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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.

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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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