thrift shop circuit? Most of the stores in downtown San Diego are alive with the chatter of middle aged blacks and Mexican-Americans, but you also see ordinary young couples thumbing through the children’s clothes, nostalgia buffs fingering the stacks of 45 records, trying to decide between Rosemary Clooney and Jerry Lewis, and young bra-less women stroking dusty fur coats.
There are also a lot of dealers.at least at Goodwill’s downtown store, who come up from Tijuana and Ensenada and buy things for resale, according to Goodwill’s Mrs. Ruley. Mrs. Ruley says the contributions received by Goodwill are sorted, cleaned, and repaired "up there” (she points to the second floor), and the better things are sent to the neighborhood stores, like the Pacific Beach Goodwill, where they can get higher prices. The not-so-good merchandise is sold at the downtown store. “This double-knit suit here, for example,” Mrs. Ruley holds up the $18.50 price tag on a silvery suit, “you’d see more of them at the neighborhood stores.”
The only other sorting between stores that seems to go on is the Salvation Army’s allocation of antiques and nostalgia items to its “Unique Store” at 3054 Rosecrans and the allocation by Disabled American Vets of most of its furniture and appliances to its Chula Vista store. Otherwise the stores are pretty well balanced.
According to Charles Schmelzlen of the Disabled Vets organization, a fiftyish, calm, comfortable man, the thrift business is fascinating but hard. “The important thing is to keep things moving. We’ve got to keep it moving or we’d be dead.” The problem is that even if there’s merely a small tear in the sleeve of a coat or a button missing from a shirt, the item won’t sell. People want to buy the clothes ready to wear. "Course I know how hard it is to get a button sewn on. I’ve been married —what is it? — 35 years? And I still can’t get my wife to sew on a button. Some women just won’t do it.” In any case, this predilection on the part of thrift store customers means everything has to be repaired or "ragged out” (thrown away for rags). “We’ll do some upholstering on furniture, but we can’t take anything that’s so bad that we can’t make anything after the $5 sterilization cost. It’s real funny business, sometimes even when the mattress has been sterilized — we’re required to do that by State law — there'll be a stain on it and no one will buy it.
“An average piece of clothing is given four weeks on the racks. If it doesn’t move, it’s marked down, then we give it another two weeks. If it doesn't make it by then, it’s ragged out. ‘Course the special racks — the 60 cents and 25 cents ones — help keep things moving.”
I was dying to ask Mr. Schmelzlen if some of the clothes he was wearing — a very nice brown sweater — were from the shop. How about the employees, uh, do they buy a lot of the merchandise themselves? They do have problems, he admitted. “When an employee first goes to work, they tend to go on a buying spree. But we discourage it, and we don’t let them touch anything until it’s priced and out on the racks so they don’t get any special advantages over anyone else. Otherwise, they’d be supplying their friends and neighbors.”
Mr. Schmelzlen wants to describe the benevolence that the proceeds of the thrift shop operation go to support. “Across the street we have our re-hab shop. We get disabled vets from the V.A. Hospital and the V.A. Day Treatment Center. We pay them a minimum wage but they don’t really carry their own. For most of them it’s a matter of just learning the work-day routine, showing up for work on time. We have a contract with Convair, we get their floor sweepings, sort them and resell them.” The thrift shop proceeds also provide counselors who help the disabled veteran get his legal benefits from the federal government.
Schmelzlen seems to agree that the other thrift shops are also providing charitable services; Goodwill hires the handicapped to sort, repair, clean, and price its goods; the Salvation Army uses its revenue to “re-cycle needy men.” And Schmelzlen and other people in other stores seem to think there’s not much over-all difference between stores in the prices or goods. For the person looking for a thrift shop bargain and trying to find the store to patronize, it’s a , matter of poking around, coming back again and again, and becoming a real regular on the circuit.