Some Tips on Shopping at Goodwill and Other Thrift Stores

I will be honest, the only thrift store I normally shop is Goodwill.   Goodwill, as a chain, is usually conveniently located, ofttimes in a place where I (probably naively) assume my car won't get looted.  The stores are kept reasonably clean - although sometimes it looks as though an army of toddlers has just marched through on the way to burn Atlanta.   In truth, that describes every Kohl's I've ever been to as well.

If I happen past a thrift store and I have time, I like to stop in those as well.   But mostly, Goodwill is my jam.

There are many reasons to love GW.   For one... they organize by items and color.   Long sleeve knits, long-sleeve sweaters, long-sleeve button-downs... short sleeves in each category... each category has its space, as do jeans, skirts, shorts, pants.   So if you are looking for something very specific, say, a white or cream long-sleeve ruffled blouse for your steampunk costume, or a black pencil skirt, it is very easy.

On the other hand... you also have to dig.    It's half the fun - and it's how you find the very best treasures.

Another reason to love GW:  you always know how much an item will be:  as of this writing, tops, sweaters, skirts are $5.75.   Dresses are $6.96, unless they're formals, in which case I think they are $9.99 or something close.   Jeans are around 7 bucks and change - but I honestly cannot recall off the top of my head.

In addition, they normally have a huge selection of books.   I don't buy print books anymore, but I have friends that do and swear by GW.  I do browse housewares, and occasionally have found the occasional fantastic kitchen/barware item that we actually needed.  If I need props for a theatrical show, or costume pieces, GW is the first place I look.   Usually the last, as well.

Every week, Goodwill has a half-off color, where all items with that color tag are 50% off.   They also do discounts for seniors, military, and firefighters and policemen, on certain days of the week.

Here are my tips for a successful shopping foray into Goodwill, or any thrift store:

1.   Use common sense, and be aware of your surroundings.   Really... this applies to everywhere you go.   I'm just gonna say it:  thrift stores, even GWs, are not usually located in the very best or safest areas of town.   Try not to carry a lot of cash.   Use a crossbody purse with sturdy straps.   Be aware of where you put your keys, especially if your keys can remotely unlock your car doors and open your trunk (again, this is something you should always be aware of).

Don't wear too much jewelry - not just because it attracts attention - but also because it can catch on clothing on the racks, and you risk damaging or losing your bracelets or rings.

2.   Have an idea of your color palette, and your wardrobe holes, going in.    It's a rare day I don't find at least three really "oh, wow!" potential wardrobe or costuming items.  I don't want to live in a theatrical warehouse or a mini-store of my own making, so I always think carefully about whether the item fits my color palette, whether it fills any gaps in my wardrobe.   I try to imagine how it can be worn, at least three ways, with what is already in my closet.  I also ask myself, "Do I already have something like this?"

Most important of all, I assess the immediacy of use: is this an item I can wear or use immediately? If not, am I willing to clean it, care for it, and store it?   Asking yourself this makes all the difference between a well-curated wardrobe, and being the featured lead-in for an episode of 'Hoarders'.

3.  Consider the context of the item you're considering.   Where will you wear it?   What will you wear it with, that you already have?  Is this a home decor item?   What will it look like in the context of your home, with your other things?   Do you need this item?   Will it enhance your life?

GW is chock full o' other people's fantasy life clothing - so keep in mind, that unless you walk the red carpet every other weekend, there are only so many velvet or beaded gowns one person can wear in a lifetime.

If you are unsure... put it back.   If there is one absolute certainty I can tell you about Goodwill, eBay, and brick-and-mortar stores... there will always be another fabulous dress, pair of shoes, bag, set of wineglasses, cute little lamp waiting for you around the corner.   This isn't the last perfect little moto jacket you'll ever encounter.   I promise!

4.   Wear close-fitting clothes when you go to the store:  Some thrift stores don't have fitting rooms, and some limit the amount of garments you can take in with you - and usually the fitting room doors auto-lock, which makes swapping out garments in your cart a sort of Russian Roulette for your own clothes and purse.   Often, I will try on jackets, blazers, and button-down shirts over what I am wearing.  If I am wearing leggings, I can pull a skirt on over those.

Wearing shoes you can easily slip on and off is also very helpful, says the girl who wore zip-up, over-the-knee boots on her last, impromptu visit.  (And a turtleneck.  Bad outfit all around for clothes-shopping).

5.  If at all possible, give yourself a couple of hours, and go through all of the racks.  Earlier this year, I spent did just that, and wound up with some beautiful finds, most of which I kept and have enjoyed.

6.  If you find a skirt you really like, go back to the tops and look for something in the same color.   Even if the skirt matches a bunch of stuff you already have, if you can find a top, in good shape, in the same color, you've got a great ensemble for dressier events.   Make sure both items are free of stains, rips, tears, and odors.

7.   Check the items you select carefully, for odors.   Certain odors are very hard to remove:  mildew, strong perfumes, and certain detergents (Gain).   I think that thrift stores also spray clothing to help deter mildew and bugs, with something that smells similar to flowery laundry detergents (Gain or Tide), or like bubble gum.   It isn't impossible to get these smells out, but it may mean soaking them for a good long time in your regular laundry detergent, or oxyclean - or a trip to the dry-cleaners.

If the fabric is nylon or polyester and it has a sweaty smell, put it back, unless you have a tried-and-true method for removing this type of smell from synthetic textiles.

8.   Check the items you select carefully for stains, rips, tears, and moth holes.   I try and find a spot with good natural light, to search.   If a garment has moth nibbles, but you looooove it anyway, take it directly to the dry-cleaner or launder it immediately.

Depending on how crafty you are, or how much you love the garment, you can sew seams, darn small holes and moth nibbles, and replace zippers and buttons - or have a seamstress do this for you.

If the sweater is cashmere and it is pilled, a disposable razor from the travel section at the drugstore, will do wonders.  Caveat:   I have only tried this with tightly-knit garments, and they've always turned out beautifully.

For stains... I've had luck with perhaps 1 in 5 stains.   Underarm stains are a no-go.   So unless it is a fantaaaaaastic piece for stage, and I know the stage lights will wash it out, I usually pass on stained garments.   If it's just dust or dirt, though, that can be laundered.

9.   Canvas bags and shoes can be cleaned with carpet cleaner.   If you Google "how to clean a Coach bag", many people have posted great video tutorials.   I have used Resolve carpet cleaner to remove stains off of Coach bags and scrub canvas espadrilles, with great success.

10.   Often, leather shoes can be brought back to life with a good polishing.  If the shoe or boot is intact, but scuffed, don't rule it out.   Again, there are many great tutorials online, demonstrating how to polish shoes.  A good shoe repair person can replace taps, and even resole leather soles, if there isn't a lot of damage.   Also, if you're lazy, and want to throw $10-20 bucks, get a pro to polish them for you.   A guy friend of mine turned up in some glorious leather shoes, and I complimented him, only to find they were the crappy shoes I'd been making of fun of for awhile ("box car hobo", I believe, were my words).  He paid $20 plus a tip to a guy, and the shoes looked uh-mazing.

I strongly advise against buying shoes with broken heels.   I did that with a gorgeous pair of Charles David pumps that I paid $5.75 for.   I thought my shoe guy could fix it (he's a genius, really)...  $40 later, the heel popped loose again, after walking six blocks.   I re-donated them and reluctantly chalked it up as a learning experience.

It is late, and my eyes are closing, so I am going to end this here!   My next article will be about shopping in consignment stores.  Much of what I've written here applies - but there are some differences.   I will talk about that next time!



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