I grew up with mixed messages about thriftiness. On one hand, there was the coupon clipping, comparison shopping (my mom actually kept a notebook in her purse, where she recorded the prices of grocery items at various stores), and consciousness over mileage logged on the cars (“a car only has so many miles between breakdowns,” my father would say, “you have to use them wisely”).
On the other side of the equation, I developed an understanding that there were limits to what was acceptable to do in the name of economy. Shopping for sundries at the Dollar Store was just plain smart. Hand-me-downs were a gray area, usually OK if they came from a known source—family was preferred. Under no circumstances were yard sales tolerated, and we never, ever went to—shudder—thrift stores.
“You just don’t know where this stuff has been,” my mother explained matter-of-factly. “Just think of the germs.”
Oh, the horrors! I swear, I could see the contagion crawling all over the wares at every yard sale we passed on our carefully mapped trips to the Dollar Store.
Chalk it up to morbid fascination, rebellion, or maybe just a healthy dose of good old American entrepreneurial spirit—but one lazy afternoon, circa middle school, I organized a yard sale of my own along with my best friend, Sunshine, and a schoolyard ruffian named Robbie.
It started in the Usual Way—a traveling carnival had pitched tents in the neighborhood and no parent was willing to fork over cold, hard cash for us to toss into fishbowls in vain attempts to score cheap, oversized toys.
Totally in character, I forgot all about my mother’s grim appraisals of yard sale fodder, and went into the venture pretty much expecting to rake in enough cash to stage a hostile takeover of the carnival. I wound up asking way too much coin for too little bauble, clashing vehemently with The Ruffian, who just wanted to give it all away. Where was this kid’s vision?
As for me, I’ve slowly acquired a new view on the second run market over the years—I’m not sure that it would be accurate to credit the yard sale (although all three of us earned enough money for a full evening of Tilt-a-Whirl rides and cotton candy) but I’ve been flirting with used goods with increasing abandon.
First there was ebay—a great, big worldwide yard sale—and I love imagining where some of that stuff has been. Ditto for antiques, which I later grew to love. From there, it was just a short leap to vintage clothing—of which I have exactly one piece, if you count the skirt I have that was cobbled together with vintage saris from the 70’s—and it wasn’t exactly a bargain.
In fact, none of the clothes I buy really are.
Then some friends took me shopping during a girls’ beach weekend a few weeks back. They said they were hunting for some bargains. I was really excited to see where they shop- these girls are, to a person, some of the most fashionable friends I have. I couldn’t wait to see where they got their clothes.
I trailed them into a store, not really looking at the sign over the door—sort of blindly following the stylish crowd.
“Three dollars!” someone called from behind a rack of jeans.
“Wow,” I thought, making a beeline to the rack.
I’m not sure what hit me first, once my senses kicked in. Maybe it was a lack of fluorescent lighting. Maybe it was the absence of piped-in music, or perhaps things didn’t have that fresh-from-the box smell—whatever the case, I was suddenly struck by the awful truth that I was in a thrift store. A yard sale with a roof! The last frontier into an unknown wilderness of germs and unknown origins!
I know my mother will be mortified when she reads this (hi, mom), but I actually purchased a couple things. And, even though the girls congratulated me and praised my finds—I sneaked them in my house and attempted to introduce them into my wardrobe without fanfare.
But my family insisted on knowing where I’d gotten such a great shirt, and, later, why they’d never seen that fashionable little skirt before.
When I sheepishly admitted where I had been shopping, everyone laughed heartily. Perhaps there was even a hint of relief in my husband’s chuckle, as he realized I got those trendy numbers for chump change.
“What’s the big deal?” my daughter asked. “I’ve always wanted to shop at a thrift store.”
To borrow a phrase being bandied around the financial sector these days, I still don’t know where the bottom is in all this, but lately I’ve found my thoughts turning to the food industry —specifically two out-of-way little shops I happen to know (one in Oregon, and one right here in Virginia) that carry a large selection of vintage foods.
For me, this is the last frontier. Mom, I promise—I walked right away from those six- month-old eggs and late 80s boxed mixes—really. And those rusty cans encased in a layer of dust so thick I couldn’t even make out the dates…I turned my heel away in disgust.
But that was some time ago, and with the economy as weak as it is, I may have to give vintage foods a second look. Now, I’m keeping the little shops I know to myself, but readers interested in risky little off-the-beaten path investments will want to keep a close eye on the rural mom-and-pops over the coming months. In both shops I was in, the decades-old staples came complete with period price tags. People are going to be clamoring for this stuff. Eighty cent boxes of Duncan Hines cake mixes, thirty-nine cent mustard…this stuff is going to go like hot cakes—which happened to be selling for a low, low price of a dollar fifteen.
At least I think these prices are good by 80s standards, but we won’t know for sure unless my mom’s price comparison notebook should happen to turn up.