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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.

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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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