Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. We’re innate treasure hunters. And Catholics.
This all added up to a particular tradition from my childhood: On the way home from Mass, my mom, sister and I would zigzag across the western suburbs of Minneapolis and hit every yard sale we could find. It was a win-win: my sister and I felt like we were getting new things; my parents spent a couple bucks, max. I still have a small train case that I bought for 25 cents.
When I got older, thrift shops became a Thing with my friends and me. Even though we went to an upper-middle-class high school and could have shopped at Benetton, Laura Ashley, or a new store called The Gap (I had a waitressing job by then and could buy my own things), it was the mid-1980s and we were into New Wave music. We preferred the punk rock aesthetic of military surplus and second-hand clothes from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Some thrift shops were in church basements, some in flagging strip malls. The coolest option was a sort of combination military surplus and vintage shop called Ragstock. My friends and I spent hours there, trying on cardigan sweaters and combat boots. We could score embroidered bowling shirts, old men’s plaid golf shorts and Navy pea coats—all super-cheap. Our parents were aghast that we sought out their parents’ fashions … on purpose.
Twenty-five years later, I still love to scour yard sales for good deals. The trouble is, the good deals are becoming harder to find. There are two factors at work: taste and quality.
Mid-century people owned a few, quality things, and they had “Sunday best.” They also dressed up more, generally. Have you ever seen a photograph of a crowd at a baseball game in the 1960s? Men wore hats (I mean HATS, not baseball caps). Women wore them, too, as well as dresses, gloves and heels. My grandfather wore a tie every day, even when he never left the house. Blame the pantsuits of the 1970s; fashion has become increasingly casual. Nowadays, some people even go out in public in pajama bottoms and extra-large t-shirts.
Another factor is the plain old passage of time. In 1987, there were thousands of ‘60s shirts in existence. Decades later, they have simply been worn to pieces. No new ones are entering the thrift store stream. Subsequently, what ends up in thrift stores is not pristine Pendleton wool shirts and pleated skirts. Those things now end up in vintage shops.
Vintage and thrift shops used to be basically the same thing; now they’ve split so that those high-quality pieces of yore are not just old clothes, but also rare and unique clothes. And because of Internet sales, discarded clothes don’t stay in their community; they’re scooped up by jobbers and resold everywhere. So, now you find things for sale like this $200 cape.
Even Goodwill high-grades their designer labels. So, you might find an Armani suit there for $150—still a bargain considering it’s an Armani suit, but also still $150.
I knew a guy in Hood River who’d made a deal with estate sale managers in Eastern Oregon—he got the first go at everything they ended up with. He happened upon a stack of 1950s brand-new Levis from the storage room of an old outfitter and, instead of selling them locally, posted them on Ebay, where he said Japanese shoppers were laying down $300 per pair!
Many modern thrift stores also buy batch lots of cheaply manufactured, new clothing from wholesalers, which is why you might see six of the same shirt on a rack. Or, this new leather jacket. $165.
There is still the occasional exception. During my two-month writers’ residency in 2010 in Harney County, Oregon, I happened upon this beautiful wool, fur-collared coat at the thrift shop.
It was most likely a very special gift from a rancher to his wife. She most likely only wore it for Christmas and funerals. It’s in perfect shape, and I paid five dollars for it. Five.
Urban vintage shops are usually run by people in their 30s, and guess what they think is ironic and cool—‘80s stuff! Not what my friends and I had, but actual things sold in the ‘80s. The dresses my teachers wore. The neon sportswear. The foot-torturing pumps. I’m just waiting for shoulder pads and those face-shield eyeglasses to come back. For they will.
I traveled a bit last year to promote Get Your Pitchfork On! and hit thrift shops wherever I could. Proof that I am, deep down, an optimist: Every time I approach a new thrift shop I think, “THIS one is going to be awesome!”
But they never are anymore. I went to Los Angeles and thought: Okay, movie stars must dump their fabulous clothes. They do, it turns out. But those thrift shops sell things for triple-digits, and the women’s clothes are tiny (anorexic-tiny, not short-tiny). I went to Jackson, Wyoming and thought: Okay, these people are rich! But even rich people wear regular clothes, apparently. I tried remote locations, such as Appleton, Wisconsin, and Hermiston, Oregon, in hopes of some old-school quality. Same deal.
It’s over, punk rock children of the ‘80s. We’ve had a good run. Thanks for the memories!