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It was entirely Sue’s fault. It started 15 years ago when I lived in Florida and used to come to San Diego to visit my sister. She said, “Hey, let’s go to a couple of thrift stores and see what we find.” And then there we were on Main Street in downtown El Cajon, at the American Veterans Thrift. While she dug through racks of clothes, I stood around, anxious to get out so we could go do something else, anything else. Out of boredom, I finally poked through a few of the racks, only to see things such as worn-out T-shirts from Hooters or Bob’s Body Shop, with underarm stains from the last classy owner. And to think that for $1.50 all this could be mine. No thanks. But Sue insisited, “Wait till you find a leather skirt for $2, or a real fur coat for $4, like my friend Melanie.”

Melanie was the one who’d turned my sister on to the thrift-store game. Yeah, well, Melanie can keep her animal skins, I thought. After two hours, Sue had found a few items she was thrilled about. I left empty-handed. However, on that one-week visit, I also went with Sue to her dentist’s appointment up in Poway. After all, when you’re here on vacation, you can’t expect people to cancel their regular appointments. “We have to stop in on this other thrift store,” she announced. “It’s right next door to the dentist’s office, only this one is more upscale. Prices are a little higher, $4, $5, and $6, but they have really great stuff. A lot of it is new, donated from stores.”

Reluctant me went along, rolling my eyeballs. She was right, though; this store, Fabulous Finds, had a nicer smell and feel to it. I wound up leaving with a pair of sandals from Brazil for $4 and a brand new Wilson leather jacket that fit perfectly for $5. Even with my two great items, I wasn’t in any hurry to return, but I felt a bit better about thrift stores — that one, at least.

On my next biennial visit, I was once again dragged to one of Sue’s favorite secondhand stores in Santee because her growing daughter needed clothes. That was her excuse anyway. When we walked in, there was a sign that read, “BAG SALE — ONE DAY ONLY.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

The Salvation Army store clerk handed me a plastic bag, like the type you get from the supermarket, and said, “You pay $10 for the bag, and anything you can fit in it is yours.”

I wasn’t so sure I wanted a bag, but I moseyed around anyway. It was summertime, and eight cute little tops, two pairs of shorts, and one bebe size-two blazer fit into my bag just fine. I was hooked. “Look at this blazer,” I told my sister. “It looks new! You can’t buy anything like this for under $200 at bebe.”

After my great finds, it got to the point where, whenever I planned a visit to San Diego, I would pack an extra duffel bag and write on my To Do list, “spend a day at the thrift stores.” By now I had my personal favorite, a store in which I always found one or two items that were such deals, they made my day.

A couple of years later, I relocated to Los Angeles to attend school. Once settled, I started seeking out thrift stores. I soon learned that what San Diego called thrift stores, Los Angeles called “vintage.” These shops carried the same type of secondhand clothes, knick-knacks, and furniture, only the prices were sky high. After several outtings, I learned to save my thrift-store budget for weekends in San Diego.

The $10 bag specials took place once a month, so every other month I found myself in San Diego, eager to participate in searching for the best finds. Eventually, I had to hang a second garment pole in my closet to accommodate my growing wardrobe.

On one occasion, I felt embarrassed when a saleslady heard Sue tell me, “If you roll the clothes up, you can get more in the bag.” The saleslady promptly handed us each another bag. “If you double up, it will be stronger, and you can get more in. It’s fine if things hang out of the handle holes, as long as it’s partially in the bag.” Apparently, the sales were scheduled when the store needed room for new deliveries. I snagged a yellow cashmere sweater and a pair of my-size pants, also made by bebe. On the way out, I spotted a fake sheepskin tan-colored jacket with big side pockets. It was in perfect condition. I threw it on top of my already overstuffed bag, feeling a bit like a thief. Having moved from the tropics of south Florida to the desert of southern California, I often froze my ass off once the sun went down. That tan jacket, which I left in the trunk of my car at all times, frequently saved me. Then there was the other oversized black-and-white cashmere sweater that I left in my car for those late-day sudden temperature drops. That sweater not only came in handy for me but for others as well, until one person I lent it to liked it so much, she never returned it. Oh well, I’m sure it didn’t set me back more than a buck or two.

Being a roaming gypsy/struggling-artist type, I’ve lived in various locations throughout the country. While temporarily in Westchester County, New York, a friend hired me to work her booth at a convention. This meant I would need proper business attire. I searched the Yellow Pages for local thrift stores. They were practically nonexistent. I had to travel four towns south to get to one, and when I did, the dusty store with unleveled floors had only beat-up, worn-out-looking stuff. So I traveled a few towns in the opposite direction, only to find overpriced slim-pickings. Few places have the cool secondhand bargains that I’ve found here.

When I relocated again to the west coast — this time Santa Barbara — I again needed things for my place. The desk, chair, iron, ironing board, and pots and pans were all purchased in San Diego and brought up to Santa Barbara. Sure, my new home had secondhand shops, but $100 for a desk was not in my budget. Especially when I found one here for $35 that I liked better.

Five years ago, I moved to San Diego, where most of my family had already lived for the past 25 years. One day I brought a friend to my favorite thrift store. She pointed her nose in the air, declaring, “I will not shop here.” Until, that is, she found a Nordstrom’s blouse she loved, still with the tags on it. “This is brand new,” she exclaimed excitedly. “Why is that?”

An expert by now, I explained, “Stores make donations all the time. I have found new items that simply had the wrong size label sewed in. Instead of the manufacturer pulling the garment apart and sewing in a new label, they donate it.”

By the way, that reminds me of another tip I’ve learned: Don’t pay attention to the size on the label; the garment may have been donated due to having a wrong-size label; also, I’ve found countless clothes items labeled medium or large, which were actually small. Someone probably paid a lot of money for those blouses, skirts, or pants. They wore them once or twice, washed them, and they shrunk. Now that they no longer fit, the items found their way to the thrit store.

I’ve gotten really good at picking out my own size with just a quick look. My sister claims — and it may be true because of my “shrink” theory — that the pickings are better for smaller-sized people. The extra-added benefit of pre-worn, pre-washed items is that I don’t have to worry about them shrinking on me. By the way, that same friend who once snubbed my favorite thrift store now has a house half furnished with pre-owned items. When her fridge went out and her washer broke down, three guesses where she got almost-new appliances at bargain prices, and she’s still using them.

Me? Well, you might say I’ve been a thrift store enthusiast, at least here in San Diego. Which is not to be confused with a thrift store junkie. The junkies are the people (like Sue) who can’t stop bargain-shopping, even though their apartments are so full it would take a bulldozer to clear them. Not me. As a matter of fact, I even have a rule: When something comes into the house, something goes out. Oftentimes, I donate it right back to where I originally got it.

For a struggling artist, thrift stores made sense in more ways than one. First, I couldn’t afford to buy new clothes or furniture. Second, I found the coolest stuff. None of those racks filled with the same item, in five colors and every size imaginable. Instead each item was different and unique. I’d find ways to pair clothing with a cool belt or scarf, or a matching hat found months later at another thrift shop.

I have received compliments on my clothing over the years, such as “I love your blouse” or “Adorable dress. Where did you get it?”

Proud of my finds, I would answer, “The Humane Society Thrift in Cardiff. The price tag, $2,” or sometimes, elaborating, “Well, it was supposed to cost $3.50, but on half-price Wednesday, I got it for a buck seventy five at the Cerebral Palsy Thrift in Pacific Beach.”

Some friends advised, “Don’t reveal too much. Just say thank you.” They realized not everyone was ready to hear my answer.

As for the business of secondhand stores, as one friend in retail put it, “It’s all in the buying.” In other words, profit has to do with what you paid for what you are selling. All the items at the thrift stores are donated. They paynothing. Sometimes, these stores have a backlog of stuff waiting to be put on display. So when you ask a manager or supervisor, “Will you take a buck for this?” they often say yes. Occasionally, I have found items that really were overpriced. That’s when I walk up to a manager with the item in my hand and say, “Walmart sells these new for $2.99. Will you take 50 cents used?” I almost always get an okay.

You should know that, besides negotiating on prices or hitting the stores on sale days, the number one rule for finding great and wonderful deals is: there is no rushing in and out. You must be prepared to spend a three-hour minimum searching. The real finds, the items that leave you feeling like you just robbed a bank, can only be found by sorting through everything. Not that I am out there every weekend — or even once a month, like the junkies. It’s more like a luxury, treating myself every few months to a relaxing day out. If you make $60/hour at your job, spending half a day looking for a great find doesn’t pay off.

Those that turn up their noses at thrift stores are not easy to convert. I want to speak up but have learned to keep my mouth shut when people complain about finances by saying, “I just spent $250 on back-to-school clothes for my kid.”

Wow! For 30 bucks you can dress your kid in good quality clothes. Aside from the two-for-one sales, the 50 and 75 percent off days, and the senior, student, and military discounts, some of the best deals are in the children’s clothing section. Kids grow fast, and most donated clothing has barely been worn. Between gifts from grandparents and loving relatives, some items have never been worn. But when you mention secondhand stores, folks protest, saying disdainfully, “I’m not letting my child wear someone else’s throwaways.”

San Diego has an abundance of these shops; maybe this is why there are so many good deals. I’ve found up to seven thrift stores along a two-mile stretch on Poway Road in Poway. There are five on Main Street in El Cajon. But even in San Diego, not all thrift stores are created equal. Some are more upscale, and some, like the Salvation Army in Santee, have areas sectioned off as “boutiques.” While the Cerebral Palsy and the Goodwill on Garnet in P.B. are all about the clothes, Am Vets on Main Street in El Cajon carries a lot of furniture and knick-knacks. Also, be aware that, although most of these stores are run by charities, some have names that sound as if they are but are not. The prices are generally higher at the privately owned stores.

And as far as “vintage” clothing goes, there is plenty of that available. When my boyfriend and I were invited to a party this past Halloween, I volunteered to shop for his Austin Powers outfit. A girlfriend was visiting from out of state and we decided we’d go to the party as two girls dressed in ’60s outfits, hanging onto Austin’s arms. I had no problem finding him black high-heeled Beatle boots, a pale blue ruffled-and-lace shirt, and a green velvet vest and pants. My friend found a short hot-pink mini dress, white go-go boots, and a headband. I hated to admit it, but I already had half my costume hanging in the closet from previous thrift store outings and only needed to add the fishnet stockings I found for 50 cents. The total cost for each costume was $5 or $6. A week later, I donated the items back. Who’s got the closet space?

Over the years, I have hit quite a number of the thrift stores in this county — north, south, east, and west — and I have my list of favorites. I used to be reluctant to divulge the location of my all-time favorite shop to too many people, in fear of creating competition. I don’t need people elbowing me out of the way to get to the good deals. But sad to say, the Salvation Army on the corner of Magnolia and Main Street in El Cajon has closed its doors. A manager explained that this was due to losing their parking area and to there not being enough street parking. They’re hoping to find a new spot in town soon. (As of this writing, they have not been able to do so.)

But talk about bargains! Because the store didn’t want the hassle of moving all their goods to another location, they marked everything down to sell quickly. Used appliances, in perfect working condition, were sold for $10. When I learned that all clothing and shoes were only one buck, I went into a triple-espresso high. That day, I had a lot to do and did not plan to be there more than two hours, but I shopped so long, I telephoned my boyfriend in Encinitas to tell him he might have to come and pry me out of there. The woman next to me heard my plea and started laughing. I’m sure she could relate. That day, I knew what it felt like to be a junkie. In the end, I was proud of myself, as I didn’t buy a single item unless it was in absolutely perfect condition and fit me perfectly as well. I must have tried on a couple hundred things. I left (in the dark) with 23 really cool, really neat, clothing items and two pairs of shoes, all for $25.

As I’m writing this, I look down at what I am wearing, all of it — boots, blouse, shirt, and scarf — and realize where every bit of it came from and how much it cost, just like in those women’s magazines where they show the price tag of the model’s outfit (shirt $375, blouse $425, boots $350). I own comparable outfits. Move the decimal two places to the left, then consider if I bought it on the right day of the week and cut the price tag in half. I’m afraid my secondhand shopping has not done much to boost the economy because buying other people’s used donated items does not increase consumerism. Not being in that kind of tax bracket anyway, as an avid recycler, at least I have the satisfaction of purchasing recycled clothes and furnishings and recycling them back again. Plus, hopefully, the money I spend is put to good use, as most of secondhand stores are nonprofits, with proceeds going to charities such as Goodwill, American Vets, the Humane Society, Salvation Army, and St. Vincent de Paul, to name a few.

As a thrift store enthusiast, I have to say that if my tax bracket increased, or if I won millions in the lottery, I would go out and buy my own house, purchase a new car, and give to the charities of my choice, but when it comes to clothes and furniture, I’d still shop at my favorite secondhand places. However, on my lottery-winnings charity list would be the Salvation Army, payback to them for keeping me stylishly dress all these years, and for my ever owning any furniture at all. — Pam Summers

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Siobhan Braun March 5, 2010 @ 8:59 p.m.

Great article! I feel like we should go thrifting together!


gfalke1 March 7, 2010 @ 11:51 a.m.

Pam, I am also a devoted thrift store shopper. This is without a doubt the most well written and best description of the affection so many of us have for thrift store shopping. It's sometimes hard to explain to your shopping mall obsessed sisters out there the fun and the thrill of your bargain finds. You enjoy a fun experience, save a ton of money, and give a wonderful item a home. I also get asked frequently about my clothes. Invariably that gorgeous item is something I bought for $3 new with the price tags still attached at a thrift store. I do think it's true that smaller sized people do better because so many women buy an item thinking they're going to lose weight, or they buy an unrealistic size due to vanity. Or the item fit when they bought it but not for long. I live in Scripps Ranch and love the Poway "circuit." I love Chula Vista also!


cptnmilk July 8, 2012 @ 1:15 p.m.

Which salvation army was it? And do you know what time of month they do that bag sale? I'm new to San Diego and a devoted thrifter! Great article!


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